The Science and Art of Identifying Workplace Hazards: Identifying and Controlling Workplace Hazards Involves Both Hard Data and a Savvy Understanding of Issues Such as Acceptable Risk and Employee Comfort and Productivity

Article excerpt

Hazard identification is an ongoing process that is a critical component of any health and safety program. A common approach of this process is to use the principles of industrial hygiene to recognize, evaluate and control employee exposures to workplace hazards. The hazard identification process is applicable to a range of workplace and hazard types, resulting in a benefit to both employee health and safety and environmental protection concerns.

Regardless of the workplace hazard, the goals for utilizing hazard identification include:

* Identification of workplace hazards presenting unacceptable risk to employee health, safety and productivity.

* Selection of practical and feasible control strategies that minimize employee exposures and optimize employee comfort.

Potential challenges facing the health and safety professional include defining what is "unacceptable" and "practical." Recognition by administrators and management staff that hazard identification is a process requiring continued review is also crucial to meeting these goals and achieving overall program success.

Workplace Hazards

The types of hazards found today can vary significantly between workplaces, covering an array of exposure concerns from B. anthracis spores (anthrax) to zinc oxide fume.

Safety hazards are a concern in virtually all workplaces and should be clearly identified and controlled. From an industrial hygiene perspective, chemical/hazardous materials and noise are usually the most prevalent. Other exposure hazards are evolving, particularly the biological threats. This is illustrated by current concerns about mold in both occupational and residential settings, and recent concerns of B. anthracis exposure to mailroom employees. Exposure concerns such as these have health and safety professionals continually searching for effective control strategies.

Chemical and biological hazards can also impact environmental protection. Clear identification and characterization of waste streams can minimize both employee exposure and environmental concerns. Fugitive process emissions (e.g., lead dust and fume) within a plant can present immediate employee health risks through inhalation exposures and future environmental risks through the accumulation of toxic materials on equipment and other building surfaces.

Health Protection vs. Comfort

In most cases, OSHA compliance is the benchmark and foundation for health and safety programs. Regardless of the specific OSHA standard, the health and safety professional certainly wants to control the hazard to within what is considered legally acceptable.

Controlling exposures from an employee comfort and productivity approach may be less common, and is usually at a different level than OSHA compliance. The typical scenario includes workplace exposures outside of normal ranges of what is expected, Indoor air quality issues based on employee complaints rail in this category. In this situation, employees may comment that the temperature is hotter of colder than usual, of the lighting is different, or there are unrecognizable odors, or other comfort-related issues. The resulting investigations usually find that while there are no OSHA compliance violations, they certainly may lead to a loss in productivity. Many similar situations are common in today's workplace.

OSHA recognized the importance of employee comfort issues in recent standards development, such as the voluntary use provisions of the respirator standard (29 CFR 1910.134). As most employees equate discomfort with adverse health effects, controlling workplace hazards from a comfort and productivity perspective may be as important as meeting OSHA compliance.

Hazard Identification Process

The practice of industrial hygiene utilizes the recognition, evaluation and control-phased approach to hazard identification. The American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) describes industrial hygiene as both science and art. …