Every workplace has hazards and employers have a legal responsibility to help protect employees while they’re at work. A workplace hazard is any aspect of work that causes safety risks and has the potential for harm. The first step in creating a safe workplace is knowing what hazards may be present and then identifying potential hazards.
Common Workplace Hazards
For those responsible for managing the health and safety of their workplace, it’s important to know the difference between a “risk” and a “hazard.” When talking about workplace safety, a hazard is anything that can cause harm, damage, or adverse health effects to people in the workplace. A risk is the likelihood of a person being injured or receiving an adverse health effect due to a hazard. The main categories of hazards are:
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- Biological. Biological hazards that can cause adverse health effects to include viruses, bacteria, animals, bodily fluids, mold, harmful plants, and sewage. For example, those working in healthcare can be susceptible to blood-borne diseases when they come in contact with infected blood or bodily fluids.
- Chemical. Chemical hazards are hazardous substances that can cause harm to workers who come in contact with them. Some of the chemicals that can cause harm include cleaning chemicals, welding fumes, nail polish removers, hair dye, and henna products. Workers who come in contact with these chemicals can experience physical damage, such as skin irritation, respiratory irritation, blindness, allergic reactions, dizziness, and cancer.
- Physical. Physical hazards are environmental hazards that can harm workers without necessarily touching them, including heights, noise, extreme temperatures, confined spaces, fire, radiation, and pressure. People who work outside during extreme cold months or high-heat months can experience serious health impacts that include hypothermia, dehydration, and heat exhaustion.
- Safety. These are hazards that create unsafe working conditions that can result in harm to a worker, such as unguarded machinery, exposed wires, frayed cords, faulty wiring, spills, or loose carpets. Employees who work around these kinds of hazards can experience harm, such as slips, falls, loss of limbs, electrocution, and even death.
- Ergonomic. Ergonomic hazards result from the physical factors described above that can cause musculoskeletal injuries. Some of these hazards include manual handling, poorly designed workstations, and vibration, which can cause damage to muscles, tendons, bones, joints, ligaments, nerves, and blood vessels.
- Psychosocial hazards. Psychosocial hazards are those that can affect a worker’s mental health or well-being. Some of these hazards include sexual harassment, bullying, and workplace violence.
Conducting a Workplace Risk Assessment
To keep employees safe, it’s important for employers to conduct a workplace safety assessment. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommends that employers follow these five steps when carrying out a workplace risk assessment:
- Identify the hazards. Employers have a duty to assess the health and safety risks their employees face while at work. Anything that can cause harm needs to be assessed and addressed. Hazards that need to be checked are the ones detailed above: Biological, chemical, physical, safety, ergonomic, and psychosocial.
- Decide who may be harmed, and how. In addition to their own workers, employers need to assess the risks faced by customers, visitors, clients, and anyone who may visit their place of work. Employers need to review all work routines and all the different locations in which they take place.
- Assess the risks and take action. How likely is it that a hazard will cause harm? If it’s likely, the employer needs to take steps to reduce the level of that risk. It’s important to classify all hazards and determine if the risk is low, medium, or high.
- Record the findings. Employers need to record in writing all of the hazards found, the level of that risk, and what steps were taken to reduce or eliminate the risk.
- Review the risk assessment. This helps to ensure that safe working practices are being applied. Any new working practices, procedures, and new machinery need to be taken into account during the review.
Preventing Health and Safety Hazards in the Workplace
The best way to protect employees from safety hazards in the workplace is to identify them and take steps to prevent their potential for harm. To effectively control and prevent hazards, employers need to:
- Involve workers, who often have the best understanding of the conditions that cause hazards. They can also offer insights into how they can be controlled.
- Identify and evaluate the hazard by performing a workplace risk assessment.
- Determine how employees might be at risk.
- Evaluate the risks.
- Record and review hazards at least annually, or earlier if something changes in the workplace.
- Develop plans to protect workers during emergencies and nonroutine activities.
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