Risk assessment procedure for freelance event photography

My attitude to risk assessment is very much in keeping with the spirit of UK health and safety legislation. It’s that health and safety done right isn’t about stopping people doing things because there’s risk involved. In fact it’s rather the opposite. It is about helping people do what they need to do safely, and therefore more effectively (and often to a higher standard).

People should be free to go about their daily business, safe in the knowledge that there are sensible and proportionate responses in place, to protect them from harm. Risk is inevitable, so ‘sensible and proportionate’ means minimising exposure to hazards and mitigating undesirable effects that harm our health and well-being.

Put simply, a safe job is a job done well

Most accidents happen through lack of awareness or inattentive blindness to hazards, in situations we become normalised to. In this respect event photographers like me are lucky, because every photography job involves new surroundings, new people and new situations. This in itself reduces risk from the beginning, by encouraging healthy caution on top of the usual focused attention that event photography demands.

That said, with every new event it’s always sensible to allow plenty of time to evaluate the risk environment, discuss the day’s running order with a client and plan together for any likely risks. This not only fosters a more collaborative approach to risk, it also delivers more sustainable responses. This is because the people exposed to the hazards, who know their own jobs inside-out, are often best placed to manage them, and devise sensible and proportionate ideas to mitigate risk.

Here is the outline process I follow to assess risks for event photography.

Step 1: identifying risk

When I arrive at a venue, I do the following things to spot risks:

  • Familiarise myself with the environment
  • Introduce myself to people I’ll be working with
  • Understand local safety policies, procedures and safety leaders
  • Locate emergency exits and equipment
  • Examine where I’ll be working and explore likely hazards nearby

A collaborative approach means engaging with people, drawing their attention to risks that they might have missed or take for granted, and asking them to do the same with me. This happens through discussion, on-location at the beginning of an event.

As a participant in an event, I realise that I too can introduce new risks – particularly by bringing my own camera and lighting equipment. To this end, I’ve familiarised myself with how it works using the manufacturer’s instructions, its limitations, relevant safety information and how to use it correctly and safely.

Step 2: Identify who is at risk

For any hazard we identify who is at risk, and the degree to which they might be harmed. This involves likely injuries and their impact, should an accident happen. As an event photographer, this not only means photographic subjects, it also includes members of the public, audience, bystanders and myself.

Once attributed to who is at risk, each hazard can be classified by probability and severity – this determines the magnitude of our response to it.

Step 3: Plan for precautions

This means devising reasonably practicable steps to mitigate identified risks. For each hazard, we should question whether the risk can be eliminated in its entirety, and if not, how can it be controlled so that harm is unlikely.

Typical risks and precautions for event photography include:

  • Lighting stands presenting a trip hazard: adding visual warnings, not leaving stands unattended, fixing to rigid structures, storing unused equipment in a secure area (which I usually request at the beginning of a job)
  • Electrical equipment overloading circuits: ensure batteries are charged before a job so venue sockets aren’t required
  • Group shots of people near busy thoroughfares or roads: appointing a lookout to supervise the crowd while I photograph them
  • Weather conditions on outdoor shoots: keeping to treated walkways, moving indoors, rescheduling an event based on weather forecasts

You can see a sample risk assessment here.

If a location presents too great a risk, I will always suggest we move somewhere quieter and safer – this generally results in better photographs anyway.

As a rule, it’s always more sustainable to involve the people exposed to hazards in the process of responding to them, and encourage their own ideas in mitigating risk. That’s why I favour a collaborative process of risk assessment and prefer thought-provoking discussion and action, over process and paperwork.

Step 4: Implement precautions

In line with HSE guidelines, sharing risk assessment results needn’t involve writing them down – especially when small groups of people are involved. This is particularly relevant to freelancers who have no employees, and work alone like I do. So most of my risk assessments are informal and involve verbal discussion, on-site, and are unique to each event.

However, there are common risks for event photography which form a starting point for discussion. If these discussions reveal reasonably practicable steps we can take to reduce risk at the venue, and we agree they are possible, I always help to implement them.

With every venue being different for each new photography project, there is no consistency in the environments and nature of risks that present themselves. To risk assess every new, one-off event in its entirety isn’t feasible, nor is controlling unique hazards and risks at an event at which I’m effectively a guest. This is beyond the scope of what I’m hired to do. So on the subject of liability, I defer to my friendly contract. I also rely on my clients to fully risk assess their own events which they have organised, and take necessary precautions themselves – especially when inviting third-party freelancers to attend. My duty is to work within the parameters of my clients’ risk assessments, and supplement them with my own specific risk assessments.

Step 5: Review and update

I try to learn from any near-misses that might have happened on previous jobs, to avoid similar circumstances happening in future. This means periodically reviewing the collection of common risks assessments so they include any lessons learned from past experience. It also means requesting and learning from the risk assessments clients have prepared, specific to their event.

Ultimately safety comes down to behavior, which is in turn determined by attitudes, values and beliefs. I see my role as non-interventionist (like a fly-on-the-wall). By being discreet and sensitive to my surroundings, I believe my role is to capture people in their natural environments. That means I don’t contrive to create artificial situations or interfere in what would happen anyway (were I there or not). I only observe and record events that happen organically. This limits new risks being created by me as an event photographer. However, I will always speak up, and encourage others to do the same, if I see unsafe behaviour or a hazardous situation developing.