The topic of workplace safety has garnered much public attention recently, due to a set of unfortunate disasters in the Gold King Mine in Colorado and the Sundar Industrial Estate factory in Pakistan. But as these individual catastrophes fade from the news cycle, the awareness of workplace hazards shouldn’t disappear from your business.
Whether you work at a desk or in a mine, all work involves risk. Though hazard levels vary job to job, it doesn’t negate the fact that whatever position you hold can affect your safety. And repeated exposure to unsafe situations increases the odds of injury in the workplace. Therefore, it’s necessary your business take precautionary measures to mitigate potential injury.
Health and safety perils come in a variety of forms — and not all are obvious. Common hazards include slipping and falling, communicable diseases, transportation accidents, toxic exposure, workplace violence, ergonomic injuries and hearing loss. Some potential risks can cause direct and serious injury, while others slowly wear away at your health until they become chronic.
Any injury can disrupt the flow of your business and damage your employees’ welfare, so it’s vital you assess your risk factors and implement policies to avoid them. To help, we’ve put together some recommendations to help you be prudent and avoid such safety risks.
The best thing you can do is be prepared. Your business can avoid potential work injuries through preventative activities, such as job hazard analysis and risk mapping.
Job Hazard Analysis allows you to analyze how a particular job is done. Through this analysis, you can specifically observe the different equipment and situations people interact with daily. Usually hazards are fairly obvious and only require a bit of honest assessment to devise a plan for handling them.
Risk Mapping is similar to job hazard analysis, except it includes considering the physical environment rather than the interactions your employees have within the space. It can offer a comprehensive look at how a complex workspace can become a liability if not properly safeguarded against. This means each piece of equipment should be inspected for any potential safety hazards. These maps are particularly good for recognizing if risks are an isolated cause or if they will spur chains effects.
Slipping and Falling
One of the most common workplace-related injuries is slipping and falling. In the service and manufacturing industries specifically, more than half of non-fatal injuries come from slipping and falling. It’s something to be aware of not only as an issue for employees, but also a danger for members of the general public who may be passing by.
The only thing that can be done to protect against this danger is prevention. Safe racks, gates and railings come in handy. If there’s something nearby to grab onto, workers can catch their balance and save themselves from falls. Also consider removing obstacles from the ground completely (e.g., cords and cables) and placing rubber mats on slippery surfaces that can accumulate liquid.
Preventative precautions will protect both your employees and passers-by — especially important as your liability insurance rarely covers injuries sustained by the public in your workplace. This can cause some sticky situations, so it’s best to do everything in your power to limit the potential for any of these situations.
Taking time off work is not always encouraged in the workplace. In fact, it’s often discouraged, deterring employees from staying home when sick. Moreover, sick-day policies are often limited, causing employees to feel restricted and guilty if they do take those days.
Offering a more accommodating sick-day policy can go a long way in curtailing the spread of disease within the company. Keeping sick employees at home will minimize the number of contagions that they pass on, which can mean the difference between one person out for a week or eight people for a few weeks.
To make sick days more accessible, consider empowering employees to work from home if needed. Implementing an infrastructure to work remotely may incur upfront costs; however, the long-term benefits will outweigh the initial investment once seasonal colds no longer cut your workforce.
When working remotely isn’t an option — like for many in the manufacturing and service industries — it’s critical that you cross-train employees. This ensures they can cover for each other one someone is out sick. Though it’s tempting to just train individuals to be the field experts, it behooves employers to also train back-ups to those experts. It’s beneficial not only in the case of sickness, but also in the long run if and when an expert leaves the company. In either instance, the role will need to be fulfilled, and it’ll be much easier if you already have employees familiar with the exiting person’s job.
Accidents in Transit
Everyone has to get to and from work, making it another common area where accidents occur. Considering no one lives on site (though it may feel like it sometimes!), it’s this precise tendency to overwork employees that contributes to the high rate of traffic-related injuries and fatalities.
Overwork, sleep-deprivation and cell phone usage are all factors behind accidents en route to and from work. Regulating hours and encouraging employees to be aware of work-life balance can help alleviate these dangers.
“One of the things that gets people really concerned is how they can manage childcare, how they can manage elder care and how they can get off time to just live life outside of work,” says Nellie Brown, director of Workplace Health & Safety Programs at Cornell University’s school of Industrial Labor Relations.
If you can alleviate these stresses, you can help all of your employees be safer on their commutes.
Accidents involving toxic chemicals can be tricky to anticipate and control. There can be many chemicals on the job at any given time — including solids, liquids, gases, mists, and fumes — and each substance can enter the body via a different channel.
Although many chemicals are present around the workplace, the majority of toxic chemical issues arise from gas and chemical leaks. Gas leaks in particular occur often in older buildings and are difficult to manage, especially since some (like carbon monoxide) are odorless, therefore hard to detect. The safest way to deal with a gas leak is to exit the area immediately, as these chemicals can quickly cause lasting damage to the body.
A plan should also be in place for when spills occur. Generally, this plan should involve cleaning the spill and the people involved as quickly as possible. Having some simple eyewash stations and safety showers are important if your company regularly deals with harsh chemicals with the potential to seriously harm on contact. But the best way to handle a spill is to avoid it altogether by having a system set up for spill containment.
If you read the news, you know crime in the workplace isn’t uncommon, and it needs to be addressed. Non-employees disgruntled at a business or eager for some quick cash are responsible for the majority of these incidents. Statistics show that most acts of violence are attributed to robbery — so if your business involves employees interacting with the public, take a close look behind the scenes. How are they interacting? Where do they handle the money? Do they work a graveyard shift? Are they often alone in the workplace?
All of these situations can lead to an increased likelihood of violence — and an increased awareness can help. Consider installing security cameras and extra lights to prevent incidents. Perhaps even reduce the number of hours that people work at night. This will not only lessen the chances of a robbery, but also shrink your security and insurance costs.
Although any workplace can be noisy, hearing loss occurs more often in factories, plants and other industrial environments. Risk of ear damage is higher here because the buildings are filled with large, loud machinery that runs constantly and never gives workers’ ears a break. Being subjected to continuous loud noise over long periods can gradually damage hearing, which is not only bad for communication skills, but can also affect tactile senses due to vibrational irregularities it causes in the inner ear.
Correct preventative gear, like headphones and earplugs, are critical in these environments. If possible, the noisiest machines should be moved away from where employees actively work. Less overall exposure means less irreversible hearing loss in the long run.
Of the non-fatal injuries that occur at work, the leaders are overexertion and ergonomic issues. These types of injuries can occur across all industries, from office settings to oil rigs, and since they’re so common, regulations are slowly being implemented to better support workers.
Increasingly, employers who ignore their employees’ ergonomic needs are having to answer to higher authorities. It’s an ever-important topic as these types of afflictions often lead to chronic conditions, which then result in loss of productivity and longer absences from employees.
Ergonomic impairments are not limited to those who work with older, unforgiving equipment. Simply sitting at your desk for extended periods can give rise to injuries. For instance, not being able to touch the ground with your feet or having your arms at an awkward angle on the keyboard can damage your body over time. Craning your neck and back toward a screen or straining your eyes to see more clearly are also common actions that can strain your body. Therefore, it’s important to provide employees with wrist rests, adjustable desks and lumbar support to help avoid these issues.
In addition to the damage caused by lack of motion at a desk, lifting heavy boxes and objects can also cause problems. Often, when pressed for time and enough space, people will contort their bodies to perform lifting feats that they shouldn’t. Improper lifting techniques can cause discomfort in the moment as well as lasting afflictions. Regularly remind your employees that it’s better to use aids to lift objects or to push, pull and slide them if they’re concerned about supporting weight.
Education and Prevention
To help prevent accidents in the workplace, employees should be educated on the present risks. Of course there are already government-mandated regulations in every workplace, but that doesn’t mean you can forgo regularly informing employees about the procedures and risks specific to your workplace. Adequate training is the most important measure you can take against mishaps in the workplace, especially if your business employs heavy equipment and machinery.
Education goes beyond informing your employees.
“A lot of the standards that are in place do require training of one sort or another, or some sort of documentation that the person was trained,” says Jerry Laws, editor of Occupational Health & Safety, a Dallas, Texas-based magazine. To ensure your training sticks, review the crucial points with employees at a later date and regularly over time. If they’re not incorporating safety and awareness into their daily tasks, then you need to refresh them on the necessity of risk prevention in the workplace.
No one can predict an accident. Therefore, it’s paramount to ensure your workforce is well trained on accident prevention. The simplest of procedures can make a world of difference in the health and well-being of your employees.
To start improving the safety of your work environment or to simply see if the precautions you have in place are satisfactory, check out the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Health & Safety Administration’s list of common hazards.
If you’d like more personal advice, ask industry experts or contact your local health board. Also, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) — a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — provides free evaluations of whether your workplace contains health hazards.
Having documentation is one of the best precautions against an accident becoming a serious issue for your business. That means, whether an injury is minor or fatal, do not overlook the required paperwork. In the event of a reported accident, OSHA will contact your business for proof that you took the proper preventative measures. Even if it’s not asked for immediately, not having a correct log of the incident can cause all the precautions you took to become a moot point. Always remember, it’s better to be safe than sorry.