There are many ways to control hazards and prevent injuries. The most basic and widely used method is through PPE and other work equipment.
Based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 2.8 million non-fatal injuries and illnesses and 5,147 fatalities were reported in 2017 in the United States.
For non-fatal injuries that resulted in days away from work the most frequent causes, in decreasing order, were:
- Overexertion and bodily reaction
- Falls, slips, and trips
- Contact with objects or equipment
- Violence and other injury by persons or animals
- Transportation incidents
For fatal incidents, according to BLS, the distribution is as follows:
- Transportation incidents
- Falls, slips, and trips
- Violence and other injuries by persons or animals
- Contact with objects and equipment
- Exposure to harmful substances or environment
As you can see, there is a lot of overlap between the two lists. In this article, I will cover all of the items with the exception of violence, since that one makes the list because of the high prevalence of violence in nursing, corrections, and policing, but it is not representative of general industry.
(To learn more about it, see Workplace Violence Prevention: What's Your Plan?)
Overexertion and Repetitive Stress Injuries
Overexertion and repetitive stress injuries are very costly to employers. In fact, back pain alone costs employers a staggering $7.4 billion annually and 100 million days of lost productivity - and that's according to a 2006 study, so chances are today's cost are much higher! Among the leading causes of repetitive strain injury (especially back injuries) are improper lifting, manually lifting heavy objects, and not taking enough breaks between sessions of heavy lifting.
While the use of back belts or lifting belts has increased in the workplace and is popular with employers and employees, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other organizations claim there is currently not enough data to confirm its benefits and it should be used in conjunction with other controls.
(Learn more about Back Support Belts: The Simple Tool That Can Help Prevent Injury.)
The best protection when lifting is actually to avoid lifting altogether and finding an alternate way of moving the load from point A to point B, especially when talking about heavy or bulky objects. A dolly is a simple and widely available device that most workplaces have that does exactly this.
More specialized solutions could include:
- A small lifting system (like a Sky Hook) to provide mechanical lifting assistance
- Drywall lifts that allow lifting and positioning a heavy and large panel
Contact with Objects or Equipment
Our slow reaction time and relative fragility compared to the speed and power of the equipment we use puts us at risk of severe and long-lasting injuries.
While proper guarding and adequate training can push the balance in our favor, PPE can help reduce the number and severity of these injuries. Given the prevalence of hand injuries, impact and cut resistant gloves can make a substantial difference.
Vehicle accidents rank as the number one cause of fatality in the agriculture industry, but due to prevalence of travel it affects almost all industries.
The most common accidents in this class are:
- Being struck by or run over by a moving vehicle
- Falling from a vehicle
- Being struck by objects or loads falling from a vehicle
- Getting crushed by an overturned vehicle
By far the most common of the workplace accidents involve a pedestrian being hit by a vehicle. This could happen either as a passing vehicle strikes a construction worker performing roadwork (30,890 injuries in 2017) or as an employee driving a company vehicle hits a pedestrian not performing work at the time of impact (6,720 incidents in 2017).
As of right now one of the most effective way to staying safe while being on a road (and not driving) is to make yourself more visible using high-visibility apparel. And in this case the more the better, including hi-viz gloves, hard hats, vests, and leg gaiters.
(Learn more about Hi-Vis Shirts: What Type Do You Need?)
A simple and very effective (but more costly) device is the flashing radar speed sign that flashes and shows the vehicle's speed if the driver exceeds the posted speed limit in a construction zone. This is effective because it not only alerts drivers who are going over the speed limit, but it also makes that transgression visible to everyone around them.
Exposure to Harmful Substances or Environment
The BLS claims there have been 531 workplace fatalities and 37,110 non-fatal injuries and illnesses due to exposure to harmful substances or environment in 2017.
The most common hazards in this class are:
- Extreme temperatures
- Harmful substances
- Oxygen deficiency
The most affected areas for non fatal injuries are “body systems” (which means toxicity), followed closely by “upper extremities” (hands and arms).
For fatal injuries the industries that seem to be more affected are construction and mineral extraction.
We can conclude that the main hazard is exposure to hydrogen sulfide (H2S). A personal gas monitor that detects the presence of H2S in dangerous concentrations is one of the most reliable ways to keep workers safe.
Slips, Trips, and Falls
Slip, trips, and falls have constantly made it to the top of the list for the most common cause of accidents, generally accounting for about one third of all workplace injuries and a major cause of worker compensation claims.
Fall protection receives a disproportionate attention since the fear of height resonates deeply with us and there are a plethora of products and training to mitigate a fall from heights, so we won't focus on it here.
Slips and trips, despite their high percentage in workplace injury and debilitating effects, receive less attention. This is probably because we think of walking as something we're good at. However, workplace conditions are complex and our ability to stay upright is seriously impeded by cables, uneven terrain or flooring, spills, and oily surfaces.
(Learn more about Uneven Ground Conditions: Solutions and Precautions.)
Slips and trips don't always result in a fall, but the overextension required to regain balance can result in injuries that, despite being caused by a slip or trip, might be qualified otherwise.
Unsurprisingly, one of the most effective ways to prevent slips and trips is good quality foot protection, that has a good grip for the surfaces you're working on and that laces all the way up to keep the ankle stable.