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1971 may not have been a great year for fashion, but it was a good one for employees. That's the year that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was established. OSHA protects workers from unsafe working conditions and requires employers to meet certain safety standards. But while it's an employer's duty to maintain a safe workplace, negligence and human error persist. It's in your best interest, and that of your fellow workers, to watch out for work hazards – and to take steps to eliminate them.
Technically, any workplace hazard could be considered a safety hazard, but OSHA uses this designation to refer to any unsafe conditions that could cause a worker to become injured. Safety hazards are the most common type of work hazard, according to OSHA.
Many conditions can create hazards that fall into this category. Uneven or slippery floors pose a tripping danger, for example. If an employer runs cords or wires across the floor in common walkways or otherwise interferes with your ability to safely walk around the workspace, that's a safety hazard too. So is anything that poses a fire risk, like blocked fire exits or malfunctioning smoke alarms. OSHA also includes workplace falls under this heading, and it requires employers to provide fall protection for employees who work more than 4 feet off the ground.
Machinery risks are also considered safety hazards. An employer that provides malfunctioning equipment or has lax security lockout/tagout policies (which prevent machinery from starting up unexpectedly) is in violation of OSHA.
Chemical hazard risks are greatest in businesses that deal with chemicals, like manufacturing plants or laboratories, but employees in workplaces of all kinds can be exposed to these dangers. Leaking cleaning products, pesticides, lead paint, solvents and toxic metals are some of the potential hazards that could be lurking in a typical office building or other work environment.
Buildings that were constructed before the 1970s may include components that contain asbestos. If those components are disturbed – say, tiles made with asbestos are ripped up during renovations – particles are released into the air that can cause lung problems for anyone in the vicinity.
Biological hazards are those that can be passed between people, or between animals and people. Exposure to bodily fluids is one prime example of a biological hazard. Medical settings should have strict policies in place that protect employees from coming in contact with patients' blood, urine samples and other fluids. So should nursing homes, day care centers, tattoo parlors, drug testing centers and any other type of workplace that regularly requires employees to handle those fluids. Employees should also be protected from exposure to people with infectious diseases and other contagious illnesses.
Exposure to animals is another risk factor for biological hazards. Most jobs don't involve handling animals, but an office that's overrun with mice or insects could be an unsafe work environment. It's not pleasant to think about, but these critters and their droppings can cause health problems in humans.
OSHA also considers bacteria, viruses, fungi and mold to be biological hazards. People in confined spaces will naturally spread mild illnesses, like the common cold, to their coworkers. But if your office walls show signs of mold growth, or if your employer forces workers who have the flu or other serious contagious illnesses to come to work sick, you can make a case that you're being subjected to biological hazards.
An uncomfortable chair doesn't rise to the same threat level that faulty wiring or toxic fumes do. Still, work conditions that cause strain to the body are considered hazards by OSHA. Any tasks or workplace conditions that can result in longterm physical damage could constitute ergonomic hazards.
For office workers, that often means being made to sit at chairs that are too low or desks that are too high – or in any configuration that forces the worker into an unnatural and uncomfortable position. Using other office equipment can also cause ergonomic strain; for example, typing on a keyboard that's positioned in an awkward place might cause wrist and hand pain.
Anyone who works in manufacturing or another physical job might be exposed to ergonomic hazards. Doing repetitive movements, like working on an assembly line or loading and unloading boxes from a truck, can damage the musculoskeletal system and cause lasting pain.
"Physical hazards" might sound like a catchall term for any workplace dangers that can hurt a worker physically, but the term actually has a more specific meaning. OSHA defines physical hazards as those that can physically harm workers without necessarily touching them.
For example, extreme weather conditions can pose a physical hazard to a worker who is made to work outside. So can sustained exposure to ultraviolet sunlight, even on mild days. Extreme temperatures are also hazards for employees who work indoors; an office that has no or little heating during a cold winter could be considered hazardous, under OSHA's policies. Inadequate lighting that causes eye strain or exposure to sustained loud noises, are also physical hazards.
Workers in certain types of jobs should also be aware of the risks posed by radiation. If the work requires the use of radiation – for instance, in an oncology clinic that uses radiation therapy to treat patients with cancer – the employer must have protections in place that keep workers from being exposed to dangerous levels of it.
Work Organization Hazards
OSHA's final category of workplace hazards is one that's relevant to workers of all types in settings of all kinds. These hazards are ones that cause stress and emotional strain. Violence and harassment are extreme types of work organization hazards. If one employee sexually or verbally harasses a coworker, or if customers or vendors harass employees, it's the employer's responsibility to stop the harassment and prevent it from happening again in the future.
Violence is also a major workplace concern. Sadly, homicide is the third most common cause of workplace fatalities. Although an employer can't promise its employees absolute protection from harm, it is the employer's responsibility to put safeguards in place that minimize employee risk.
Other stress-inducing scenarios that fall into this category include relationship problems between bosses and employees, and between employees. Employers who berate, bully or place unrealistic demands on their employees can cause those workers tremendous emotional and physical damage. Bullying and disrespect among coworkers could potentially rise to the level of a workplace hazard. That doesn't mean that employees should expect OSHA to step in because of a difficult boss or coworker; some level of workplace stress and personality conflict is a normal part of doing business. But in cases of extreme harassment, the employer should be prepared to act.
What to Do About Workplace Hazards
So, you've realized that your employer is exposing you to one or more workplace hazards. In most cases, alerting a supervisor to the existence of the danger is the correct first step. If the person doesn't seem motivated to do anything, say something such as, "I'm concerned if we don't fix [x] right away that we'll get in trouble with OSHA." Most employers know that fixing hazards themselves is preferable to drawing OSHA's attention.
But if you're concerned because the hazards persist, or if you suspect that your employer is knowingly creating hazards for employees, you can contact OSHA directly. Act quickly – only hazards that have been present during the last six months can be reported. OSHA accepts complaints by phone, by mail/fax and via its website. Complainants can specify whether or not they want OSHA to share their names with their employers, which lessens the likelihood that your employer will retaliate against you for reporting the issue to OSHA.
- United States Department of Labor: Occupational Safety and Health Administration: Timeline of OSHA's 40 Year History
- United States Department of Labor: Occupational Safety and Health Administration: Safety Hazards
- United States Department of Labor: Occupational Safety and Health Administration: Workplace Violence
- Cleveland Clinic: Asbestos Still Lurks in Older Buildings: Are Your Lungs at Risk?
- United States Department of Labor: Occupational Safety and Health Administration: How to File a Safety and Health Complaint
- United States Department of Labor: Occupational Safety and Health Administration: Fall Protection
Kathryn has been a lifestyle writer for more than a decade. Her work has appeared on USAToday.com and Indeed.com.