Slipped disks from heavy lifting, asthma from inhaling chemical fumes, hearing loss from overexposure to machinery noise — millions of workers experience injuries and job-related illnesses every year. While some industries account for more of these injuries and illnesses than others, individuals in every type of job face hazards every day.
Occupational health and safety professionals can help organizations address this problem. Their expertise allows them to identify various types of hazards in the workplace, including safety, biological, chemical, and ergonomic hazards. Once organizations identify hazards, they can implement measures that safeguard workers.
Workplace hazards are situations on the job that have the potential to cause injury ranging from burns to back pain to loss of life or limb. Workplace hazards stem from a range of sources:
- Substances: the carcinogenic chemical benzene, for example
- Materials: staphylococcus bacteria, for example
- Conditions: poorly lit stairwells, for example
- Behaviors: skipping steps in a procedure, for example
- Job duties: welding, for example, which can cause an inhalation syndrome known as metal fume fever
Just as improperly stored toxic materials constitute a workplace hazard, so does faulty electrical wiring in an office. Workplace hazards can result in accidents, or they can lead to slowly developing adverse health consequences for employees.
For these reasons, organizations must either eliminate workplace hazards altogether or put controls in place that help prevent workplace hazards from causing harm. For example, a COVID-19 vaccine may serve as a control for healthcare workers treating patients infected with the coronavirus. The vaccine greatly reduces the risk of healthcare workers catching the virus despite their exposure.
Risk refers to the likelihood a hazard can cause damage. Several factors can affect the potential risk of workplace hazards, including:
- Frequency of workers’ exposure: for example, daily or only once a year
- Type of exposure: inhalation or skin contact
- Extent of exposure: high, medium, or low relative to the hazard type
To determine risk, occupational health and safety professionals conduct assessments to spot workplace hazards, analyze their risk potential, and determine how to rectify them.
Safety hazards in the workplace are all too common. Some examples include:
- Wet floors
- Cords crossing walkways
- Blocked exits
In some cases, the work itself can be the safety hazard. For instance, roofing or climbing ladders or scaffolding are dangerous work activities. Other safety hazards have to do with electrical issues. For example, frayed electrical cords or poor electrical grounding can lead to electrocution, burns, or fires.
In industries such as manufacturing and construction, employees use machinery and tools that can pose safety hazards. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, more than a quarter of employee injuries in 2019 that led to days away from work resulted from accidents involving equipment. Machinery and tools present safety hazards through:
- Hazardous motion: Moving or rotating parts that slide up and down can cause injuries such as burns or crushed fingers.
- Points of operation: Places on a machine or tool designed to cut, bore, or bend material can result in puncture wounds and lacerations.
- Pinch points: Areas on a machine where moving parts meet stationary objects can capture clothing or body parts and lead to fractures, burns, cuts, and other injuries.
Additionally, machinery and tools may create flying shards, or chips or materials that can irritate or cut the skin and eyes. Their use may also generate sparks, or spray debris or chemical irritants.
To avoid accidents with machinery and tools, occupational health and safety professionals use various types of guards to address such safety hazards. Guards place a physical barrier between workers and the machine. These include fixed barriers such as fences or protective covers for moving parts or blades. Other guards function by turning off a machine’s power source.
Slips, trips, and falls caused almost 28 percent of workplace injuries in 2019, according to the BLS. Frequently, workers slip, trip, or fall while doing something other than performing their job duties. This means the conditions that can lead to slips, trips, and falls can exist anywhere, from an organization’s parking lot to its bathrooms.
When people lose traction on a walking surface, they can slip. Walking on an uneven surface can cause them to trip. Accidental contact with an obstacle can cause a fall. Situations that increase the risks of slips, trips, and falls include:
- Greasy floors
- Sloped walkways lacking skid resistance
- Inappropriate footwear
- Weather hazards (ice, snow, rain)
- Uneven walking surfaces
- Spills on floors
- Loose tiles or carpeting
- No handrails on stairs
- Open desk drawers
Occupational health and safety experts enforce maintenance routines, such as regular cleaning and repairs, that help prevent safety hazards. They also use controls such as installing moisture-absorbent mats in entrances to reduce wet surfaces, enforcing policies that forbid clutter in trafficked areas, and promptly removing snow from walkways.
Falls are the leading cause of construction workplace fatalities in construction. Fall safety hazards exist on roofs, ladders, scaffolds, and stairs. They may include ledges without sufficient railings, broken ladders, and failure to use scaffold guardrails. Controls such as personal fall arrest systems and guardrails can keep falls and their resulting injuries from happening.
Biological hazards are substances from people, animals, or plants that threaten health. These types of workplace hazards occur most frequently in healthcare, laboratory, agriculture, law enforcement, and waste management occupations.
For example, healthcare workers perform duties that expose them to contagious diseases, bacteria, and other sources that can cause infections. Laboratory workers may handle or collect biological materials that pose health and safety risks, while sanitation workers may be exposed to biological hazards in the waste products they transport and may work in contaminated areas.
Biological hazards include:
- Fecal matter
- Bacteria and viruses
- Mildew and molds
- Bodily fluids
- Poisonous plants
- Stinging insects
- Medical waste These hazards can cause an array or health conditions from tetanus to respiratory infections. Occupational health and safety professionals identify situations in which workers may be exposed to these hazards and develop measures to protect workers from them.
Organizations adopt a range of strategies to keep biological hazards in check, including:
- Training and informing workers about proper safety precautions to limit and avoid exposure
- Restricting access to areas where biological hazards exist to trained personnel
- Developing policies for workers that guide their behavior and practices when confronted with biological hazards
- Implementing hygiene measures that reduce the release or spread of biological hazards
Proper labeling can also reduce biological hazard risk. Visual warnings such as signs and other labels that indicate danger can avoid unnecessary exposures. Some hazardous areas where labeling is called for include disposal containers for sharps, contaminated clothing or equipment, and specimens that contain hazardous biological agents.
Additional strategies for controlling biological hazards include:
- Pest extermination and prevention
- Protective gear such as gloves and face shields
- Adequate sick leave policies
- Proper labeling and disposal of potentially dangerous biological materials
- Special cleaning procedures that disinfect potentially contaminated areas
- Employee immunization programs
The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the risk of biological hazards in the workplace, particularly infectious diseases. High COVID-19 transmission rates in meatpacking plants and concerns expressed by transportation workers, among others, about the risks of catching the virus have underscored the significant threat biological hazards can pose to workers.
Occupational health and safety experts use the ARECC framework to inform their decisions when addressing the risks of COVID-19 and other biological hazards. ARECC stands for:
- Anticipating and recognizing biological hazards: reviewing data about a hazard to better identify it and understand its potential negative health effects
- Evaluating exposures: collecting and assessing data to determine the likelihood of worker exposure to a hazard based on duties and work environment
- Controlling and confirming protections for workers: developing and implementing controls such as social distancing, cleaning and disinfection precautions, mask wearing, and testing requirements
In all types of industries, heavy chemical use leads to an increased chance of their accidental release. When such releases involve dangerous chemicals, whether in solid, liquid, or gas form, they can trigger poisonings, evacuations, or decontamination projects. Exposure to chemical hazards can lead to allergic reactions, difficulty breathing, skin irritation, and more.
Chemical hazards in the workplace can come from any number of sources, including cleaning agents, raw materials, and solvents. Workers can inhale, ingest, or come into contact with dangerous chemicals through the skin. The impact of exposure to chemical hazards can be immediate. However, in many cases, the consequences show up gradually, sometimes in the form of cancers, fertility problems, and birth defects. Between 2011 and 2017, 297 workers died from inhaling chemicals, according to the BLS. Carbon monoxide inhalation caused over a third of those deaths. In 2019, BLS data shows workers experienced 4,040 chemical burns and corrosions.
Workplace chemical hazards include:
Employees often work with flammable chemicals, and the frequency with which they use them may result in a too-casual attitude about their risks. In actuality, chemicals in diesel fuel, methanol, turpentine, lubricants, resins, acetone, and enamel paints can cause vomiting, asthma, and respiratory problems when inhaled, swallowed, or splashed on eyes or skin.
To manage the potential hazards of flammable chemicals, workplaces need clear policies and procedures that ensure employees do not use them near ignition sources such as hot surfaces or flames, electrical equipment, and mechanically produced sparks. Workers need training about incompatible substances, temperatures, and conditions that may cause flammable chemicals to catch fire or explode.
Additionally, workplaces must protect their employees by establishing policies that require workers to use the appropriate safety gear such as:
- Chemical-resistant coveralls
- Rubber gloves
- Safety goggles
Workers commonly use chemicals that can potentially irritate the skin, eyes, or lungs. Sometimes these chemicals have a corrosive nature that can destroy tissue as well. Inhaling corrosive substances can result in respiratory tract burns or even death. If corrosive chemicals touch the eyes or skin, they can cause blindness or tissue damage.
Commonly used corrosive chemicals include:
- Hydrochloric acid
- Sulfuric acid
- Ammonium hydroxide
Any worker handling corrosive chemicals needs to understand the hazards they pose and ways to mitigate these hazards. This includes learning about the need for proper ventilation in the presence of corrosive chemicals and appropriate storing methods.
For example, workplaces need to designate the right containers for storing corrosive chemicals. Otherwise, corrosive chemicals can eat away at the container and cause a hazard. Additionally, ventilation systems can help remove dangerous corrosive vapors or mists from a work area.
Toxic chemicals can be found in many everyday products including cleaning supplies, packing materials, cosmetics, and medications. Toxic chemicals also exist in emissions from cars, trucks, and machinery. They can pose real hazards to workers’ health depending on their concentration and workers’ frequency of exposure. Toxic chemicals can cause a range of health problems for workers, both acute and chronic, ranging from dizziness and diarrhea to seizures and organ failure.
Toxic chemicals include:
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Lead arsenic
Workplaces can replace toxic chemicals with less hazardous materials or less hazardous forms of the toxic chemicals as a way to protest workers’ health and safety. For example, a granular form of a chemical may create less dust, resulting in a less toxic impact for workers. As with other chemical hazards, organizations must train workers about the risks toxic chemicals pose and how to manage those risks with proper handling, storage, and safety gear.
Well-designed workstations, tools, and work tasks that support employees’ comfort and safety help prevent injuries. When workers can minimize physical stress and avoid awkward body positions when performing their jobs, they experience fewer aches and pains and tend to be more productive. Many jobs, however, involve repeated movements, physical overexertion, and conditions that put workers in unnatural body positions. These activities and conditions, referred to as ergonomic hazards, can lead to fatigue in the short term and worn out muscles, tendons, ligaments, and nerves in the long term. Some damage may result in musculoskeletal disorders, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, which leaves people with pain, numbness, and weakness in their hands and wrists.
The BLS reported 4,180 work-related carpal tunnel syndrome cases in 2019. Additionally, for that same year, the BLS recorded 32,160 nonfatal workplace injury and illness cases that required days away from work and were caused by some type of repetitive movement.
Potential ergonomic hazards include work that involves:
- Heavy lifting
- Prolonged postures
- Repetitive actions
- Improperly adjusted chairs or workstations
Ergonomic risk factors do not have to lead to injury. With the right solutions, organizations can safeguard workers from ergonomic hazards. First, occupational health and safety experts can minimize or remove contributing factors. This can involve replacing poorly designed tools, rearranging equipment, and customizing workstations to fit employees’ height. Other fixes may include:
- Rotating work responsibilities to avoid extended time performing the same movements
- Providing workers with sufficient breaks to relax their muscles and recover from exertions
- Training workers to modify their body positioning and posture
- Positioning objects so employees can reach them while maintaining neutral positions
Organizations devoted to reducing and eliminating workplace hazards not only safeguard workers’ health and safety, they create more productive work environments as well. With occupational health and safety experts’ help, organizations can implement solutions that overcome the dangers of various types of workplace hazards. Explore how Tulane University’s Master of Science in Public Health in Industrial Hygiene prepares graduates to innovate solutions for pinpointing and preventing workplace hazards.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Table EH1. Number of Nonfatal Occupational Injuries and Illnesses Involving Days Away from Work by Selected Worker and Case Characteristics and Medical Treatment Facility Visits, All U.S., Private Industry, 2019
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Table R31. Number of Nonfatal Occupational Injuries and Illnesses Involving Days Away from Work by Event or Exposure Leading to Injury or Illness and Selected Natures of Injury or Illness, Private Industry, 2019