What Constitutes a Hazard in a Workplace?

A workplace injury is one that that "arises out of and in the course of employment," according to the book "Manual of Compensation Law, State and Federal." According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 3.3 million nonfatal and 4,340 fatal workplace injuries were reported in 2009 in private industry. Employers have an obligation to provide a safe and healthy environment for their workers and the first step in this process is identifying the hazards that could lead to work-related injuries.

Workplace Hazard Definition

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, "a hazard is the potential for harm." Often, it is "associated with a condition or activity that, if left uncontrolled, can result in an injury or illness." A hazard can cause harm to organisations in the form of equipment or property loss, lost productivity, poor employee morale, increased insurance premiums for workers compensation claims, possible OSHA fines and lawsuits.

Trypes of Hazards

OSHA identifies 24 types of hazards, which are typically grouped in categories, including biological hazards such as bacteria, viruses, plants and animals and chemical hazards including acid, heavy metals such as lead, solvents, fumes, reactive chemicals, fires and explosions. Ergonomic hazards include repetitive motions and improper workstation configuration. Physical hazards consist of radiation, pressure extremes, noise, and magnetic fields while psychosocial hazards are related to stress, overwork, bullying and workplace violence. Safety-related issues are probably the most familiar form of hazard and include slips and falls, equipment malfunctions or breakdowns, and severe weather, such as floods or tornadoes. Transportation is also a safety hazard and driving fatalities are the leading cause of work-related deaths, according to Occupational Health and Safety Magazine.

Workplace Hazard and Risk

Risk is the probability that a worker will be harmed or experience health problems as a result of a workplace hazard. Risk is a combination of factors including the worker, the task, the tools used and the work environment. A workplace hazard must be evaluated in the context of each of these factors and steps taken to control the level of risk. For example, factory workers might suffer from gradual hearing loss because of excessive noise levels. The employer must take steps to reduce the decibel level by providing ear plugs or hearing-protection ear muffs. In addition, a policy must require the use of hearing-protection equipment, and it must be enforced.

Exposure to Hazards

Simple exposure to a hazard does not automatically result in an injury or health problem. It depends on the type of hazard, the form and length of exposure and other factors. Certain job-related hazards are more likely to result in injury or illness than others. For example, jobs with high injury or illness rates, jobs in which human error can lead to severe accident or injury, or jobs with the potential to cause severe harm, even if there is no history of accidents, are more likely to be hazardous than other jobs. A new task or one that has be redesigned is more likely to be hazardous than existing tasks. In addition, a job requiring written instructions because of its complexity might be more hazardous than less complex jobs.

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About the Author

Diane Chinn is a freelance writer with more than 15 years experience in many areas, including business and technical communications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from California State University and a Master of Arts in human resources and industrial relations from the University of Minnesota. She is a Six Sigma Green Belt .

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