A critical element of any effective safety and health program is a proactive, ongoing process to identify and assess hazards that have the potential to cause injuries, illnesses, or incidents.
This article has been adapted from material provided by OSHA Publication 3885 Recommended Practices for Safety and Health Programs.
The process to identify and assess hazards in the workplace or at the worksite can be simplified into two groups of activities.
- Collect and review information about the current hazards and then conduct regular inspections to identify new or recurring hazards.
- Investigate injuries, illnesses, incidents, and near misses to determine the root cause, identify trends, and prioritize corrective actions.
Every organization will have a different process of hazard recognition and correction, but there are some general guidelines that can lay the groundwork for creating a procedure that successfully protects workers.
REVIEW CURRENT DATA
Information about previous, existing, and potential hazards may already be available, and collecting that information is a great place to start building a hazard recognition program. When gathering data, consider using the following sources:
- Operating manuals for the equipment, machinery, and tools currently in use
- Safety data sheets (SDS) provided by chemical manufacturers
- Completed safety audit reports and inspection checklists
- Records of previous injuries and illnesses from OSHA 300 and 301 logs
- Workers’ compensation records and reports
- Incident investigation reports
- Exposure monitoring results and industrial hygiene assessments
- Input from workers provided from surveys or safety meetings
- Job hazard analysis (JHA)
Also consider non-routine, maintenance, and emergency situations that could cause dangerous situations and result in potential hazards that might not be accounted for yet.
IDENTIFY SAFETY HAZARDS
New hazards can creep into the work area over time as processes change, new equipment is added, maintenance is overlooked, or housekeeping practices decline. In construction, unanticipated hazards can arise due to changes in project timelines, sequence of events, and the fast pace of some construction projects.
Set aside time to conduct periodic inspections in an effort to identify new hazards, or hazards that were never corrected. Conduct regular inspections of all operations, equipment, tools, work areas, storage areas, and facilities. Include work activities of all personnel including on-site contractors, subcontractors, and temporary employees. Use checklists to ensure inspections are comprehensive.
Consider inspections on the following categories:
- Emergency Procedures
- Fire Protection and Prevention
- General Housekeeping
- Electrical Hazards
- Equipment Operation, Maintenance, and Storage
- Hazard Communication
- Ladder Use
- Materials Handling
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
- Walking/Working Surfaces and Slip, Trip, and Fall Hazards
- Work Practices, Process Flow, Staffing, and Scheduling
- Workplace Violence
Be sure to document inspections so you can later verify that hazardous conditions are corrected. Take photos or video of problem areas to facilitate later discussion and brainstorming about how to control them, and for use as learning aids.
IDENTIFY HEALTH HAZARDS
Identifying health hazards can be more complex that identifying physical safety hazards. For example, gases and vapors may be invisible, often have no odor, and may not have an immediately noticeable harmful health effect.
Health hazards include:
- Chemical – solvents, adhesives, paints, toxic dusts
- Physical – noise, radiation, heat
- Biological – infectious diseases
- Ergonomic – heavy lifting, repetitive motions, vibration
To identify chemical hazards, review safety data sheets and product labels to identify chemicals is use that have low exposure limits, are highly volatile, or are used in large quantities or in unventilated spaces. Consider work activities that may result in skin exposure to chemicals.
To identify physical hazards, focus on exposure to excessive noise, extreme temperatures, and sources of radiation.
To identify biological hazards, determine whether workers may be exposed to sources of infectious diseases, bloodborne pathogens, molds, toxic or poisonous plants, or animal materials (fur or scat) capable of causing allergic reactions or occupational asthma.
To identify ergonomic hazards, examine work activities that require heavy lifting, work above shoulder height, repetitive motions, and tasks with significant vibration.
When working to identify health hazards, conduct quantitative exposure assessments, when possible, using air sampling or direct reading instruments. It may also be helpful to review medical records to identify cases of musculoskeletal injuries, skin irritation or dermatitis, hearing loss, or lung disease that may be related to workplace exposures. (Note: medical records should always be appropriately redacted to ensure privacy.)
CONDUCT INCIDENT INVESTIGATIONS
Workplace incidents—including injuries, illnesses, near misses, and reports of other concerns—provide a clear indication of where hazards exist. The purpose of an investigation must always be to identify the root causes (and there is often more than one) of the incident or concern, in order to prevent future occurrences.
There should be a clear plan and procedure for conducting incident investigations to ensure the process can begin immediately. Members of the incident investigation team should be trained and include management and worker representatives. The results of the investigation should be communicated to the organization.
OSHA has special reporting requirements for work-related incidents that lead to serious injury or a fatality (29 CFR 1904.39). OSHA must be notified within 8 hours of a work-related fatality, and within 24 hours of an amputation, loss of an eye, or inpatient hospitalization.
IMPLEMENT CONTROL MEASURES
Evaluate each hazard identified by considering the severity of potential outcomes, the likelihood that an event or exposure will occur, and the number of workers who might be exposed.
Some hazards, such as housekeeping and tripping hazards, can and should be fixed as they are found. Fixing hazards on the spot emphasizes the importance of safety and health and takes advantage of a safety leadership opportunity.
Use interim control measures to protect workers until more permanent solutions can be implemented.
Prioritize the hazards so that those presenting the greatest risk are addressed first. Note, however, that employers have an ongoing obligation to control all serious recognized hazards and to protect workers.