You don't need to work surrounded by combustible materials to face serious health and safety risks, but the recent mine explosion in West Virginia, which killed nearly 30 workers, has called regulatory attention to that extreme end of the workplace hazard spectrum. Whether it's a failure to protect your workers against carbon monoxide, the silent killer, or a sleep-deprived employee getting into a fatal car accident on the drive to work, every job comes with potential hazards.
Common workplace health and safety hazards include: communicable disease, transportation accidents, workplace violence, slipping and falling, toxic events, particularly chemical and gas exposure, getting struck by objects, electrocution or explosion, repetitive motion and ergonomic injuries, and hearing loss. Although some hazards are less likely to happen in some work spaces than others, it's important to assess which hazards are most damaging to your business and your employees. Some may disrupt your continuity more than others, some may pose more serious threats to employee welfare, and still others will result in the most time lost or be the most costly. What all these setbacks have in common is that thorough planning can forestall many of them.
The go-to resource for the legal requirements in your particular industry or state is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the arm of the federal government that enforces health and safety laws. "It's becoming a much more aggressive organization right now," says Jerry Laws, the editor of Occupational Health & Safety, a Dallas, Texas-based magazine. This crackdown is partly due to a string of recent, highly-publicized disasters including the West Virginia coal mine explosion, an oil rig south of Louisiana that blew up, and a fire at a Washington State oil refinery.
But ultimately, staying on OSHA's good side and protecting your employees isn't so challenging. "What they're asking employers to do, among other things, is look at your risk factors and see where your problems are," says Nellie Brown, the director of Workplace Health & Safety Programs at Cornell University's school of Industrial Labor Relations. While they aren't usually budget-breakers, many precautions against hazards obviously have a higher initial cost, but as the old saying goes, "It's better to be safe than sorry."
"Things that affect large portions of the [employee] population really affect small- and medium-sized businesses more than large businesses," says Al Berman, executive director of DRII, The Institute for Continuity Management, a New York City-based organization that certifies businesses in contingency planning.
The most prominent hazard in this category is communicable diseases such as colds and the flu, and the reason they can knock out such large portions of your workforce depends partly on our society's working culture. "We don't discourage people from coming to work when they're ill," Berman says, "there is almost an encouragement [to come in] because we limit the number of sick days" employees have.
Aside from giving employees more flexible sick leave, small businesses can also prepare for epidemics by testing whether employees have the infrastructure to work remotely if they are ambulatory but contagious. This can include ensuring that employees have access to VoIP and work e-mail accounts from home, though this won't work in fields such as manufacturing where employees need to be on site to accomplish their jobs.
Finally, Berman suggests that it's important to cross train employees "so that no one person becomes critical to your operation." These types of preparations can cost employers some additional effort and money but Berman echoes Brown when he advises that, "it behooves employers to look at the long term on these things rather than the short term."
There are two prominent types of general preparation employers can take against health and safety hazards in the workplace: job hazard analysis and risk mapping. These approaches share an element of stepping back and examining your procedures and facilities with new eyes unclouded by routine and alert to potential danger. "It's sort of the Sherlock Holmes idea: you've seen but you've not observed," Brown says.
She goes on to explain that job hazard analysis is "when you look at how a job is done and what sorts of equipment people are interacting with. These are not real mysteries, they tend to be things that you can look at very objectively and see where your protection and prevention needs to be."
Risk mapping is a similar process but it involves examining liabilities by examining your physical workplace and facilities rather than considering the habits and duties of your employees. Combining both of these tools can prevent many accidents at work. For example, if you have an area of your facility where liquids might spill, you would want to include handrails to prevent slips and falls if and when that occurs.
The biggest threat to your employees' lives is tied to your workplace environment, though the deaths do not occur at work but rather en route. Driving fatalities are "the biggest thing that gets people killed in this country and it's been so for a while," says Laws.
Often overwork, sleep deprivation, and cell phone usage are behind these deadly accidents. "Anything you can do to make people's work hours predictable and regular is really helpful," says Brown. "After that the most helpful thing you can do is take other steps to help your employees with their work-family balance. "One of the things that gets people really concerned is how they can manage childcare, how they can manage elder care, how they can get off time to just live some life besides work," Brown adds. Policies dictating safe cell phone use can also help reduce crashes.
Here are three more sources of potentially fatal accidents your employees could get into and how to prevent them.
- Workplace Violence -- Non-employees perpetrate most instances of fatal workplace. The disgruntled gun-toting recent fire resides more in the newspaper headlines than in the category of statistically significant concerns. "If you look at the data on workplace violence easily three quarters or more are robbery," says Brown. Consequently, she advises examining where employees are exchanging or guarding money, interacting with the public, or working alone or in small groups in the late or early hours of the day. You can also make sure the area around your workplace is well-lit, install security cameras, or consider scaling back your business hours if late or early operation comes to necessitate hefty security and insurance costs.
- Falls -- The falls that result in fatalities tend to be in industries such as construction or landscaping. This is a case where training your employees in safety procedures and periodically evaluating their understanding and execution of those procedures is the most useful course of action. Additionally providing equipment precautions such as guardrails and rope and pulley supports when possible is also a good idea.
- Toxic Events -- Gas and chemical leaks are the most common problems though asbestos continues to plague businesses moving into older facilities. "You're going to see probably a big push on carbon monoxide detectors" in the near future, Berman says. It is now mandated that natural gas have some sort of odor but preventing ventilation problems and carbon monoxide leaks is the next frontier for OSHA.
Getting struck by objects or electrocuted are two other common and preventable ways employees die.
When it comes to non-fatal workplace injuries, the clear leaders are incidents of ergonomic problems and overexertion. They affect people in manufacturing, service, and office settings and regulatory bodies are increasingly cracking down on employers who ignore their employees' ergonomic needs. Furthermore, because these injuries can give rise to chronic conditions, they result in one of the higher rates of lost work time.
Brown advises that employees at computer workstations sit at a height that allows their legs to reach the ground, they should have a wrist rest, and not need to crane their neck, eyes, or back in the extreme. She adds that it's important to have lumbar support and if your office chairs don't have this built in, you or your employees can purchase cushions that will provide that extra lower back support.
Ergonomic injuries don't only take place when there is older office equipment with fewer adjustable parts. They can also happen simply from sitting at your desk for too long.
In addition to the wear and tear of the workplace itself on employees' bodies, lifting heavy objects such as boxes of files can result in accidents. Good lifting technique is often ignored when there is insufficient space or time to get a job done properly, but Brown says a good general rule is rather than "lifting, lowering, or carrying, you want to push, pull, or slide."
In a manufacturing setting, hearing loss is a common problem that can creep up on you and your employees but that is easily preventable. In a manufacturing setting, hearing loss is a common problem that can creep up on you and your employees but that is easily preventable. Simply provide headphones or earplugs that cancel out high decibel levels, depending on what volume of noise the equipment in your office environment produce. But providing the equipment is not enough, you need to enforce the policy and make sure your employees are using all the protective gear.
However, whether an injury is fatal or more glancing, one of the biggest mistakes employers make is improper documentation. Laws says, "the most cited OSHA standard seems to be failing to log your injuries correctly or not logging them at all. It's not something you're required to hand over to OSHA unless they knock on your door," but if they do, you'd better have it.
A businesses human resources department can do a lot to reduce workplace accidents simply by educating employees. Making sure your employees are "current on what the local and seasonal threats are and passing out information doesn't cost a lot, it could be a monthly e-mail, says Berman.
But you need to go beyond informing employees. Laws explains that, "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." Following up with employees to make sure the training sank in and is being incorporated into their daily responsibilities is also crucial.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides free evaluations of whether your workplace may contain health hazards.
OSHA provides lists of the most common workplace health and safety violations by industry. Look your industry up here.
Berman also advises that business owners reach out to industry experts or associations in their field, but most of all to their local board of health. He says, "a small- or medium-sized business should actually go to their local board of health or commissioner of health and have these discussions periodically as to what they should be looking for."