Identifying Health Hazards

A health hazard is any agent, situation, or condition that can cause an occupational illness. There are five types:

  • • Chemical hazards, such as battery acid and solvents.
  • • Biological hazards, such as bacteria, viruses, dusts, and molds. Biological hazards are often called biohazards.
  • • Physical agents (energy sources) strong enough to harm the body, such as electric currents, heat, cold, light, vibration, noise, and radiation.
  • • Work design (ergonomic) hazards.
  • • Workplace stress.

Health-related hazards must be identified (recognized), evaluated, and controlled to prevent occupational illnesses that come from exposure to them. Health-related hazards come in a variety of forms, such as chemical, physical, ergonomic, or biological:

  • 1. Chemical hazards arise from excessive airborne concentrations of mists, vapors, gases, or solids that are in the form of dusts or fumes. In addition to the hazard of inhalation, many of these materials may act as skin irritants or may be toxic by absorption through the skin. Chemicals can also be ingested, although this is not usually the principal route of entry into the body.
  • 2. Physical hazards include excessive levels of nonionizing and ionizing radiations, noise, vibration, and extremes of temperature and pressure.
  • 3. Ergonomic hazards include improperly designed tools or work areas. Improper lifting or reaching, poor visual conditions, or repeated motions in an awkward position can result in accidents or illnesses in the occupational environment. Designing the tools and the job to be done to fit the worker should be of prime importance. Intelligent application of engineering and biomechanical principles is required to eliminate hazards of this kind.
  • 4. Biological hazards include insects, molds, fungi, viruses, vermin (birds, rats, mice, etc.), and bacterial contaminants (sanitation and housekeeping items such as potable water, removal of industrial waste and sewage, food handling, and personal cleanliness can contribute to the effects from biological hazards). Biological and chemical hazards can overlap.
  • 5. Workplace stress is anything that impacts the health of workers and is part of the overall work environment, and it is considered by most professionals to be ergonomically related and to put the worker at risk of accidents and stress-related health problems. This type of stress may be from job expectations, extremes of pressure from supervisors and peer pressure, bullying and harassment, as well as shift work or excess overtime; these can seriously harm the health and well-being of workers. Stress can also interfere with efficiency and productivity.

Shift workers have irregular patterns of eating, sleeping, working, and socializing that may lead to health and social problems. Shift work can also reduce performance and attentiveness. In turn, this may increase the risk of accidents and injuries. Statistics suggest that certain shift workers (such as employees in convenience stores and other workplaces that are open 24 hours a day) are more likely to encounter violent situations when working alone.

A health hazard may produce serious and immediate (acute) effects and symptoms. It may cause long-term (chronic) problems or may have a long period between exposure and the occurrence of the disease or illness (latency period). All or part of the body may be affected. Someone with an occupational illness may not recognize the symptoms immediately. For example, noise-induced hearing loss is often difficult for victims to detect until it is advanced. This is why it is important to identify potential health hazards in the workplace.

Finding health hazards is an investigative process entailing a systematic approach that requires that many facets and information need to be reviewed, such as the following:

  • • Prepare a list of known health hazards in the workplace based upon records and events.
  • • Review the total facility, floor plans, and work process diagrams to identify health hazard sources and locations.
  • • Interview workers, supervisors, and managers to identify known and suspected health hazards not already on the list.
  • • Make use of the five senses, and use an industrial hygienist if validation of your observations are needed. The industrial hygienist can perform accurate sampling as well as give expert advice.
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