In the first module, we began a discussion of the concepts of "hazard" and "exposure" in preparation for a further look in this module. Here we will take a closer look at the five general hazard categories and 13 more specific hazard categories. 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 areas. You can remember them by using the mnemonic, "MEEPS". Here are some examples:
When you conduct a walkaround inspection you are usually looking for hazardous materials, equipment, and environmental factors. These hazard areas represent hazardous physical conditions that are rather easily recognized by the employer. However, they cause only a small percentage of all accidents in the workplace: well under 10 percent.
OSHA inspectors primarily cite hazardous conditions because they're easy to see, and "what OSHA sees, they cite." OSHA is very good at uncovering the conditions that don't cause many accidents. However, OSHA is not so good at spotting unsafe behaviors that cause most accidents. If the inspector is lucky (see video) they might catch someone violating safety rules, but that is the exception, not the rule. It's a flawed system, but it's all we have.
Most company safety inspections are no better. Safety committee members, supervisors, or safety managers walk around looking for hazardous conditions. They rarely see an unsafe practice occurring. This flaw in the inspection process also explains why there is little correlation between the most frequently cited violations and the most frequent causes of injury. For instance, ergonomic hazards, which frequently cause injuries, are not yet addressed in OSHA standards.
The fourth hazard category, People, refers employees at every level of the organization who are not "sober and focused" on the work they're doing. For example, employees might be in a hazardous "state of being" if they are:
Remember, an employee who is distracted in from the work they're doing should also be considered a "walking hazardous condition" that increases the likelihood of an unsafe behavior. Today, distraction is becoming a big problem with the use of cell phones, especially while people are walking or driving. Unfortunately, OSHA does not usually observe employees working in an unsafe manner, so you don't see unsafe behaviors described in OSHA citation reports too often.
The safety management system is composed of policies, programs, plans, processes, procedures and practices that influence or contribute to behaviors in the workplace. A flawed system will contribute to some degree to workplace conditions and behaviors. Therefore we can argue that the safety management system is ultimately the cause for up to 98 percent of the accidents that occur in the workplace!
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. 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. These symptoms should be viewed as visible signs of potential disease. Excessive and continued exposure to certain solvents may result in liver, lung, kidney, and reproductive damage, as well as cancer.
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Acids and Alkalis: Acids and alkalis may cause serious burns if they are splash 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. Workers can be exposed to these and other gases during work. Potential exposure to gases occurs through inhalation. Such exposure may produce eye damage, headaches, shivering, tiredness, nausea, and possible kidney and liver damage.
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.
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.
Gases: Gases like hydrogen sulfide, methane, etc. Gas may be extremely hazardous if leaked into the atmosphere. Employees should know the signs and symptoms related to hazardous gases in the workplace.
Hazardous equipment includes vehicles, machinery, and tools.
The work environment includes all areas where work is being performed. Examples include work environments that are too noisy, bright, dark, hot, cold, dusty, dirty, messy, or wet. Is it too noisy, or are dangerous gases, vapors, liquids, fumes, etc., present? Such factors all contribute to an unsafe environment. You can bet a messy workplace is NOT a safe workplace! Common environmental hazards include:
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. More on this topic in course 711, Introduction to Ergonomics.
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. As mentioned earlier, hazardous work practices represent about 95% of the 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 (written and unwritten) that ignore safe behaviors or actually direct unsafe work practices. Safety policies, plans, programs, processes, procedures and practices are called "Administrative Controls," and they ultimately represent the causes for about 98% of all workplace accidents.
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.