Hazard Identification: Using Safety Assessments To Recognize Risks
Why do we need to identify hazards and risks in the workplace? Until you know where the dangers are, you can't protect your people from them.
Hazard recognition isn't as simple as going down an OSHA checklist. Under the General Duty Clause, employers protect employees from any reasonably recognizable hazard, even if it doesn't appear in OSHA's standards.
Every workplace is a bit different. That's why you need a process for hazard identification, usually called a hazard or safety assessment. In this post, we’ll review the steps of identifying hazards and why they’re essential.
What Is the Importance of Hazard Identification?
Why is it important to identify hazards in the workplace? In short: failure to do so will inevitably lead to workplace injuries, illnesses, and incidents.
The foundation of workplace safety involves applying the hierarchy of safety controls in order of effectiveness. First, you can try using the process of elimination or substitution to remove or diminish the risk. If the potential for harm remains, you can use engineering controls to separate the workers from the hazards. After that, you try administrative controls, which are procedures, processes, and warning systems for increased safety – and if all else fails, you can provide workers with personal protective equipment.
Examples of Health Hazards
But you can't apply controls to a hazard you're unaware of.
So, the first step in risk management is hazard recognition.
When you think of health hazards in the workplace, there are probably a few that jump to mind, such as asbestos, radiation, live wires, and hazardous chemicals.
Some workplace hazards are obvious, while others are invisible or easily overlooked. That's why employers should take a systematic approach to hazard identification.
There are several categories of health hazards that employers should run through as they evaluate risks in their workplace:
- Chemical hazards (Disinfectants, solvents, etc.)
- Physical hazards (Excessive noise, heat, or radiation)
- Biological hazards (Infectious diseases, mold, poisonous plants, animal waste)
- Ergonomic risk factors (Heavy lifting, reaching above shoulder height, repetitive motions, tasks involving significant vibration)
You can also divide hazards into:
- Hazardous agents. Most biological and chemical hazards can be classified as agents.
- Hazardous conditions. Many physical hazards are actually hazardous conditions, but chemical hazards can also create hazardous conditions.
- Hazardous activities. Most ergonomic risk factors will fall in this category, but mixing chemicals, handling waste, and disturbing asbestos-containing materials are also hazardous.
How To Identify Hazards and Risks
Safety assessments, sometimes called hazard assessments, provide a systematic approach to identifying workplace hazards and risks. These are two separate things. Hazards might cause harm, while the associated risk includes the severity of the outcome and the likelihood of the hazard causing a problem.
Who Is Responsible for Conducting a Hazard Assessment?
OSHA holds employers responsible for risk or hazard assessments in the workplace.
That doesn't mean that the employer has to be the one to conduct the hazard assessment themselves. Instead, they can choose to use a safety consultant.
However, it's ultimately the employer's responsibility to inspect all workplaces and tasks to determine the hazards and risks.
What Steps Should You Take in a Safety Assessment?
The best hazard assessments take a multi-pronged and continual approach to identifying your particular workplace safety risks.
This means reviewing existing data sources, considering the state of things "on the ground," and planning to collect and act on future data. At each stage, consider the hazard categories discussed above to ensure you're not missing any possible risks.
You have many existing sources of hazard information at your disposal before you even begin your safety assessment. Consider:
- Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) you receive from chemical manufacturers
- Inspection reports (internal and/or from external parties like insurance companies, government agencies, or consulting firms)
- OSHA 300 and 301 logs
- Worker's compensation records and reports
- Redacted medical records
- Incident investigation reports
- Job Hazard Analysis results
- Existing safety and health programs (and data you collect for them, like exposure monitoring)
- Minutes from safety and health meetings
- Operating manuals for equipment and machinery
Then you can collect new data by:
- Inspecting all operations, equipment, work areas, and facilities
- Conducting quantitative exposure assessments
- Talking to workers informally
- Surveying workers anonymously
- Identify hazards that could appear during a foreseeable emergency or non-routine task
Inspections require a professional eye, preferably more than one, to be effective. Checklists can also be helpful in ensuring that you're thorough. You can use them to make sure that all work areas, types of equipment, job profiles, and types of hazards are considered. Document everything you find for later reference.
Once you've gathered the appropriate information, create a comprehensive hazard list. Evaluate each hazard and mark each with the severity of the potential outcome and the likelihood that such an event will occur. This will be helpful in deciding which hazards to address first.
You'll also want to identify and execute interim control measures. Interim control measures are the precautions you're going to put into place immediately while you work out permanent hazard control measures.
Finally, you need to plan for the inevitability that conditions can change and new hazards may appear. This means establishing procedures and templates for unexpected incident investigations, identifying and training personnel to conduct the investigations, deciding how you'll analyze for the root cause, and laying out how you'll deal with the results.
Learn More About Hazard Assessments and Hazard Recognition
Hazard identification is a big, complex topic, and it's not one you want to fumble. That's why it's important to provide key personnel with in-depth training in the hazard assessment process.
Our Hazard Recognition and Assessment training is an online, self-paced course that covers task and process analysis, the tools for recognizing hazards, how to manage a hazard assessment, and the relevant laws you're required to comply with.
As an employer, OSHA also holds you responsible for training all employees on the specific hazards they're likely to encounter in the course of their job. As an OSHA-authorized training provider with over 20 years of experience, we have an entire catalog of courses on specific hazards and their remedies, many of which are mandatory OSHA training topics. Our business partners qualify for bulk rates, a free learning management system, and more.
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