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.
Thanks to efforts by government agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the U.S. has made considerable strides in workplace safety over the last few decades. Since 1970, the nation has seen the daily workplace fatalities drop from 38 to 14, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Additionally, worker injuries and illnesses have gone down, from 10.9 incidents per 100 workers in 1972, to 2.8 incidents per 100 workers in 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The nature of certain industries makes them particularly vulnerable to incidents. Construction, for example, accounts for 1 in 5 worker deaths in the private sector. Other vulnerable industries include transportation, manufacturing, health care and warehousing.
Whether safety incidents result from falls or overexertion, they cost industries over a billion dollars a week, according to a recent study by Liberty Mutual. This is in addition to potential legal expenses. 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 come from organisms, including people, animals and plants, and threaten human health. Examples of biological hazards include mold, sewage, blood and bodily fluids. These dangers can result in diseases and allergic reactions and limit employees’ ability to carry out their work.
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 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 focuses on preventing illness and injury in a workplace, but it also strives to promote worker health and well-being. Organizations can create opportunities for workers to practice healthy behaviors. For example, by providing a pleasant break room or a cafeteria serving nutritious food, a business can encourage healthy social interactions and eating habits for its employees.
Some businesses have fitness centers to help employees stay physically active. Others have bulletin boards that post information about wellness programs and other information that promotes health. These efforts can not only build morale but also reduce poor health that can affect productivity.
The Role of Safety Managers
Those charged with mitigating the effects of environmental hazards in workplaces engage in the following:
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?
After measuring and sampling materials in a work environment or investigating the characteristics of a work environment, safety professionals must interpret the data collected. In this way, they can gauge the risks and prepare reports or summaries of their findings. Their analysis involves using scientific evidence to determine how the environment can affect workers’ health.
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:
- 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 danger of poor air circulation in a workplace includes easier disease transmission. Ventilation helps remove exhaled airborne bacteria and viruses from the air and reduce the risk of transmitting airborne diseases from long range. This has become of vital importance with the emergence of epidemics like SARS and MERS, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some work generates potentially dangerous substances in the air including noxious fumes, unhealthy vapors, smoke and other irritants that can cause serious health risks. For example, nail technicians may breathe in chemicals from the products they use, construction workers often come into contact with dust and fumes, and health care workers can be exposed to biological hazards.
By inhaling or coming into contact with dangerous substances in uncirculated air, workers can develop:
- Lung cancer
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 amount 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
Uncovered ventilation systems pose health risks. Make sure that the intakes and belt drives of these systems, particularly portable blowers, remain covered to prevent accidents. Additionally, make sure that the ventilation systems operate correctly: Regularly inspect their hoods, ducts and pressure gauge. Also check fan housing, pulley belts and air cleaner components.
Monitor Solvent Vapors
Some solvents have flammable vapors that can become explosive at high concentrations. To reduce these risks, employers must keep these vapors at levels well below their explosive concentration limits. Safety management experts must know the explosive levels of the solvents they use and ensure that their vapor levels meet OSHA standards. Using exhaust systems that improve ventilation can help achieve that.
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
For example, an employee restroom might have a leaking sink. Upon being made aware of the problem, the business might assign a custodian to regularly mop the area, but on one occasion, the mopping doesn’t happen, the water accumulates and an employee slips and breaks an ankle. In this case, the business not only failed to fix the leak but also failed to post the appropriate sign and perform routine mopping.
While the trip hazards mentioned above can cause fatalities, deadly falls also result from the improper placement or use of ladders and scaffolding, unprotected sides or exposed holes, and unsafe working surfaces.
Aside from these more obvious slip and trip hazards, other less-apparent factors can contribute to falls. For example, obstructed views and poor lighting can also lead employees to slip or trip and injure themselves.
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:
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
- High-traction treads on stairs
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
Three steps can help prevent falls:
- Organizations should assess all potential fall hazards on a project, especially those that require working from heights, and then carefully plan the tasks and safety equipment needed.
- Using the proper equipment. Organizations must provide the right types of safety gear, ladders and scaffolds, and regularly inspect them.
- Training workers. Organizations must train workers to use equipment safely and recognize job hazards.
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
Whether employees sit at desks that are too short for them, overuse their thumbs on laptops with centrally positioned track pads 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?
After identifying ergonomic hazards, employers can properly counteract them. This might involve redesigning aspects of workstations or modifying employee routines. When employers can’t remove ergonomic hazards, they can implement controls that reduce their negative impacts. For example, they may break up tasks to reduce exertion, increase break periods, or rotate employees engaged in 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 cellphones.
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 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 can result in burns, shock, 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.
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.
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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