All workplaces, regardless of what type of business is run, are littered with occupational risks. These are workplace risks and hazards that carry the potential to cause injury, illness, or even death if not discovered and appropriately addressed. Generally speaking, occupational hazards are sorted into six categories:
- Safety hazards
- Chemical hazards
- Biological hazards
- Physical hazards
- Ergonomic hazards
- Psychosocial hazards
What type of risks are present in what environment largely depends on what kind of work the employees perform. Biological hazards, for example, are prevalent in hospitals, clinics, laboratories, and other medical professions. Ergonomic hazards are typical of office employees who sit behind a desk for hours at a time. Chemical hazards one might encounter in a factory or a similar industrial job.
Protecting workers’ health and safety is crucial for a successful business. As an employer, it is your job to identify hazards associated with your workplace, assess them, prioritize them, and finally implement workplace safety measures to prevent or mitigate those hazards. Health and safety management is the cornerstone of a good working environment.
Identifying Occupational Risks
The first step in risk management is identifying hazards in the workplace. They can belong to any of the six categories listed above. In fact, many workplaces are faced with more than one group of hazards.
The three main questions you should ask yourself when identifying (and assessing) occupational risks are:
- What can happen?
- How likely is it to happen?
- What are the consequences of it happening?
While no workplace is the same as another, there is a step by step process you can take to ensure that you cover all your bases when it comes to occupational hazards.
- Collecting existing information
At the very start of the assessment process, gather as much information as possible on potential hazards at your workplace. You can use both external and internal sources for this.
Internal sources would be equipment operating manuals, inspection reports, records of previous injuries, illnesses, or fatalities, records of workers’ compensation, any frequently occurring injuries or illnesses, job safety analysis reports, input from the workers, and others.
External sources are information from organizations such as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Center for Disease Control (CDC), labor unions, trade associations, and safety and health consultants.
All of this will help you figure out what hazards you’re dealing with and what hazards workers could be exposed to as part of exposure assessments.
- Workplace inspection
Inspecting your workplace shouldn’t be a once in a lifetime thing – it should happen regularly and in relatively frequent intervals. Hazards come and go over time – equipment and tools become worn and need to be changed, maintenance may lack in certain areas, processes evolve, etc. The nature of work and business is that they are not stagnant, so your risk assessments should be agile as well.
When you’re conducting an inspection, make sure to form a plan beforehand (an outline of everything you need to check and review) and record the results. Inspect the equipment, work areas, facilities (storage, warehouses), vehicles, workstations, and anything else that is routine and non-routine.
Include your workers in the process; talk to them. If there is a lousy staircase that needs to be fixed, they know about it. If there is an electrical wire exposed, they will be able to inform you so you can eliminate that risk. Workers who are trained in identifying and assessing risks are invaluable in this step.
- Health hazard identification
A workplace inspection gives you a good idea of what safety hazards lurk about. But health hazards might be more difficult to uncover.
Occupational health risks you need to check for are chemical hazards (toxic solvents, paints, dust, adhesives, etc.), biological hazards (infectious diseases, molds, toxic plants or animal materials, etc.), physical hazards (excessive noise, high heat, radiation sources, etc.), and ergonomic hazards (heavy lifting, vibration, repetitive motion, awkward posture, bending, etc.).
If you feel like you need professional help to determine potential health hazards at your workplace, don’t hesitate to reach out to a health and safety company specializing in identifying occupational risks. It is better to ask for help than to risk one of your employees getting injured, falling ill, or worse.
- Incident investigations
A workplace incident – an injury, illness, and even a close call – is a clear indicator that a hazard exists. A thorough investigation of these incidents (as well as comprehensive documentation) will point to what caused them and how they can be prevented in the future.
Having a protocol put in place in case an incident occurs is a good strategy. That way, you’re not wasting time deciding who will conduct the investigation, what the lines of communication are, what supplies are needed, and what the reports should look like.
When conducting risk assessments like these, you shouldn’t stop once you discover a single reason why an incident occurred. For example, the failure of a piece of equipment is a good reason why a near-miss might have happened. However, instead of being satisfied with this reason, you should ask why the equipment failed, whether it was maintained properly or beyond its service life, and what can be done to reduce the level of risk.
Similarly, if you discover that an incident occurred because of human error – that a worker is at fault – ask additional questions: did the worker have enough time and the right tools to do their job? Were they adequately trained? Were they properly supervised?
This detailed risk estimation of a workplace hazard will greatly increase occupational health and safety in your workplace.
- Don’t forget emergency and non-routine situations
Emergencies and non-routine work, such as maintenance, shutdown activities, and other infrequent tasks, can lead to a whole new set of safety and health risks. During risk evaluation, make sure not to skip these irregular tasks.
Consider what happens in case of a fire or an explosion emergency, a chemical release or material spill, structural collapse, natural disasters, medical emergencies, and even workplace violence. Reducing the risk of injury in emergency circumstances is crucial. At the same time, review your protocols for unplanned shutdowns and startup activities for further risk analysis.
Assessing Occupational Risks
After identifying every single hazard and risk that your employees may be exposed to, it is time to assess them and prioritize them.
Evaluate each hazard in terms of how severe its potential outcomes are, how likely it is to cause an incident, and how many workers are exposed to it. Until you come up with permanent protection measures, use temporary control measures that will immediately reduce the risk, to an extent. (For example, making personal protective equipment mandatory for all employees exposed to the hazard.)
When prioritizing risks, those that are the greatest (related to the most severe hazards) should be of primary concern. However, none of the evaluated risks can be neglected. Employers must keep an eye on all hazards and protect their workers as much as possible.
Occupational risk assessment is a difficult task that requires understanding what constitutes a risk or a hazard, as well as the complicated and time-consuming process of identifying all (or as many as conceivably possible) hazards at your place of business. Identifying is followed by a thorough assessment and finally prioritizing so that you have a clear idea of where to allocate most of your resources for risk control. Ranking your findings based on the significance of the risk is a key component to risk management.
When identifying risks, be meticulous and methodical. Make lists, put together plans, and don’t leave any stone unturned. Communicate with the employees. Their occupational health and safety are on the line here, and they should be informed and even included in mitigating the risks.
We can’t stress enough how important it is to encompass the entire work process, from the most mundane tasks to those that happen once a year or even less often. A reliable health and safety program doesn’t leave room for surprises.
Since risk management is such a demanding undertaking, if you feel like you need help in the process, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. Our company specializes in health and safety compliance, ensuring employees are protected, and that employers don’t have to worry about identifying and assessing risks. You can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or give us a call at 775-843-9318.
Don’t leave anything to chance when it comes to the safety of your workers!