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Safety guides and audits to make your job as a safety professional easier

Identifying Hazards



Safety inspections focus only on hazardous conditions.

The first step in controlling workplace hazards is to first identify them. We want to determine what hazards are present. Once hazards are identified, you'll conduct an analysis to examine more closely the nature of the hazard. You want to know what it looks like, what kind of accidents might it cause, and how severe the resulting injuries might be. Analysis requires that each item or component be examined to see how it relates to or influences the whole.

Safety inspections should do more than simply identify hazardous conditions. They should provide useful data for the purpose of effective analysis and evaluation of the safety management system.

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Five basic methods you can use to identify workplace hazards before an accident occurs.

  • informal observations, and formal observation programs;
  • comprehensive company-wide surveys;
  • individual interviews;
  • walk-around inspections; and
  • documentation review.

As we'll learn, observing work each day is extremely important in identifying hazards. Surveys take advantage of employee awareness of the presence of workplace hazards. Interviews are valuable in uncovering hazardous conditions, unsafe work practices, and their root causes. Walk-around inspections are useful to locate hazardous conditions and, to a lesser degree, unsafe work practices in the workplace. Reviewing documentation such as the OSHA 300 Log, safety committee minutes and accident reports also helps to determine workplace hazards. Now, let's take a look at each of these five methods or "tools" to identify hazards.

1. What is the first step in controlling workplace hazards?

a. Understand the hazards
b. Identify the hazards
c. Create a checklist
d. Supervise daily activities

Informal Observation and Formal Observation Programs

Observation programs are important.

Observation is important because it can be a great tool to effectively identify behaviors that account for 95 percent of all workplace injuries. The walkaround inspection, as a method for identifying hazards, may not be as effective as observation in identifying unsafe behaviors.

Informal observation. An informal observation process is nothing more than being watchful for hazards and unsafe behaviors throughout the work shift. No special procedure is involved. All employees should be expected to look over their work areas once in a while.

Formal observation program. One of the most effective proactive methods to collect useful data about the hazards and unsafe behaviors in your workplace is the formal observation program because it includes a written plan and procedures.

For example, safety committee members or other employees may be assigned to complete a minimum number of observations of safe/unsafe behaviors during a given period of time.

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What can be done with the data collected

  • This data is gathered and analyzed to produce graphs and charts reflecting the current status and trends in employee behaviors.
  • Posting the results of these observations tends to increase awareness and lower injury rates.
  • The data also gives valuable clues about safety management system weaknesses.

Note: An important policy for successful formal observation procedures is that they are not, in any way, linked to discipline. Observers should not discipline or "snitch" on employees. Discipline should never be a consequence of an observation. To do so ensures any observation program will fail as an accurate fact-finding tool. Follow these best practices:

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Follow these best practices:

  • This data is gathered and analyzed to produce graphs and charts reflecting the current status and trends in employee behaviors.
  • Posting the results of these observations tends to increase awareness and lower injury rates.
  • The data also gives valuable clues about safety management system weaknesses.

2. What is considered one of the most effective proactive methods to collect useful data about hazards and unsafe behaviors in your workplace?

a. Formal observations
b. Employee interviews
c. Surveys
d. Accident investigations

Comprehensive Surveys

Employee surveys can identify many hazards.

Comprehensive surveys are not the same as interviews or inspections. An interview is a verbal exchange conducted one-on-one, preferably in private, and has the potential to gather more information. An inspection is often done by employees at the workplace who walk around observing the workplace and asking questions in public.

Comprehensive surveys ideally should be performed by people who can bring to your worksite fresh vision and extensive knowledge of safety, health, or industrial hygiene. Because there are few professional consultants equipped to do comprehensive surveys in all three areas, the best approach is to use a team consisting of outside specialists: a safety professional and an industrial hygienist.

We encourage you to take advantage of OSHA's safety and health consultative services if available in your state. Just call your local OSHA field office and schedule a visit. Workers' compensation insurance providers and other insurance companies offer expert services to help their clients evaluate safety and health hazards. Private consultants may also provide excellent specialized services to help determine workplace hazards.

For an industrial hygiene survey you should, at a minimum, inventory all chemicals and hazardous materials in the plant, review your hazard communication program, and analyze air samples. For many industries, a survey of noise levels and a review of the respirator program also will be vital. Companies participating in OSHA's SHARP and VPP must conduct initial comprehensive surveys.

3. Who should ideally perform comprehensive surveys?

a. People from unrelated functional areas
b. Someone with little interest in the outcome
c. A team of outside specialists
d. Those who do not have preconceived ideas
Interviews: a great tool.

Interviewing Employees

Interviews differ from surveys. Whereas surveys ask many people the same questions, an interview is a one-on-one process that asks unique questions. Outside experts may or may not conduct interviews during comprehensive surveys. If they do, that's great. If they don't, it becomes important for someone in-house conduct the interviews. A wealth of information, over and above what might be possible from a survey, may be obtained by conducting interviews with employees.

When conducting the interview keep the following tips in mind.

  • Go to the work area to conduct the interview. Just because you are familiar with the location or the employee's job, don't assume that things are always the same.
  • Put the person at ease.
  • Keep the purpose of the interview in mind: It's to get the employee's help in determining the types of hazards that exist in his or her work area.
  • Explain the purpose and your role. Tell the employee exactly why you are conducting the interview to reduce any initial reluctance to participate.
  • Stress that the information given is important. It may help eliminate hazards that have the potential to kill, injure or produce illness. Information given may also help to make the work procedure more efficient too.
  • Be friendly, understanding, and open minded. Try to keep the interview informal. Your approach is important. Make sure they sense that you care about their safety.
  • Be calm and unhurried. If you are agitated, or in a hurry to get the interview over, you'll be sending a negative message that the employee will see.

  • Let the individual talk. Don't interrupt while they are talking. It's easy to think you have all the information. Many important facts may not be uncovered if you cut them off.
  • Actively listen. Repeat the information given. Rephrase. Communicate to understand.
  • Take notes. Notes should be taken very carefully, and as casually as possible. Let the individual read them if desired.
  • Use a tape recorder. But always get permission from the employee first. Offer to give them a copy of the tape if they hesitate.

  • Ask background information, name, job, etc . . . This just helps to smoothly transition into the actual interview. Engage in small talk for a while and then you can get to business.
  • The key initial statement. Ask the witness to tell you about the hazards they are aware of. Don't ask them if they know of any hazards: they could easily just say "no."
  • Don't ask leading questions. They are not on trial.
  • Ask follow-up questions. This will help to clarify particular areas or get specifics.
  • Do not put the person on the defensive. To avoid being perceived as accusatory, don't ask why-you questions.
  • Try to avoid yes and no answer questions. Ask open-ended questions. One effective question is..."Tell me about the procedures for..."
  • Thank the employee. Conclude the interview with a statement of appreciation for their contribution.
  • Be available. Ask them to contact you if they think of anything else.
  • Provide feedback. If possible, advise the person the outcome of the interview.

4. Which type of question is most effective in getting information during an interview?

a. Leading question
b. Closed-ended (yes/no) question
c. Accusatory (why/you) question
d. Open-ended question

Workplace Inspections

Safety Memo - Quick Inspections (2:43)

Inspections are the best understood and most frequently used tool to assess the workplace for hazards. Much has been written about them, and many inspection checklists are available in various OSHA publications. The term "inspection" means a general walk-around examination of every part of the worksite to locate conditions that do not comply with safety standards. This includes routine industrial hygiene monitoring and sampling.

Inspection Frequency

The regular site inspection should be done at specified intervals. The employer should inspect as often as the type of operation or character of equipment requires. Think about the most hazardous operation or location in your company. How often are safety inspections conducted there?

OSHA expects all places of employment to be inspected by a qualified person or persons as often as the type of operation or the character of the equipment requires. Defective equipment or unsafe conditions found by these inspections should be replaced or repaired or remedied promptly.

The frequency of the safety inspection is really a judgment call for the employer, but at a minimum, medium and large fixed worksites should be inspected completely at least every quarter, with some part of the inspection occurring each month. The frequency of a safety inspection depends on the nature of the work and workplace. More frequent change and higher probability for serious injury or illness requires more frequent inspection. For construction sites, daily inspections are a must because of the rapidly changing nature of the site and its hazards.

At small fixed worksites, the entire site should be inspected at one time. And even for the smallest worksite, inspections should be done at least quarterly. If the small worksite uses hazardous materials or involves hazardous procedures or conditions that change frequently, inspections should be done more often.

Sound Safety Inspection Policy: All employees should inspect their area of responsibility at the beginning and end of each shift, and bridge the inspections with continual observation. If a hazardous condition is observed, eliminate it if you safely can, or report it immediately.

5. What criterion should be used to determine the frequency of a safety inspection?

a. OSHA requirements
b. The nature of the work and workplace
c. Best practices
d. Stated employer policy

What Should We Inspect?

Supervisors should be involved.

A consistently effective safety inspection will follow a procedure based on an inventory of hazards specific to the workplace. The inventory will include the hazard prevention actions and controls designed to reduce or eliminate worker exposure. Some important points to remember include:

  • Develop safety inspections to check for specific hazards to make sure that they are properly controlled using the Hierarchy of Controls.
  • Do not overlook areas outside of the production mainstream.
  • Your search for common hazards and OSHA standards violations should cover the entire worksite, including all office areas.

Who Should Inspect?

From your reading earlier, you already know that the safety committee may be responsible for conducting regular safety inspections. But that is where it ends, and that should not be. Supervisors and other employees should be conducting safety inspections on a regular basis.

  • Supervisors: Supervisor's should inspect his/her work area at the beginning of every shift to ensure equipment and personnel are ready to work safely. This policy is particularly important when other shifts use the same area and equipment or when after-hours maintenance and cleaning are routinely done. And, a good walkaround inspection always sends a message to employees that safety is important.
  • Employees: Involving employees in all aspects of the safety and health program, including hazard identification and control, is smart business. Get as many employees involved as you can.
  • Safety committee members: Safety committees may be assigned safety inspection responsibilities, but we do not recommend that the employer rely solely on safety committees to perform inspections.
  • Safety professionals and staff: Employees who specialize in safety and health can be an excellent source of help in providing the necessary education and training on hazard identification. In a small business, the specialist may be a Production/Quality Control manager or another member of management with many important duties in addition to safety and health.

6. A consistently effective safety inspection will follow a procedure based on _____.

a. OSHA requirements and guidelines
b. input from the safety committee
c. a quarterly schedule in each department
d. an inventory of hazards specific to the workplace

Training for Safety Inspectors

Everyone conducting safety inspections needs to be thoroughly trained on how to effectively conduct safety inspections and in the specific hazards in their workplaces. It doesn't do any good for employees, supervisors and safety committee members to be conducting safety inspections if they don't know what to look for.

Inspectors must be properly trained.
  • Supervisors: Supervisors should be properly educated about their safety inspection responsibilities. They should have training in identifying and controlling the hazards that workers under their supervision are likely to encounter. Formal course work may not be necessary, but the training should be provided by the safety manager or other competent person.

    When training supervisors, it's important to make sure they understand that it is their responsibility for safety in their departments. They "own" whatever happens in work areas for which they supervise. It's not the primary job of the safety manager or the safety committee to ensure safe work conditions and behaviors. Ultimately, safety is a line, not a staff, responsibility.

  • Employees: Employees should have training in the hazards that they may be exposed to during work. When they are responsible for workstation inspections, employees also should have specific training in how to inspect.

    On-the-job training with the supervisor can be an excellent strategy to ensure adequate instruction on conducting inspections and training on how to detect and correct hazards to which they are exposed.

  • Safety committee members: Safety committee members should understand the potential hazards to which they might be exposed and the ways they can protect themselves and their fellow workers. Those who are involved in inspections need training in recognizing and controlling all the potential hazards of the worksite. They will also need written guidance, tips for inspecting, and some on-the-job training by safety and health staff or other specialists.
  • Safety professionals and staff: Of course, safety professionals and staff should be the "resident experts" in safety inspection procedures, and should receive initial and ongoing advanced education.

7. Supervisor training must make sure they know that ultimately, safety _____.

a. is the safety manager's job
b. is a line, not a staff, responsibility
c. is a safety committee function
d. is a staff, not the supervisor's responsibility

Written Inspection Reports

Get it in writing.

In all but the smallest and least dangerous of workplaces, written inspection reports are necessary to record hazards discovered, responsibility assigned for correction, and tracking of correction to completion. Formal safety inspections should include a written report with recommendations for corrective action.

A written record will help ensure:

  • Assignment of responsibility for hazard correction.
  • Tracking of correction to completion.
  • Identification of problems in the controls system when the same types of hazards keep appearing even after correction is verified.
  • Identification of problems in the accountability system.
  • Identification of hazards for which no prevention or control has been planned.

Of course, having such written records will be most helpful if they are read by someone knowledgeable in the safety and health program. This person then can provide top managers with summaries of problems.

Beware of "Tunnel Vision"

If you use experts from within your company, be on guard for "tunnel vision," which can lead to a failure to spot hazards in areas not directly related to your firm's primary function. You want your maintenance shop, for example, to be just as safe as your production line. OSHA frequently finds unguarded saws and grinders, non-code electrical wiring, and other basic safety hazards in areas that are outside the main production process but regularly used by employees.

8. Which of the following should a written inspection report contain?

a. Those responsible for hazard correction
b. Employee records
c. Disciplinary actions
d. Employer responsibilities

Review Documents

Review the results.

Assessing the workplace would not be complete without thoroughly reviewing existing documents to determine what kinds of hazards have existed in the workplace prior to the assessment. Actually, document review may be considered both an assessment tool and an analysis tool. Not only are we able to determine the hazards that have caused accidents in the past, we can analyze to uncover trends in the types, locations, date/time, etc. for accidents.

You need to review these documents to assess workplace hazards:

  • OSHA 300 Log (of course)
  • OSHA Form 301, Injury and Illness Incident Report
  • Maintenance work orders
  • Accident reports
  • Safety committee minutes
  • Safety suggestions
  • Training evaluations

Last Words

All these activities to identify hazards in the workplace are so important to the overall effectiveness of your safety management system. Be sure you integrate these activities into the line positions...employees, supervisors and is a line responsibility!

9. What can be uncovered when we conduct an analysis of the documentation we have gathered from interviews, inspections, and observations?

a. The rate at which common sense is not being displayed
b. The departments having the most accidents
c. Trends in the types of accidents occurring
d. The employees who should be placed on a "watch list"

Check your Work

Read the material in each section to find the correct answer to each quiz question. After answering all the questions, click on the "Check Quiz Answers" button to grade your quiz and see your score. You will receive a message if you forgot to answer one of the questions. After clicking the button, the questions you missed will be listed below. You can correct any missed questions and check your answers again.

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