Before we study identifying, analyzing and controlling hazards in the workplace, it's important to know how OSHA defines the term. OSHA usually defines a hazard as, "a danger which threatens physical harm to employees." Expanding on that basic definition we can think of a hazard as an:"unsafe workplace conditions or practices (dangers) that could cause injuries or illnesses (harm) to employees."
A hazard may be an object (tools, equipment, machinery, materials) or a person (when distracted, mentally/physically incapable). It's important to know that a hazard is only one part in the "accident formula" above. It takes a hazard and exposure to the hazard before an accident can occur.
I'll bet if you look around your workplace, you'll be able to locate a few hazardous conditions or work practices without too much trouble. Did you know that at any time an OSHA inspector could announce his or her presence at your corporate front door to begin a comprehensive inspection. What would they find? What do they look for? Now, if you used the same inspection strategy as an inspector, wouldn't that be smart? Let's take a look at some information contained in OSHA's Field Compliance Manual, Chapter 3, relating to hazards and exposure.
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Occasionally, students ask what is considered a "recognized" hazard in the workplace. As described in OSHA's Field Compliance Manual, recognition of a hazard is established on the basis of industry recognition, employer recognition, or "common sense" recognition criteria.
Another important question to ask about the nature of a hazard relates to whether it was "foreseeable." The question of foreseeability should be addressed by safety managers during the root cause analysis phase of an accident investigation. A hazard for which OSHA issues a citation must be reasonably foreseeable.
In this section, we'll discuss the concept of "exposure:" the second variable in the accident formula. Exposure is generally defined as "the condition of being exposed," or as "a position in relation to a hazard." In this course we will consider three forms of exposure that we'll discuss here: physical, environmental, and potential exposure:
Physical Exposure: We may think of this form of exposure as "arm's length" exposure. If any part of the body can be injured as a result of proximity to a danger zone, physical exposure exists. For instance, if an employee removes a guard and works around moving parts that could cause an injury, that employee is exposed.
Environmental Exposure: An employee may suffer from environmental exposure no matter how far away from the source of the hazard he or she might be. For instance, if an employee uses a loud saw all day, everyone working around the saw may be exposed to hazardous levels of noise and suffer from environmental exposure.
Potential Exposure: The possibility that an employee could be exposed to a hazardous condition exists when the employee can be shown to have access to the hazard. Potential employee exposure could include one or more of the following:
It's helpful to think of workplace hazards as existing in five general hazard categories and 13 more specific types. We'll take a look at the five hazard categories and 13 hazard types throughout the rest of this module. All this will help you improve your knowledge and skills in proactive hazard identification to help eliminate hazards in the workplace.
All workplace hazards exist in five general categories. You can remember them by using the mnemonic, "MEEPS". Here are some examples:
Nearly every production job involves the use of hazardous materials including chemicals for cleaning, stripping, or degreasing parts and equipment. Maintenance workers who enter enclosed or confined spaces are also exposed to toxic substances.
Solvents: Solvents are used to dissolve various materials. Those commonly used include:
Exposure occurs by inhalation, ingestion, and absorption primarily through skin contact. Skin exposure may result in dermatitis or skin rash, edema or swelling, and blistering. Solvents can dissolve the body's natural protective barrier of fats and oils leaving the skin unprotected against further irritation.
Inhaling or ingesting solvents may affect the central nervous system, acting as depressants and anesthetics causing headaches, nausea, drowsiness, dizziness, complaints of irritation, abnormal behavior, general ill-feeling, and even unconsciousness.
Acids and Alkalis: Acids and alkalis may cause serious burns if they are splashed into the eyes or onto the skin. If vapors or mists are inhaled, they may result in a burning of the linings of the nose, mouth, throat, and lungs.
Metals: Employees are exposed to metals primarily by skin contact and by inhalation of metal dusts and fumes. Exposure may cause headaches, general ill-feeling, anemia, central nervous system and kidney damage, and reproductive problems, as well as cancer.
Gases: Gases are used in many operations and may combine with other substances to produce toxic gases such as phosgene, ozone, and carbon monoxide. Common hazardous gases are hydrogen sulfide and methane. Potential exposure to gases occurs through inhalation. Exposure may produce eye damage, headaches, shivering, tiredness, nausea, and possible kidney and liver damage.
Solids: Solids like metal, wood, plastics. Raw materials used to manufacture products are usually bought in large quantities, and can cause injuries or fatalities in many ways.
Plastics and Resins: Inhalation or skin contact may occur when curing resins; cutting, heating, or stripping wires; or cutting, grinding, or sawing a hardened product. Exposure to these substances may result in skin rash and upper respiratory irritation.
Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs): PCBs are used as insulators in some electrical equipment and present a potential hazard to workers. Exposures to PCBs may cause skin disorders, digestive problems, headaches, upper respiratory irritations, reproductive problems, and cancer.
Fiberglass and Asbestos: Fiberglass and asbestos are also used as fillers in epoxy resins and other plastics, in wire coatings or electrical insulation, and in printed circuit boards. Uncontrolled exposures may produce skin and upper respiratory irritations and, in the case of asbestos, cancer.
Hazardous equipment includes machinery and tools.
Are there areas in your workplace that are too bright, dark, hot, cold, dusty, dirty, messy, wet, etc.? Is it too noisy, or are dangerous gases, vapors, liquids, fumes, etc., present? Do you see short people working at workstations designed for tall people? Such factors all contribute to an unsafe environment. You can bet a messy workplace is NOT a safe workplace!
Noise Exposure: Many work places are inherently noisy and potentially hazardous to employees. Continuous noise and instantaneous noise bursts can damage the hearing of employees. A hearing conservation program should be established if you think noise levels are a potential threat to the health of your employees. OSHA consultants, your insurer, or a private consultant are all available to help you determine noise levels in the workplace.
Electric Shock: Electricity travels in closed circuits, normally through a conductor. Shock occurs when the body becomes part of the electric circuit. The current must enter the body at one point and leave at another. Shock normally occurs in one of three ways. The person must come in contact with:
Illumination: It's important to make sure illumination is adequate for the job being performed. Too much direct or indirect glare can, over time, cause eye strain. Too little light can result in an injury.
This category refers to any employee (or others) at any level of the organization who is not "sober and focused" on the work they're doing. For example, an employee might be in a hazardous "state of being" if they are:
Remember, an employee who is distracted in any way from the work they're doing should also be considered a "walking" hazardous condition that increases the likelihood of an unsafe behavior. Unfortunately, OSHA does not usually "catch" employees working in an unsafe manner, so you don't see unsafe behaviors described in OSHA citation reports too often.
Remember, hazardous conditions may be thought of as unsafe "states of being." All of the following situations may cause employees to be what I call "walking hazards"
Workers who take unsafe short cuts, or who are using established procedures that are unsafe, are accidents waiting to happen. Hazardous work practices represent the majority of the surface causes of all accidents in the workplace. Bottom-line: If employees are not sober and focused while working, they are walking hazardous conditions.
Every company has, to some degree, a safety management system. Management may unintentionally promote unsafe behaviors by developing ineffective policies, procedures and rules that ignore safe behaviors or actually encourage unsafe work practices. Safety policies, plans, programs, processes, procedures and practices are called "Administrative Controls," and they ultimately represent the causes all accidents, except unknowable-uncontrollable "acts of God".
The following 13 hazard categories are adapted from Product Safety Management and Engineering, by Willie Hammer, ASSP Pub. This publication is an excellent text to add to your library.
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