Workplace Health and Safety

Desiree Tibbs
Occupational Health Program, Coordinator
Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital
1200 Westwood Drive
Hamilton, MT 59840

Workplace Health and Safety
You don't need to work surrounded by combustible materials to face serious health and safety risks. Whether it's a failure to protect your workers against toxic fumes, back strains or a sleep-deprived employee getting into a fatal car accident on the drive to work, every job comes with potential hazards. Workplace health and safety hazards can be costly (to lives and the bottom line), but the good news is that they are largely preventable if you take the right precautions.

Common workplace health and safety hazards include: communicable disease, transportation accidents, repetitive motion and ergonomic injuries, hearing loss, workplace violence, slipping and falling, chemical and gas exposure, getting struck by objects, electrocution or explosion. Although some hazards are less likely to happen in some work spaces than others, it's important to assess which hazards are most damaging to your business and your employees. Some may pose more serious threats to employee welfare, and others will result in the most time lost or be the most costly. What these setbacks have in common is that thorough planning can prevent many of them.

The go-to resource for the legal requirements in your particular industry is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the arm of the federal government that enforces health and safety laws. Staying on OSHA's good side and protecting your employees isn't so challenging. What they're asking employers to do, among other things, is look at the risk factors in your business and work out where your problems are. While they aren't usually budget-breakers, many precautions against hazards obviously have a higher initial cost, but as the old saying goes, "It's better to be safe than sorry."

Be Prepared
There are two main types of general preparation employers can take against health and safety hazards in the workplace: job hazard analysis and risk mapping. These approaches share an element of stepping back and examining your procedures and facilities with eyes unclouded by routine and alert to potential danger.

Job hazard analysis is when you look at how a job is done and what sorts of equipment people are interacting with. They tend to be things that you can look at very objectively and see where your protection and prevention needs to be.

Risk mapping is a similar process but it involves examining liabilities by examining your physical workplace and facilities rather than considering the habits and duties of your employees. Combining both of these tools can prevent many accidents at work.

Maintaining your workforce
Things that affect large portions of the workforce really affect small and medium sized businesses more than large businesses. The most prominent hazard is communicable diseases such as colds and the flu, and the reason they can knock out such large portions of your workforce depends partly on our society's working culture. Many businesses run short staffed on a consistent basis. This leads to employees becoming overly tired, this in turn makes them more likely to get sick and or have a serious accident.

Having adequate staffing gives employees the chance to take time off when they are sick. It also allows employees to safely complete tasks that require more than one person rather than attempting them on their own resulting in injury.

It is also important to cross train employees, so that no one person becomes critical to your operation. This can cost employers some additional effort and money but it is important for employers to look at the long term savings rather than the short term cost.

Non-fatal Injuries
When it comes to non-fatal workplace injuries, the clear leaders are incidents of ergonomic problems and overexertion. They affect a multitude of industries. Because these injuries can give rise to chronic
conditions, they result in one of the higher rates of lost work time.

Experts advise that employees at computer workstations sit at a height that allows their legs to reach the ground; they should have a wrist rest, and not need to crane their neck, eyes, or back in the extreme. It's important to have lumbar support and if your office chairs don't have this built in, you or your employees can purchase cushions that will provide that extra lower back support. Ergonomic injuries don't only take place when there is older office equipment with fewer adjustable parts. They can also happen simply from sitting at your desk for too long.

In addition to the wear and tear of the workplace itself on employees' bodies, lifting heavy objects such as boxes of paper or files can result in accidents. Good lifting technique is often ignored when there is insufficient space or time to get a job done properly.

In a manufacturing setting, hearing loss is a common problem that can creep up on you and your employees but that is easily preventable. Simply provide headphones or earplugs that cancel out high decibel levels, depending on what volume of noise the equipment in your office environment produce. But providing the equipment is not enough, you need to enforce the policy and make sure your employees are using all the protective gear.

Chemical spills are more common in some workplaces then others. Developing a Spill Response Plan is the key to proper management of these injuries. Having personal protection equipment on hand and training employees how to use it is important and often overlooked.

Preventing Fatalities
Workplace Violence -- If you look at the data on workplace violence easily three quarters or more are robbery. Consequently, regulating bodies advises examining where employees are exchanging or guarding money, interacting with the public, working alone or in small groups in the late or early hours of the day. Take steps to make sure the area around your workplace is well-lit and if possible install security cameras.

Falls -- The falls that result in fatalities tend to be in industries such as construction or landscaping. This is a case where training your employees in safety procedures and periodically evaluating their understanding and execution of those procedures is the most useful course of action. Additionally providing equipment precautions such as guardrails, safety harnesses and rope and pulley supports when possible is also a good idea.

Employee Education and Awareness
A businesses human resources department can do a lot to reduce workplace accidents simply by educating employees. But you need to go beyond informing employees. A lot of the standards that are in place do require training of one sort or another and some sort of documentation that the person was trained. Following up with employees to make sure the training sank in and is being incorporated into their daily responsibilities is also crucial. It often falls by the wayside because it is time consuming and can be cumbersome.

An Occupational Health team can be helpful in this area. A team consists of multiple health care professional s working to assess the abilities of a company's workforce. Not only do they help with pre-employment requirements and work place injuries but they can help companies implement proper training techniques as well as working with them on a continuing basis to help maintain overall

Questions and or comments regarding this week's health column please contact Desiree Tibbs, Program Coordinator at Marcus Daly Occupational Health Services, 1200 Westwood Drive, Hamilton, MT 59840. Working together to build a healthier community!


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