In busy workplaces like warehouses, factories, construction sites and hospitals, employees can be at risk of injury or illness just by doing their jobs. You could strain your back by lifting heavy crates, you hurt lungs with exposure to toxic chemicals used in industrial cleaning, or developing a repetitive strain injury to the arm or wrist while working on the same assembly line for hours.
“Workplace injuries can be acute or chronic,” says Carisa Harris-Adamson, PhD, assistant professor in environmental health sciences and associate director of the Center of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health . “Acute injuries are due to some kind of accident or sudden exposure, which we try to prevent with good safety measures. Chronic injuries result from cumulative exposures, which occur over time when the demands of a task you have to complete over and over again ultimately put too much strain on your body.
How can you protect yourself from injuries caused by your work? Every job has its own risks, experts say, but there are some basic principles that can help you stay safe in any job. This is called a “hierarchy of controls”, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) says it is the “fundamental method of protecting workers.”
“Both employers and employees are responsible for the health and safety of workers,” says Martin Cohen, ScD, professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Occupational Health at the School of Public Health of the University of Washington. “The employer is responsible for providing a healthy and safe workplace, and the employee must take this seriously, understand the hazards to which they are exposed and work with their employer to minimize those hazards. “
Keep yourself safe
The hierarchy of controls begins with the most effective and protective methods at the top, to those which are least effective at the bottom. What should you ask for to keep yourself safe at work?
Elimination. If there is a way to eliminate the hazard, it is the best way to ensure workplace safety. For example, if you are working on a building construction site, are there any jobs that are nine stories above the ground that could in fact be done on the ground, eliminating the risk of falling?
Substitution. The best thing after elimination, substitution means changing the dangerous situation for something less dangerous. This could mean replacing a toxic chemical with one that is less toxic, like “low VOC” paints, which means they contain very little or no volatile organic compounds that can be harmful to your health.
Engineering controls. If you can’t eliminate the hazard or substitute something else, can you rethink the way the job works to reduce that hazard? If you are working at heights, this can mean installing guardrails and covering the holes. If you are exposed to dust and fine particles from building or cutting marble countertops, adding fans and ducts can help.
“Many workplace injuries are the result of repetitive motion,” says Cohen. “People who perform the same task over and over can develop chronic pain and musculoskeletal damage. To avoid this, job redesign can help, by changing the configuration of a workstation or the flow of a task.
Administrative controls. If the other solutions do not completely solve the problem, administrative controls should also be put in place, such as warning labels on dangerous machine parts, reducing the time a worker is exposed to a dangerous situation by things like regular breaks and work sharing, and offering training programs on how to use machines safely or lift heavy materials.
Personal protective equipment (PPE). You should always use PPE in case of danger. This may include respirators to reduce breathing in particles and gases, hear protection when you are exposed to loud noises and fall arrest systems if you work at heights.
“Ideally, the different controls should all work together to help make a workplace as safe as possible,” says Cohen. “For example, think of a worker who uses a noisy circular saw all day. You can replace a quieter saw if possible. You can place the worker in a soundproof area to control the exposure of others. You can take breaks so that the worker is not constantly exposed to noise. And then, of course, the worker still needs hearing protection.
“While there are tips and habits you can incorporate into your day to avoid injury, such as stabilizing your core, maintaining good posture, and holding heavy objects close to your body so you don’t injure your back when you raise, the most important thing is to minimize worker exposure as much as possible, ”agrees Harris-Adamson.
Here are some more tips for staying safe at work:
- Don’t guess. If you don’t know how to perform a particular task or how to use a piece of equipment, make sure you have the right training first.
- Keep it clean. Keep your workspace clean, tidy and free from disorder and spills make falls and other injuries less likely.
- Report immediately. If you see a dangerous situation, such as a defective piece of equipment, or if you have a “near miss,” where an accident is near miss, notify your employer immediately.
- Be ready. Make sure you are familiar with emergency exits and the locations of first aid kits and eyewash stations, and that you know your workplace policies regarding what to do in an emergency.