A Guide to Avoiding Safety Hazards at the Workplace

Each profession brings with it a certain amount of risk, not in equal measure for every profession, but present nevertheless. An accountant, for example, is at far lesser risk of cutting himself on a knife than a chef, but headaches induced by a badly lit computer screen will apply far more to the former.

Offices contain numerous, seemingly unobtrusive, objects or collections of objects that can be potential safety hazards. It is the job of the employer to ensure that its workplace is safe for all employees. Getting injured can cost the employee valuable time at work. Depending on the nature of his or her injuries, it can also potentially limit the injured person's working abilities. It is just as crucial for employees to know potential safety hazards at work as it is for business owners.

Employers are usually are required to go in for workers' compensation insurance. This helps in rehabilitating employees who have been seriously injured at work. It also helps in recovering the wages lost and expenses incurred by hospital visits. Injuries compensable by workers' compensation insurance usually include conditions that are a prerequisite for employment. Something as innocuous as a bad keyboard on a workstation can be a cause for something as serious as carpal tunnel syndrome, which often leads to surgery and subsequent expenses.

Knowing common causes of health and safety hazards at the workplace is the first step in preventing injuries. The most common safety problems arise because of chemicals, fires, performing repetitive motion through the day, electricity-related burns and injuries, and injuries related to fall. A safety policy addressing these basic tenets of a safer workplace will go a long way in making the employees more productive. Here are some of the most common safety hazards faced at the workplace in the United States.

Injuries Due to Scaffolding and Lack of Proper Fall Protection
A report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that more than 60 fatalities every year result from injuries related to scaffolding. There are innumerable safety violations due to scaffolding issues in professions that require employees to climb higher than the heights specified in OSHA's standards. Employees working at heights need certain precautions; in general industry, the standard height is 4 feet, in maritime industry it is 5 feet, and in the construction industry it is 6 feet. The construction industry employs more than 2 million workers, many of whom regularly work on scaffoldings, making this a priority in terms of ensuring safety.

Another BLS study conducted recently stated that 72 percent of workers injured in scaffolding accidents attributed it to their employer's not complying with safety standards. This is yet another reason for employers to work on avoiding such injuries.

Injuries Due to a Lack of Hazard Communication
More than 30 million Americans are exposed to hazardous chemicals at their workplaces everyday. The Hazard Communication Standard requires employers to inform their employees of all of the hazardous chemical substances present at the workplace. Those who are exposed should be given ample protective equipment and be informed of all the protective measures they need to take. This standard covers more than 650,000 chemicals used in industries around the country.

Injuries Related to Overexertion at the Workplace
Such injuries usually occur when someone works beyond their physical capacity. Performing tasks that push the body beyond acceptable limits of physical exertion can damage the body's soft tissues. The conditioning of the individual's body, as well as age and the consequent loss of flexibility and weight gain, also play a role in sustaining such injuries. BLS reported a total of 47,350 overexertion-related injuries at the workplace in 2006, a figure that rose to 60,640 in 2012. The direct costs of such injuries can be covered by the company's insurance. However, indirect costs can make it an expensive affair for the employer. These can be the cost of recruiting and training a replacement, a decrease in productivity, and decreased quality of work. It also costs the company in terms of the time spent dealing with insurers and communicating with the injured worker and his or her respective doctors.

Injuries Caused by Repetitive Motion
These are some of the most commonly observed occupational injuries. In fact, carpal tunnel syndrome is responsible for 300,000 to 500,000 surgeries in the United States every year. Repetitive motions such as typing on a keyboard, scanning groceries, bending, etc. are the leading cause of employees spending time away from work. BLS pegs the average days lost due to these injuries at as high as 23. Such injuries are identified as musculoskeletal disorders, and they account for more than 70 million visits to physicians across the country.

Usually the back, shoulders, forearms, wrists, or hands are affected by such injuries. Making sure workers take sufficient breaks from work, flex their hands and feet regularly, take brief walks, etc. can help to reduce the frequency of such injuries.

Injuries at work may not have occurred at the workplace but could be aggravated there. It is important to think of your activities throughout the day to eliminate factors that can add to your discomfort. Lower back pain is something that will affect 80 percent of people at some point during their lives. These injuries can be felt most when lifting, twisting, or sitting for extended spans of time. A sedentary lifestyle, obesity, lack of enough exercise, muscle weakness, and poor posture -- when added to poor ergonomics at the workplace -- can greatly increase chances of these injuries. Work-related musculoskeletal injuries set employers back by up to $20 billion in costs every year.

Injuries Resulting from Workplace Violence
These types of injuries are usually perpetrated by a non-employee. They can include physical violence, harassment, intimidation, and other threatening or disruptive behavior. They can often involve clients, customers, and visitors, over and above regular employees. Homicides are the fourth-leading cause of fatalities at work in the United States; BLS estimated that 506 homicides occurred at workplaces in 2010. While this may seem like a small number, it is a grave concern for employees who work with cash at retail stores or banks. Installing surveillance cameras, employing security guards, and keeping outdoor areas well lit are good ideas to avoid such incidents.

Injuries Due to Bad Wiring
These injuries are most prevalent among professionals who work directly with electricity, such as electricians and engineers, but they can occur at any office. An office worker trying to push a plug into a faulty socket on a wet day can be at risk for getting a bad jolt, or more. Following the necessary protocol for electrical safety can work well to ensure that you minimize such incidents and protect your employees. Observing simple rules, such as keeping liquids away from wiring, getting faulty wiring repaired, and installing an efficient system to avoid short-circuits, can help to prevent these injuries.

Same-Level Fall Injuries
Every year, up to 65 percent of fall-related injuries are due to falls on same-level surfaces. These falls are usually caused due to slipping or tripping or not having enough friction on the walking surface. These injuries can result from negligence on the part of the employee while walking, by wearing inappropriate footwear, or due to the area being slippery or badly lit. Keeping work areas dry and unobstructed is important to avoid these injuries. Using non-skid floor surfaces and carpets is also important in certain industries to avoid major injuries.

Determining Whether You Have a Work-Related Injury
Injuries can occur at any time; a trucker working for his company in a distant city or an IT professional working late, for example, are both at risk of getting injured if safety guidelines are not followed. Workers' compensation can include injuries resulting from employees horsing around or where an employee disregards safety norms. However, state laws and courts remain divided on this subject. Injuries occurring during lunch breaks or at office parties, on employer-owned grounds, or in situations related to work can be considered workplace injuries.

An injury caused due to alcohol, if it occurs at a work-related event, may also be considered a workplace injury, depending upon state laws. Mental trauma such as anxiety or depression, if exacerbated or caused by the workplace, also can be covered by such insurance. It is always advisable to consult a personal injury lawyer to see whether you are eligible for compensation.

Injuries at the workplace are avoidable if the employer keeps an eye out for seasonal and infrastructural hazards and protects against them. Making sure the employees are regularly informed about the norms to be followed can keep your office safe for all concerned. Accidents wait for no one; preventing them, however, is in your hands.

Michael Georgiou is a business and marketing professional in the marketing division of Wilson Law, PA, which is based in Raleigh, N.C. He is an entrepreneurial guru with a proven success record in creative strategy, online branding, project management, and communication projects in both public and private sectors.

Posted by Michael Georgiou on Sep 01, 2014


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