3 Hidden Ways Your Workplace Could (Literally) Be Killing You
This week (May 6 – 12) is North American Occupational Safety and Health Week, bringing awareness to the consequences of workplace hazards. Now, while that might not be as warm and fuzzy a topic as National Pet Week (also May 6 – 12), it doesn’t diminish its importance. NAOSH Week is a reminder why everyone should pay close attention to safety and illness issues at work.
Additionally, it’s a reminder that smart organizations stay vigilant by providing equipment, resources and training for all employees.
But … why should you care? Because one of these hazards can lay dormant in your body for 20 years or more before killing you. And there’s an excellent chance it is in your building right now!
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016 there were 5,190 job-related fatalities in the United States. Additionally, they reported 2.9 million job-related injuries and illnesses severe enough to require employees to miss significant time from work. The estimated cost to businesses for these incidents varies depending on which source you check. However, even the conservative estimates run from $150 billion to over $200 billion annually.
Therefore, it should go without saying that it is good business to care about employees and their health and safety. Notice that I said “should go” without saying? Truthfully, too many companies come up short in this regard. A critical part of caring comes in the form of training employees about safety … identifying red flags for potential problems … and constant management follow-ups to make sure employees are applying their training appropriately.
Some workplace hazards are better known than others
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) breaks workplace hazards down into six categories:
- Chemical and Dust
- Work Organization
While people should be aware of all these hazards, for this post we’ll discuss the last three listed above. Most of you know about workplace organization hazards and ergonomic hazards and their effects on our health and safety. They’re some of the most common workplace hazards and steel mill workers or construction employees aren’t the only ones affected.
You know the hazards even if you don’t recognize the name
The term, “workplace organization hazards,” may not be familiar to many but the actual hazards are known to everyone. Workplace organization hazards are stressors that cause short-term tension or long-term strain on the mind and/or body. Generally, these are related to non-obvious hazards such as difficult workloads or overly intense work. They can also be a lack of respect from co-workers or management and inflexible hours, schedule or duties and responsibilities.
Providing employees communication and assertiveness training … organization and time management workshops … and the opportunity to work flexible schedules can undo much of the damage.
Workplace organization hazards also include things that, sadly, seem to be in the news every day. Things such as workplace violence and sexual harassment. Employers can reduce these hazards by training their staff on stopping harassment, identifying and reporting warning signs for potential violence and providing employee assistance to report incidents without fear of retaliation.
The keys to reducing ergonomic hazards
Ergonomic hazards have become more recognizable over the last 30 to 40 years as repetitive motion injuries or carpal tunnel syndrome have entered the American business lexicon.
Ergonomic injuries and illnesses can be caused by: Performing the same motion over and over again (such as vacuuming); using physical force (lifting heavy objects); or being in an awkward position (twisting your body to reach a light bulb). They start off by causing sore muscles in the short-term, but if left unchanged, ergonomic hazards can cause terrible pain, crippling chronic injuries and serious long-term illness.
Using engineering controls is the most effective way to diminish or eliminate ergonomic hazards. Sometimes you can change the tools, equipment, job design, or work area to remove the hazard completely.
For instance, use alternative office desk set ups like standing or adjustable desks, sitting on a yoga ball instead of a desk chair, or using soft seating options with lumbar support. Use lighter cleaning equipment such as vacuums and mops for cleaning staff
Or, use “administrative controls” and tweak schedules or responsibilities so employees get a break from repetitive tasks that cause injury or illness.
Our third workplace hazard is something that many people truly believe is not a danger any longer, but could not be more wrong. Many people don’t realize asbestos is still a lethal threat today because they think the laws enacted since the 1980s have taken care of the problem.
The laws certainly help, but they haven’t eliminated the problem. The toxin exists in structures today—and when disturbed, asbestos dust releases into the air. Without protective gear, the risk of inhalation is high. Throughout the 20th century, builders used asbestos everywhere and considered it a miracle material. So, unless your building underwent an expensive asbestos removal project after 1980, chances are good asbestos is still there.
Exposure to the microscopic asbestos fibers is the only known cause of mesothelioma cancer, a rare and aggressive cancer that develops in the lining of the lungs, abdomen, or heart. According to the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance at Mesothelioma.com, there is currently no cure. Also, they estimate 20 million people in the U.S. are currently at risk of developing mesothelioma at some point in their lives.
Remember earlier when I said that there is one workplace hazard that can lie dormant in your body for 20 years or more before killing you? Yes … it was mesothelioma. In fact, the cancer often develops 20 to 50 years after the exposure occurs, so many cases we see today began before many safety standards were implemented.
Mesothelioma.com recommends if your workplace was built between 1930 and 1980, have the structure inspected before completing any kind of construction project to ensure the safety of employees.
If you find asbestos, protect workers by establishing regulated areas, controlling certain work practices and instituting engineering controls to reduce the airborne levels. Reduce exposure risk with administrative controls and provide personal protective equipment. If a worker’s exposure to asbestos goes on too long or is over the legal limit, monitor the employee medically.
What about radon?
Radon is the other workplace hazard closely linked to deadly cancer, along with asbestos and mesothelioma. Radon is an invisible, tasteless, and odorless gas that comes from uranium naturally contained in rocks and soils. Experts suspect radon exposure causes more than 20,000 cases of lung cancer in the U.S. annually. In fact, it’s the second-leading cause of lung cancer—directly or indirectly costing American businesses over $2 billion every year.
Radon generally disperses harmlessly into the air outside. However, it can accumulate inside buildings, usually in the lowest levels of a structure. Underground work areas, such as mines, tunnels, power stations, caves, public baths and spas are at the highest risk of exposure.
Your company should test radon levels regularly to make sure there are no problems. Luckily, if found early, there are simple methods to pump radon outside, alleviating the danger.
No matter who you are, if you believe workplace hazards are affecting you and your work, let someone know.