It’s helpful to think of workplace hazards as existing in five general hazard categories and 13 more specific types. We’ll 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.
Five General Hazard Areas
All workplace hazards exist in five general categories. You can remember them by using the mnemonic, “MEEPS”. Here are some examples:
- Materials – liquids, solids, gases, etc.
- Equipment – includes machinery, tools, devices
- Environment – noise, radiation (non-ionizing and ionizing), humidity, temperature, atmospheres, workstation design
- People – unsafe behaviors, employee fatigue, stress, hurry, drugs, etc.
- System – flawed policies, programs, plans, processes, procedures, and practices
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.
- Hazardous equipment should be properly guarded so that it’s virtually impossible for a worker to be placed in a danger zone around moving parts that could cause injury or death. A preventive maintenance program should be in place to make sure equipment operates properly. A corrective maintenance program is needed to make sure equipment that is broken and/or causing a safety hazard, is fixed immediately.
- Tools need to be in good working order, properly repaired, and used for their intended purpose only. 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.
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:
- both wires of an electric circuit,
- one wire of an energized circuit and the ground, or
- a metallic part that has become “hot” by being in contact with an energized wire or conductor, while the person is also in contact with the ground.
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:
- under the influence of legal/illegal drugs;
- poorly trained or educated;
- worried about a family illness; or
- mentally or physically incapable of doing the job safely
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 the following situations may cause employees to be what I call “walking hazards.”
- Fatigue: Employees are too tired to do the work without causing injury to themselves or others.
- Drugs or alcohol: Drugs (either legal or illegal) and alcohol place employees in altered states of awareness and lengthens reaction time.
- Distraction: Employees who are distracted (internal thoughts are not focused on the work being performed). You can’t be thinking about the football game while working on high voltage!
- Hurry: This should be obvious. This is probably the greatest reason employees perform unsafe actions. The more hurried employees are, for whatever reason, the more likely they are going to have accidents.
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 unsafe 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”.