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

Identifying Hazards

WorkSafeBC - Supervisor Duties


Since 1970, workplace fatalities have been reduced by half. Occupational injury and illness rates have been declining for the past six years, dropping in 1998 to the lowest level on record. But there is much more to do. Nearly 50 American workers are injured every minute of the 40-hour work week and almost 17 die each day. Federal and state OSHA programs have only about 2,500 inspectors to cover 100 million workers at six million worksites. Workers must play an active role in spotting workplace hazards and asking their employers to correct them.

In this module, we'll take a look at the five areas within which all workplace hazards exist. Additionally, we'll discuss the inspection and job hazard analysis processes that are two important proactive hazard identification processes. Finally, we'll examine the incident and accident investigation process and how it can effectively identify and help to eliminate hazards.

The Five Workplace Hazard Categories


To help identify workplace hazards, it's useful to categorize them into easy-to-remember categories. The first three categories represent hazardous conditions. According to SAIF Corporation, a major workers compensation insurer in Oregon, conditions directly account for only 3% of all workplace accidents. The fourth category describes employee behaviors in the workplace that may contribute or cause as much as 95% of all workplace accidents. All five categories represent the surface symptoms of underlying root causes or safety management system weaknesses. Take a look at the accident weed to get a better idea about the relationship between surface symptoms and root causes for accidents.

To remember the five hazard areas, don't forget the acronym, MEEPS:

Materials, Equipment, Environment, People and System.

Let's review these five categories:

Materials: liquids, solids and gases that can be hazardous to employees.

  • Liquid and solid chemicals (such as acids, bases, solvents, explosives, etc.) can produce harmful effects.
  • Raw materials (solids like metal, wood, and plastic) used to manufacture products are usually bought in large quantities and can cause injuries or fatalities in many ways.
  • Gases, like hydrogen sulfide and methane, may be extremely hazardous if leaked into the atmosphere.

Equipment: machinery and tools used to produce or process goods.

  • Hazardous equipment that is improperly guarded and places workers in a danger zone around moving parts could cause injury or death.
  • Lack-of a preventive maintenance program will make it difficult to ensure equipment operates properly.
  • If there is no corrective maintenance program, then equipment that is broken or causing a safety hazard may not be fixed immediately and cause workers harm.
  • Tools that are not in good working order, improperly repaired, or not used for their intended purpose only is an accident waiting to happen. Any maintenance person will tell you that an accident can easily occur if tools are not used correctly. Tools that are used while broken are also very dangerous.

Environment: general area that employees are working in.

  • Poor facility design, hazardous atmospheres, temperature and/or noise can cause stress.
  • If areas in your workplace are too hot, cold, dusty, dirty, messy or wet, then measures should be taken to minimize the adverse conditions.
  • Extreme noise that can damage hearing should not be present.
  • Workstations may be designed improperly (short people working at workstations designed for tall people), contributing to an unsafe environment.

People: employees, management and others in the workplace.

  • Unsafe employee behaviors include taking short cuts or not using personal protective equipment.
  • Employees who are working while fatigued, under of influences of drugs or alcohol, distracted for any reason, or in a hurry cause “walking and working hazards.”

System: the processes and rules put into place to manage safety, also known as the safety management system.

  • Management may unintentionally promote unsafe behaviors.
  • Ineffective policies, procedures, rules (written and unwritten), practices and plans (also known as "Administrative Controls") that ignore safe behaviors or direct unsafe work practices ultimately represent the causes for about 98% of all workplace accidents.

Supervisor Role

As a supervisor, you have some tools that will help you identify and correct hazards in the five MEEP areas discussed in the previous tab.

The Walkaround Safety Inspection


One important activity to ensure a safe work area is to conduct an effective walkaround safety inspection. If your organization relies solely on the safety committee to identify workplace hazards, it's possible the process may be ineffective. The job of maintaining a safe and healthful work area is a primary OSHA-mandated employer responsibility, so, to be most effective, it makes sense that the safety inspection responsibility be delegated to the supervisor. Who is better positioned to effectively identify and correct workplace hazards? Remember, as an agent of the employer, the basic responsibility to inspect the work area may rest with the supervisor.

As you conduct the inspection, you should be looking at the hazards associated with the five MEEPS categories discussed earlier (materials, equipment, environment, people, and systems). In some instances, using an inspection checklist may be a good idea to make sure a systematic procedure is used. The only downside that can surface from using a checklist regards the "tunnel vision" syndrome: hazards not addressed on the checklist may be overlooked.

Check out this short audio clip by Dan Clark of the Dan has compiled the 10 most common signage and labeling questions asked about keeping workers safe and avoiding fines. These questions are from a wide range of industries.

The Person Conducting the Inspections


Most companies conduct safety inspections in compliance with OSHA rule requirements. But, is that good enough? Safety inspections may be effective, but only if those conducting the inspection are properly educated and trained in hazard identification and control concepts and principles specific to the company. It takes more to keep the workplace safe from hazards in industries that see change on a daily basis.

Employees should inspect the materials, equipment, and tools they use, and their immediate workstation for hazardous conditions at the start of each workday. They should inspect equipment such as forklifts, trucks, and other vehicles before using them at the start of each shift. It's better to inspect closely and often and give the process enough time. One of the major weaknesses in the inspection process is that we just don't spend enough time in particular areas to detect all hazards. Again, we do the "rolling eyeball" as we walk through an area.

Effective Safety Inspection Checklists


Step One: Determine the work area to be inspected, and the type of work being accomplished.

Step Two: Talk with the safety director, workers' compensation insurer, or OSHA consultant to determine what safety rules apply to the work area. Obtain copies of the rules.

Step Three: Select the rules that you feel directly apply to your work area. Many rules may not have significant impact on the work area you are responsible for.

Step Four: Change each selected rule into a checklist question. Be sure to state the question as concisely as possible.

Step Five: Ask employees who work in the area for recommended checklist questions.

The result of following these procedures is to build a checklist that closely mirrors those hazards that OSHA will be inspecting. It might be a good idea to use an expert resource, such as those listed in Step Two, to evaluate the checklist you have developed.

Make everyone an inspector

As a supervisor, you probably don't want to be the only person inspecting for safety in your work area. You can, of course, delegate that responsibility to your workers. But how do you get them to willingly inspect for safety every day? Simple, (that's right, it doesn't have to be difficult) you set the example yourself by inspecting regularly, you insist that they inspect, and you recognize (thank) your workers for inspecting and reporting hazards.

The Job Hazard Analysis (JHA)

Sisk & Co. - Job Safety Analysis.

Another effective activity to ensure a safe and healthful workplace is the Job Hazard Analysis (JHA). This process is also called a Job Safety Analysis (JSA) In the JHA process, you and your employee together analyze each step of a particular task and come up with ways to make it safer. The JHA goes far beyond the walkaround inspection in its ability to eliminate or reduce most causes for accidents in the workplace.

Why the JHA?

The Problem: Unfortunately, the walkaround inspection is usually just an assessment. It merely attempts to determine if a hazard is present or not. It's conducted by one or two persons who walk around looking high and low to uncover hazardous conditions (I call this the "rolling eyeball syndrome"). If properly trained, they may effectively uncover hazards. If properly trained they may know how to effectively question employees during the inspection (they ask questions other than "any safety complaints?"). I think the most serious weakness inherent in the safety inspection process is that very little time is devoted to analyzing any one particular work area.

The fix: The Job Hazard Analysis is not plagued with all these problems. It goes beyond mere assessment by truly analyzing the conditions and practices related to one specific task. When completing the JHA, you must:

  1. Break the job task down into specific steps.
  2. Analyze each step to uncover hazardous conditions and unsafe work practices.
  3. Develop strategies to correct hazardous conditions and unsafe work practices.
  4. Develop safe work practices for each step when hazards and practices can't be eliminated.
  5. Develop safe and efficient work procedures for the entire job.

Take a look at a simple JHA worksheet that you can adapt for your workplace.

The chief advantage is that adequate time is given to analysis of both hazardous conditions and unsafe work practices. Consequently, it may be possible to eliminate or reduce all of the causes for a potential accident. This advantage makes the JHA far more useful and beneficial in preventing accidents in the workplace. Although the occupational safety and health rules do not specifically require JHAs be accomplished on all hazardous tasks, we strongly recommend a formal JHA program conducted jointly by supervisors and employees. It makes good business sense.

Action Form - Step by Step SAIF Corp.

Investigating Incidents and Accidents

Both the safety inspection and the JHA can be quite effective proactive safety processes to identify hazardous conditions and unsafe behaviors in the workplace. Although incident/accident investigations are "reactive" processes because they occur after the fact (the near-miss or injury) they may still be quite effective by identifying hazards and preventing future injuries. Check out the video to the right to learn more about the "Action Steps" in the incident/accident investigation process.

Make sure employees report near-misses. It's a proven fact that investigating near-miss incidents is effective for a number of reasons.

Investigating incidents is always less expensive than investigating accidents. They have to be, because an injury or illness has not occurred. Even a minor incident is important to investigate because, what might be today's cut finger, could be tomorrow's amputated finger. It's that simple.

Accident investigation - Safety triage Accident investigations that occur after someone is injured remain very important to your company's safety and health management system if the primary purpose is to uncover root causes. If accident investigations occur only to place blame, they are basically a waste of time and will harm the safety management system in the long term.

The Incident/Accident Investigation Process

Accident investigation is a seven-step process with the ultimate for conducting accident investigations.

  1. Secure the scene - to make sure evidence is not moved or disappears.
  2. Document the scene - to gather data about the scene.
  3. Conduct interviews - to determine events that led up to and included the accident event.
  4. Develop the sequence of events - to determine exactly what happened in the proper sequence.
  5. Conduct cause analysis - to determine surface and root causes associated with each event.
  6. Determine the solutions - to develop immediate corrective actions and long-term system fixes.
  7. Write the report - that emphasizes events, causes, solutions, costs, and benefits.
The Accident Weed
Click to Enlarge

Get To The Root Causes

When conducting an incident/accident investigation, it critical to uncover the underlying root causes for the event. An incident or accident may be the result of many factors that have interacted in some dynamic way. When conducting an incident/accident investigation, be sure to include each of the following levels of analysis to make sure you uncover the root causes:

Injury analysis - How did the injury occur? At this level of analysis, we focus on trying to determine the direct cause of the injury that may or did occur. Examples of the direct causes of injury include:

  • Strain due to lifting heavy objects
  • Concussion from impact forces due to a fall
  • Tissue damage from contact with by a toxic chemical
  • Burns from exposure to flammable materials

Surface Cause Analysis - Why did the accident occur? Here you determine the unique hazardous conditions and unsafe behaviors that interact to produce the accident. Each of the hazardous conditions and unsafe behaviors uncovered are the surface causes for the accident. They give clues that point to possible root causes/system weaknesses. Examples of surface causes include:

  • A broken ladder
  • A worker removes a machine guard
  • A supervisor fails to conduct a safety inspection
  • A defective tool

Root cause analysis - Why did the surface causes occur? At this level, you're analyzing the weaknesses in the safety management system that contributed to the accident such as missing or inadequate safety policies, programs, plans, processes, or procedures. This level of investigation is also called "common cause" analysis (in quality terms) because you're identifying a system component that may contribute to common conditions and behaviors that exist or occur throughout the company. Examples of root causes include:

  • Lack of a safety training program
  • Inadequate or missing safety procedures
  • Lack of enforcement of safety violations
  • Failure to conduct safety inspections
Copyright:hroephoto / 123RF Stock Photo


Trent, a new employee in the maintenance department, was told to remove a jammed conveyor belt. At the conveyor belt, he discovered that a wad of plastic had become tangled in a belt. As soon as he removed the plastic, the conveyor started up. Unfortunately, Trent's hand got caught in an incoming nip point and was severely injured.

It might be relatively easy to determine what the surface causes for the accident in this scenario are, but what might be the most likely root causes? Root causes are the missing or inadequate programs, policies, plans, processes or procedures that produced the hazardous conditions and unsafe behaviors described in the scenario above.

Risk Assessment


Before beginning this quiz, we highly recommend you review the module material. This quiz is designed to allow you to self-check your comprehension of the module content, but only focuses on key concepts and ideas.

Read each question carefully. Select the best answer, even if more than one answer seems possible. When done, click on the "Get Quiz Answers" button. If you do not answer all the questions, you will receive an error message.

Good luck!

1. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, how many fatalities occur in the workplace each day?

2. List the five general hazard categories.

3. The inspection program is more likely to be effective if _____.

4. The most serious weakness inherent in the inspection process may be _____.

5. The accident investigation may be considered reactive _____.

Have a great day!

Important! You will receive an "error" message unless all questions are answered.