Workplace health hazards: Problems and Remedies

Most workplace health hazards aren’t obvious ones like unguarded equipment or slippery floors. Many are unseen hazards (like mold) that the company inadvertently produces as part of its production processes. Other problems, like drug abuse, the employees may create for themselves. In either case, these health hazards are often as much or more dangerous to workers’ health and safety than are obvious hazards like slippery floors. The manager must therefore address them. Typical workplace exposure hazards may include:

1. Chemicals and other hazardous materials.
2. Excessive noise and vibrations.
3. Temperature extremes.
4. Biohazards including those that are normally occurring (such as mold) and manmade (such as anthrax).
5. Ergonomics hazards such as poorly designed equipment that forces workers to do their jobs while contorted in unnatural positions.
6. And, the more familiar safety-related hazards such as slippery floors and blocked passageways.

Hazardous substances like these require air sampling and other preventive and precautionary measures. They are also more widespread than most managers realize. For example, cadmium pigments provide color to many paints and coatings, and ethyl alcohol is often used as a solvent in Industrial processes. Altogether, OSHA standards list permissible limits for about 600 chemicals.

The basic Industrial Hygiene Program:

Recognizing and development precautions for hazards like these has become especially important since the 9/11 incidents and the anthrax mail scares of 2001-2002. Managing exposure hazards like these comes under the category of industrial hygiene, and involves a process of recognition, evaluation and control. First, the facility’s health and safety officers possibly working with teams of supervisors and employees must recognize possible exposure hazards. Doing so typically involves conducting plant / facility walk-around surveys, employee interviews, records reviews, and reviews of government and non-governmental standards regarding various occupational exposure hazards.

Having identified a possible hazard, the evaluation phase involves determining how severe the hazard is. This usually requires measuring the exposure, comparing the measures exposure to some benchmark and determining whether the risk is within tolerances.

Finally, the hazard control phase involves taking steps to eliminate or reduce the hazard so that it no longer as dangerous. In this regard, familiar personal protective equipment such as face masks or shoe guards are generally the last recommended option for dealing with such problems, not the first. Before relying on these, the employer must install engineering controls such as process enclosures or ventilation, and administrative controls including and improved housekeeping; this is mandatory under OSHA.

Asbestos exposure at work:

There are four major sources of occupational respiratory diseases: asbestos, silica, lead, and carbon dioxide. Of these asbestos in buildings such as schools constructed before the mid-1970s. Major efforts are still under way to rid these building of the substances.

OSHA standard require several actions with respect to asbestos. Companies must monitor the air whenever an employer expects the level of asbestos to rise to one-half the allowable limit. You would therefore have to monitor if you expected asbestos levels of 0.1 fiber per cubic centimeter. Engineering controls – walls, special filters and so forth – are required to maintain an asbestos level that complies with OSHA standards. Only then can employers use respirators if additional efforts are still required to achieve compliance.

Infectious Diseases: The Case of SARS

With many employees traveling to and from international destinations, monitoring and conditioning infectious diseases like Ebola and SARS has become an important safety issue. In 2003 there were 400 potential SARS candidates and 70 confirmed cases in the United States and in 2004, SARS reappeared in China. This, therefore, does not seem to be a problem that is about to go away. The Centers for a Diseases Control (CDC) says workers who traveled to areas with known SARS outbreaks in the last 10 days or who close contact with people with suspected SARS may be at risk for developing the disease.

Obviously, employers must make provisions for ensuring that a returning employee does not inadvertently infect one or more colleagues.

Employers can take a number off steps to prevent the entry or spread of infectious diseases like SARS into their workplaces. These include:

1. Closely monitor CDC travel alerts. The CDC issues travel advisories (which recommend deferring nonessential travel) and travel alerts (which simply inform travelers of health concerns and provides precaution). You can access this information at
2. Provide a daily medical screenings for employees returning from SARS – infected areas.
3. Deny access to your facility for 10 days to employees or visitors returning from affected areas, particularly those have had contact with suspected infected individuals
4. Tell employees to say home if they have a fever or respiratory system symptoms.
5. Clean work area and surfaces regularly.
6. Stagger breaks. Offer several lunch periods to reduce overcrowding.
7. Emphasize to employees the importance of frequent hand washing, and make sanitizers containing easily available throughout the workplace.

Alcoholism and Substances Abuse:

Alcoholism and substances abuse are serious and widespread problems at work. While the percentage of full-time US workers engaging in illegal drug use has reportedly dropped in the last 15 years or so, about 15% of workers still report having used illicit drugs in the past year. Studies suggest that 70% of illicit drug users aged 18 to 49 work full-time and that drug-using employees are over three and a half times more likely to be involved in workplace accidents.

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