5 Easily Overlooked Safety Risks Every Workplace Should Address
Systemic hazards are subtle and poorly understood, but they have tangible and often severe outcomes. Identifying and tackling them is an important step in moving safety forward.
It's an unfortunate truth that organizations and industries overlook safety risks. Despite our best efforts, some hazards remain unidentified and uncontrolled.
For proof, we only need to look at the safety record. If every risk was mitigated, that record would improve damatically over the years. Sadly, that hasn't been the case. The fatality rate for most industries has been stubbornly stable, remaining practically the same over the last couple of decades, as shown in the following graphs.
We could make the case that the most overlooked risks are the same ones that make up OSHA's Fatal Four: falls, struck by objects, electrocution, and caught-in or caught-between. How could it be otherwise when these constantly top the list for fatalities and disabling injuries?
Those risks, however, have been covered extensively. Every safety professional is well aware of them. Instead, I want to focus on some less obvious safety risks that nevertheless have the potential to cause serious harm.
Bullying, Harassment, and Violence
Buillying, harassment, and violence are all separate concepts, but I'll avoid splitting hairs in order to keep our discussion brief. For our purposes, I will treat them as a single risk.
For a long time, bullying, harassment, and violence have been seen as matters to be handled by Human Resources. As such, safety professionals have mostly ignored them. To make matters worse, according to Dave Rebbit, HR professionals are poorly trained in investigative procedures, which makes them ill-equipped to handle these problems.
With recent legislation recognizing bullying, harassment, and violence as occupational hazards in many Canadian provinces, safety professionals are now expected to mitigate these hazards. There is, however, little to no specific tranining currently available.
Bullying and harassment can obviously impact employee mental health and lead to severe psychological conditions, such as anxiety, depression, and post traumatic stress disorder. These conditions might compound risks by decreasing their awareness of other hazards and increase their susceptibility to physical harm.
Work-related stress can arise from various aspects of the job, including:
- Job factors (workload, pace, isolation, level of autonomy)
- Organizational role (role conflict, role ambiguity, level of responsibility)
- Career development (promotion prospects, job security, job satisfaction)
- Realtionships at work (with co-workers, supervisors, or subordinates)
- Organizational climate (level of participation in decision making, management style, management communication style)
Regardless of its causes, stress can be an occupational risk in all industries and can impact employee mental health, impair their work performance, and make them more accident prone. It can also increase the cases of violence in the organization or can lead some employees to suicide. According to Ann M. Williams in the International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, 10% of all health care claims can be directly attributed to stress.
(Learn more about Managing Burnout to Reduce Deadly Accidents)
Stress can also lead to the onset or aggravation of a plethora of physical conditions, as respresented in this graphic by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
Inadequate Safety Training
An employee's ability to perform their job safely depends in no small part on how well we prepare them for the work they'll be doing. One way to do this is through the orientation and onboarding process, followed by additional training and education as their role evolves.
This should be easy pickings for most organizations. Yet despite major improvements over the years, organzations could still benefit from more safety training. A 2007 study by the Institute for Work & Health showed that only 1 in 5 Canadians stated they received training starting a new job. A 2019 National Safety Month Survey conducted by 360Training shows that 56% of the respondents expressed interest in receiving more training, which suggests that they felt felt under-prepared for their jobs.
Even if all employees receive safety training when starting a new position, it is worthwhile to evaluate the effectiveness of that training. Are the learning outcomes transferrable to the employee's job or is the training given mostly for compliance reasons?
Considering that companies can save between four to six dollars for every dollar they invest in safety training and that many employers incur high costs from managing work injury claims, increasing the quantity and improving the quality of the safety training offered to employees is a sensible step to take.
(Learn more in 6 Steps for Designing a Training Program that Strengthens Safety)
Temporary workers make up a significant percentage of the total workforce and that percentage is continuing to grow. It is even outpacing the growth in permanent workers.
In Canada, there were 2.1 million people working temporary jobs across the country in 2018 (up from 1.4 million in 1998), according to the Statistics Canada's Labour Force Survey. According to BusinessWire, the same phenomenon characterizes the US economy and the trend is bound to continue.
While employers may hire temporary workers as a cost saving measure, the reality is that these workers often perform high-hazard jobs while receiving less training than permanent workers. A 2013 ProPublica article notes that temporary workers suffer injuries far more often than permanent workers (72% higher in Minnesota, 66% in Oregon, 50% in California and Florida, 36% in Massachusetts).
Companies, then, are faced with a tough choice. They must either reduce their reliance on temporary workers or invest more resources in training them. Otherwise, any costs that are saved by hiring temporary workers will be negated or outpaced by those incurred from an increased incident rate.
Ergonomics and Working from Home
Ergonomic hazards are universal. They affect workers in the field and those who work in the office. And while companies often identify and implement controls for the ergonomic hazards on the jobsite, office workers have not always received the same attention.
That is beginning to change. Ergonomics has become a trendy topic thanks to COVID and the spike in work from home arrangements. Although these employees are not present in the workplace, employers are nevertheless responsible for their wellbeing while they're carrying out their work - wherever that may be. As such, employers have to address and mitigate ergonomic issues and other hazards even for employees who work from home.
The problem is that employees and employers both tend to have a superficial knowledge of ergonomic hazards and their corresponding control measures. Employees who spend the majority of their working hours at a desk still require training and equipment to prevent musculoskeletal disorders, strains from poor posture, eye strain from staring at a screen for extended periods of time, and the risks that come from prolonged sitting or standing.
(Learn about Lean Ergonomics and Why It Matters)
The risks discussed here are not as obvious as the ones posed by heights, harsh chemicals, and heavy machinery. They're more subtle and systemic. And unfortunately, our safety analyses typically stop before reaching the systemic level.
The result are hazards that are only partially addressed. When a temporary worker falls, for instance, we might note insufficient training as one of the causes but overlook the fact that we provide less training to our temporary workers.
Getting the full picture means taking into consideration all the hazards at play - including those that are less evident.