Common Workplace Environmental Hazards

No matter how small or large, every employer needs to create a safe working environment. This obligation not only stands as a moral imperative and a legal obligation but also makes financial sense.

Over the last few decades, the United States has made significant progress in workplace safety thanks to initiatives by government agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

According to the US Department of Labor, daily workplace fatalities have decreased from 38 to 14 since 1970. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, worker injuries and illnesses have decreased from 10.9 incidences per 100 workers in 1972 to 2.8 incidents per 100 workers in 2017. (BLS).

Certain industries are particularly vulnerable to incidents due to their nature. In the private sector, construction, for example, accounts for one out of every five worker deaths. Transportation, manufacturing, health care, and warehousing are among the other businesses at risk.

According to a recent Liberty Mutual survey, safety mishaps cost industries over a billion dollars per week, whether they are caused by falls or overexertion. This is in addition to the possibility of legal action.

However, organizations can protect employees from environmental hazards in the workplace by taking strategic precautions that address air circulation, slips and trips, ergonomic hazards, natural disasters, and electrical safety.

What Is Environmental Health?

Environmental health refers to limiting health hazards in the workplace. This involves examining an environment to identify potentially hazardous agents and putting measures in place that protect workers.

Types of Hazards

In a work environment, employees can face numerous health risks, including those outlined in the following sections.

Biological Hazards

Biological hazards are caused by creatures such as people, animals, and plants, and they pose harm to human health. Mold, sewage, blood, and bodily fluids are examples of biological dangers. These hazards can cause infections and allergic reactions, as well as impede employees’ capacity to do their jobs.

Chemical Hazards

Chemicals can be toxic, corrosive, flammable, and combustible. As such, they can pose health risks to workers and become hazards if workers inhale, ingest or absorb them through their skin. Chemical hazards can cause acute harm, such as burns, irritation, and vomiting, or create chronic health issues, such as asthma, liver damage, and cancer.

Physical Hazards

Physical hazards include activities or natural substances in a work environment that pose health risks. Extreme temperatures, poor air quality, excessive noise, and radiation in the workplace can all harm workers, potentially causing respiratory problems, hearing loss, and cancer, among other problems.

The Dual Purpose of Environmental Health

Environmental health is concerned with preventing disease and injury in the workplace, as well as promoting worker health and happiness. Organizations can provide opportunities for employees to engage in healthy habits.

For example, a company can foster good social interactions and eating habits among its employees by offering a pleasant break room or a restaurant with nutritional cuisine. 

Fitness centers are available in certain workplaces to encourage staff to stay physically active. Others have bulletin boards where they display information about wellness initiatives and other health-related material.

These measures can not only boost morale but also help to prevent illness, which can have a negative impact on productivity. 

The Role of Safety Managers

Those charged with mitigating the effects of environmental hazards in workplaces engage in the following:

Investigation

To locate workplace dangers and assess their risks, safety professionals examine the materials in a work environment, such as cleaning supplies and equipment, and the safety of the work environment itself. They consider questions such as:

  • Are there chemicals that need special handling?
  • Does a workspace have proper ventilation?
  • Can workers exit safely and quickly?

Analysis

Safety professionals must analyze the data acquired after measuring and sampling materials in a work environment or examining the characteristics of a work environment. They can assess the risks and create reports or summaries of their findings in this manner. Their research entails examining scientific facts to discover how the environment can affect the health of workers.

Making Recommendations

Following analysis, safety experts develop protective interventions that prevent health hazards. This involves establishing guidelines, procedures, and policies that control hazards. It also involves creating educational materials and communicating with workers about how to stay safe.

The Importance of Air Circulation

Air quality affects employees’ comfort and health. Several factors can impact air quality, such as humidity level, lack of outside air, poorly controlled temperatures, and remodeling projects. Additionally, air contaminants, including fumes from cleaning supplies, pesticides, or dust from construction, affect air quality.

Poor indoor air quality has been linked to:

  • Headaches
  • Irritation of eyes, skin and nose
  • Poor concentration

Air circulation plays a key role in air quality. Without proper circulation, irritants remain in the air. However, proper air circulation can help eliminate the contaminants that lead to health problems.

Another potential risk of insufficient air circulation in the workplace is the spread of disease. Exhaled airborne germs and viruses are removed from the air via ventilation, which reduces the possibility of disease transmission over long distances.

With the rise of epidemics such as SARS and MERS, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, this has become critical.

Some jobs emit potentially harmful compounds into the air, such as toxic gases, poisonous vapors, smoke, and other irritants that can be harmful to one’s health.

Nail technicians, for example, may inhale chemicals from their products. Construction workers are frequently exposed to dust and fumes, and health care workers may be exposed to biological dangers.

By inhaling or coming into contact with dangerous substances in uncirculated air, workers can develop:

  • Bronchitis
  • Lung cancer
  • Asthma

They may also experience damage to their nervous and reproductive systems.

Tips for Improving Air Quality

OSHA requires ventilation in buildings that ensure that workers have clean air to breathe. OSHA standards put limits on the number of pollutants allowed in the air and mandate sufficient ventilation to ensure toxins remain at safe levels.

To meet and exceed OSHA standards, employers and work facilities can do the following:

Address Carbon Monoxide Issues

Work areas can’t have carbon monoxide levels that average higher than 50 parts per million within an eight-hour period. Employers must regularly test carbon monoxide levels and provide ample ventilation to meet this standard.

Ensure Ventilation System Safety

Ventilation systems that are not protected offer a health concern. To avoid mishaps, keep the intakes and belt drives of these devices, particularly portable blowers, covered.

Make sure the ventilation systems are working properly as well. Inspect their hoods, ducts, and pressure gauges on a regular basis. Check the fan housing, pulley belts, and air filter parts as well.

Monitor Solvent Vapors

Some solvents emit flammable vapors that, in high quantities, can be explosive. Employers must keep these gases well below their explosive concentration limits to prevent these dangers.

Experts in safety management must be aware of the explosive levels of the solvents they use and ensure that their vapor levels comply with OSHA regulations. Using ventilation-improving exhaust systems can help with this.

A Look at Slip and Trip Hazards in the Workplace

Data from the National Safety Council (NSC) shows that slip and trip accidents account for more than 1 in 4 of all workplace injuries, and according to recent BLS data, they cause 792 workplace fatalities a year.

Causes of Slips, Trips and Falls

Any number of simple, fixable problems can result in slips, trips, and falls. Some slip and trip hazards include the following:

  • Damaged or slippery flooring
  • Exposed cables
  • Cluttered walkways
  • Missing handrails

A leaking sink, for example, could be found in an employee restroom. When a company is made aware of a problem, it may appoint a custodian to clean the area on a regular basis.

However, on one occasion, the mopping does not occur, the water accumulates, and an employee slips and breaks an ankle. The company not only failed to rectify the leak but also to post the appropriate sign and do normal mopping in this circumstance.

While the trip hazards stated above can result in fatalities, inappropriate placement or use of ladders and scaffolding, unprotected sidewalls or exposed holes, and unsuitable working surfaces can also result in fatalities.

Other less evident causes can contribute to falls in addition to these more prominent slip and trip hazards. Employees can slip or trip and injure themselves as a result of obscured sight and bad illumination, for example.

Tips to Prevent Slips, Trips and Falls

The No. 1 violation of OSHA standards pertains to fall protection. However, organizations can prevent these incidents by keeping in mind the following:

Slip Prevention

Slips often result from a lack of floor traction caused by spilled substances, such as soaps, oils or solvents. Prevention involves:

  • Quick cleanups after spills
  • Use of mats and other nonslip materials
  • Proper drainage
  • Proper signage
  • Handrails
  • High-traction treads on stairs

Trip Prevention

Any number of objects can result in tripping. To avoid trips, employers can:

  • Ensure that rugs and mats are anchored
  • Install proper lighting
  • Keep aisles and pathways clear
  • Maintain flooring

Fall Prevention

Three steps can help prevent falls:

  • Organizations should examine all potential fall hazards on a project, particularly those requiring working from heights, and then carefully design the jobs and safety equipment required.
  • Using the appropriate tools. Organizations must provide the appropriate safety equipment, such as ladders and scaffolds, and examine them on a regular basis.
  • Workers are being educated. Workers must be taught how to utilise equipment safely and spot potential hazards on the job.

Ergonomic Hazards: Key Symptoms and Dangers

Poor ergonomics in the workplace can lead to health issues for employees, such as cumulative trauma disorders, repetitive motion injuries, and musculoskeletal disorders. Often, ergonomic hazards arise due to workplace design.

Possible ergonomic hazards include the following:

  • Poorly adjusted chairs or workstations
  • Repetitive movements
  • Regular lifting
  • Incorrect posture
  • Vibration

Whether employees sit at desks that are too short for them, overuse their thumbs on laptops with centrally positioned trackpads, or strain their eyes looking at screens all day long, poor ergonomics can lead to debilitating symptoms.

Sore joints and muscles; tingling in the hands, fingers, and limbs; and pain and stiffness in the neck and back can all result from ergonomic hazards.

Tips to Address Ergonomic Hazards

Organizations can turn to several solutions that help address common high-risk behaviors and elements related to ergonomics.

Assess Ergonomic Hazards

An important first step to addressing this problem involves locating where it exists. Ask questions such as:

  • Do workstations consider an employee’s height?
  • Do workspaces encourage proper posture?
  • What repetitive movements do workers perform?

Make Adjustments

Employers can adequately mitigate ergonomic dangers after identifying them. This could include rearranging workstations or altering personnel habits. When companies are unable to eliminate ergonomic hazards, they might put in place safeguards to mitigate their harmful effects.

They may, for example, divide jobs to lessen exertion, improve break periods, or rotate personnel who perform repetitive tasks.

Natural Disaster Safety and Role of Emergency Management

Organizations must prepare themselves for natural disasters and emergencies. Should a tornado or an earthquake hit, how will employers keep their workers safe? Those in safety, security, and emergency management play key roles when it comes to preparing a workplace for hurricanes, fires, floods, and other natural disasters.

Ways to Ensure Emergency and Natural Disaster Safety

Organizations can take several actions to protect their employees in emergencies and natural disasters. They include the following:

Developing Emergency Action Plans

OSHA regulates that companies must document their emergency action plans according to specific standards. Additionally, employees should go through practice drills that familiarize them with emergency procedures and be provided with copies of emergency action plans.

Preparing Emergency Kits

Survival kits include basics such as water (a gallon per day for each employee), nonperishable foods, first-aid kits, flashlights, and battery-operated radios. Other items to store in stormproof rooms might include blankets, maps, and cell phones.

Establishing Evacuation Plans

Employees should know the location of the nearest exit, as well as alternatives. Additionally, evacuation plans should indicate the best routes to exit a building and where to meet after exiting a building. Organizations should have evacuation plans posted in visible areas throughout work areas.

Managing Disaster Recovery

Recovering from disasters and emergencies requires thoughtful management. Security and emergency managers help a workplace recover in the aftermath of a disaster in several ways.

First, they perform a damage assessment, examining property to determine what requires repairs or replacement and to identify areas of a building that pose safety threats.

After a damage assessment, emergency managers work to help an organization return to normal operations. They also reflect on what aspects of their emergency action plans need revision.

The Impact of COVID-19 on the Workplace

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted another threat to safe working environments: communicable disease. As a result, employers are considering different ways to protect their employees from exposure to the virus and others like it.

COVID-19 poses a greater risk to older people and those with certain preexisting conditions. As such, employers are examining ways to accommodate workers in high-risk categories and set up remote working arrangements for all workers when possible.

When remote work isn’t an option, employers are assessing sources of exposure and implementing controls that reduce exposure. Additionally, they’re promoting or requiring behaviors that emphasize infection prevention, such as social distancing and frequent handwashing.

Electrical Safety in the Workplace

In 2018, 160 workers died from electrocution while on the job, an 18% increase from the prior year. That same year, 1,560 workers suffered electrical injuries.

While electrical hazards pose a danger to workers across every industry, those most likely to suffer electrical fatalities or injuries work in construction, which is responsible for 52% of electrical fatalities. Such numbers highlight the importance of high standards for electrical safety in the workplace.

Electrical Hazards

Electrical hazards can result in burns, shocks, fires, explosions, and death. Some common electrical hazards include the following:

Overhead Power Lines

Overhead power lines carry deadly voltages of electrical power. Failure to maintain a careful distance from them can result in electrocution or severe burns.

Damaged Equipment and Tools

Tools or equipment with damaged cords and wires or other defects can pose dangers to those using them. Additionally, untrained workers shouldn’t use tools.

Improper Wiring

Different electrical currents call for specific types of wiring. Using the wrong wiring can cause overheating and fires. They can also occur from using the wrong type of extension cords, overloading outlets, and using improper circuit breakers.

Exposed Electrical Parts

As potentially dangerous levels of electrical power surge through electrical components, they must remain safely covered. Temporary lighting, power distribution units, and power cords with exposed electrical parts all pose electrical dangers.

Wet Conditions

Water makes electrocution more likely. Using electricity in wet environments, particularly when equipment has damaged insulation, poses significant safety risks.

Strategies to Improve Electrical Safety in the Workplace

Safety, security, and emergency management professionals can help minimize the risks of electrical incidents in several ways. Many electrical accidents result from a failure to recognize energized sources and the incorrect use of extension cords.

However, by implementing the following strategies organizations can protect employees from electrical hazards.

Understand and Follow OSHA Regulations

OSHA outlines standards that promote electrical safety. Organizations must understand and follow the  guidelines, which deal with:

  • Avoiding the use of hot equipment to avoid electrical hazards
  • Disconnecting conductors or circuit components from energized parts to ensure electrically safe working conditions

Establish Electrical Safety Programs

Electrical safety programs can bring awareness to electrical hazards and provide the training employees need to remain safe. They can also develop safe work procedures and identify electrical safety principles.

Identify and Assess Electrical Hazards

By locating and assessing risks, organizations can best address electrical hazards and properly inform employees.

Creating a Culture of Safety

Organizations that commit to addressing environmental hazards in the workplace can best create and maintain safe environments for their employees. Safe working environments not only prevent injuries and illness but also reduce costs, improve productivity and increase employee morale.

For more information on safety in the workplace, look into the Master of Science in Safety, Security, and Emergency Management program at Eastern Kentucky University.

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