Earlier this week, I received a question regarding the need to do a risk assessment that would allow (or prohibit) the use of toasters in break rooms, etc., due to the open heating element. I should probably mention that this “finding” was not at the hands of The Joint Commission, but rather one of the other acronymic accreditation agencies, but these things do tend to travel across agency boundaries, so it may be a topic of conversation for your “house.” At any rate, the request was aimed more at identifying a format for documenting the risk assessment (an example of which follows), as the surveyor who cited the toasters indicated that a risk assessment supporting continued use of the toasters would be sufficient. Special survey hint: If a surveyor indicates that a risk assessment would be an acceptable strategy for whatever practice or condition might be in question, you should consider that a pretty good indication that there is no specific regulatory guidance in any direction for the subject at hand. Though I will also note that if a surveyor does not “bite” on a risk assessment, it doesn’t mean that there is a specific regulation/statute/etc. that specifies compliance, so even if there appears to be no relief from a risk assessment, a thorough review of what is actually required is always a good idea. Which probably represents a good point to discuss the risk assessment components:
- Issue Statement. Basically a recap of what the condition or practice that has been identified as being problematic/a vulnerability, etc.. Using this week’s topic—the use of open element appliances in break rooms, etc. (no reason to confine the discussion to toasters; might as well include toaster oven, grills, and other such appliances)
- Regulatory Analysis. Reviewing what is specifically indicated in the regulations: CMS Conditions of Participation; Accreditation Agency standards and performance elements; state and local laws and regulations should definitely be discussed, as well as any other Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) that might weigh in on the topic. For the open element appliance discussion, I always encourage folks to check with their property insurer (they are a very important, and frequently overlooked, AHJ); they might not tell you that you can or can’t do something (again, based on whether there is an actual regulatory requirement), but they might tell you that if you do X and have a fire, etc., they might elect not to cover damages.
- Literature Review. Review any manufacturer recommendations or information from specialty society or trade associations. Staying with our friends the toasters, most of the devices in use in your organization are probably manufactured “For Household Use Only”; you might be hard-pressed in the risk assessment to be able to indicate definitively that the devices are being used in accordance with that level of use (I mean I love toast as much as the next person, but I don’t toast a whole loaf every day…). As a consultative aside, my philosophy has always been to encourage (okay, mandate, but only when I was in a position to make the call) the use of commercial-grade toasters. Yes, they are more expensive, but they are also less likely to self-immolate, which (in my book) is rather a good thing. We definitely don’t need things bursting into flames in our break rooms, etc.
- Review of Safety, Quality and Risk Management Data. Check your records. You know you’ve had accidental activations of the fire alarm system (though I do believe that toaster events have faded to a distant second behind microwave popcorn). Is there evidence that your organization is not doing an appropriate job of managing these devices/appliances. I suppose you could take into consideration anecdotal data, but I would be very careful as that can be tricky.
- Operational Considerations and Analysis. Discuss how things are being managed now; how often are the appliances being cleaned, serviced, etc. Is that often enough? Is there sufficient smoke detection, suppression, etc.? Do you need to have “official” guidelines for safe toaster use (no sticky, gooey toaster strudels, etc.)? If you’re going to allow something (recognizing that a prohibition is the easiest thing to police from a surveillance perspective), you may find that folks will require a bit of sensible direction to manage the risks effectively.
- Organizational Position and Policy Statement/Approval and Adoption. Once you’ve figured out what you want to do, just outline the position you are adopting, make sure that what you’re doing is not in opposition to any existing policy or plan, and then run it through the appropriate committees for final approval and adoption by the organization. In most instances, there is absolutely no reason to establish a specific policy for these things; set it up as a guideline or a protocol or a standard operating procedure (SOP). There are really very few policies that are required by law or regulation. Please don’t feel the need to populate your EOC manuals with a million and one incidental policies (I think this might be a good topic of future conversation).
There are many ways to “skin” a risk assessment and the methodology indicated above may not be suitable for all audiences, but it is a very good way to document the thoughtful analysis of an issue (be it identified during a survey or during your own surveillance activities), particularly when logic does not immediately prevail. (And believe me, logic doesn’t prevail as often as it used to. It makes me sad to think about all the gyrations that have been “committed” because we’ve been forced to deal with something that is “possible” as opposed to “probable” or “actual.” And if you’re thinking that the management of cardboard is somewhere in that equation, you would indeed be correct…) It all goes back to the subtle dynamics between what you “have” to do versus what you “could” do—to a very large extent, at least in terms of the regulations, we get to make our own way in the world. But that world is full of surveyors who are perfectly willing to disagree with any decision we’ve ever made; and they tend not to allow us to do the risk assessment math in our heads (pity, that). This is a pretty straightforward way to get your work on paper. I hope you find it useful.