Keeping Your Workplace Safe from Environmental Hazards

first aidGoing out to work is more hazardous than you may have thought. In 2016, the most recent year in which statistics are available, an American worker was injured every seven seconds which means that 12,900 workers were hurt per day and 4.7 million were injured per year, according to the National Safety Council.

The numbers gets even bleaker. In addition to those injured non-fatally, 5,190 workers were killed on the job according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the United States Department of Labor. Those numbers translate into an average of more than 99 workers killed per week, or more than 14 deaths each day. While worker deaths in America have decreased significantly over the years, from about 38 worker deaths a day in 1970 to about 14 a day in 2016, far too many workers are still dying on the job.

Despite the still all too common occurrence of injuries and fatalities at places of work, it is an employee’s basic right to have a safe place in which to work, according to the Hazard Communication Standard which details employers’ responsibilities to providing a safe workplace. Certain safety precautions are generally talked about quite often in discourses about workplace safety, such as the need to prevent slips and falls, maintain and abide by safety standards, and to ensure that equipment functions properly. However, another less publicized hazard that poses a significant threat to almost all workers in every workplace is employees’ exposure to environmental hazards, most often in the form of chemicals.

While many businesses may not seem to deal with toxic or dangerous chemicals and therefore don’t need to be concerned about this aspect of the law, in reality, almost every workplace – from a business office, to a beauty salon, to a construction site, to a hospital – has hazardous chemicals on site. The simple reality is that chemicals are all around us, hidden in seemingly innocent products.

The air spray used to freshen the conference room or the restroom at the office? Well, regular use of those sprays can increase the risk of developing asthma by 30 to 50 percent due to the heavy concentration of dangerous phthalates in the product.  Candles too, often used to create ambiance in restaurants or bars or lend a nice smell to an office, contain toxic paraffin that releases carcinogenic chemicals when burned.

Another example of harmful chemicals hiding in everyday products in the office is that of flame retardants found in the carpeting, on the couch, or in the chair padding, among many other hidden places, that millions of workers come into contact with regularly everyday.

Since an estimated 32 million workers each year are potentially exposed to chemical hazards, and likely millions more are exposed to ubiquitous chemicals hiding in everyday products, and with about 650,000 existing chemicals (and more being created all the time) that are potentially harmful to people, property or the environment, this is a serious issue that all employers can’t afford to ignore.

With the numbers and statistics so daunting, what is an employer to do and how is an employer able to encourage a culture of safety at work? The task of keeping the workplace safe may sound impossible because chemicals are everywhere and exposure is so common. Yet, by following some basic but important guidelines it is possible for employers to create and operate a safe workplace that minimizes employees’ exposure to toxins.

Here are some tips to get started:

Awareness

This first step is to create awareness. If a worker is injured because of the carelessness or negligence of another individual such as an employer, the employer may be liable, explains personal injury lawyers DePaolo & Zadeikis . That is why it is important to identify what constitutes a hazardous or dangerous chemical or product. Some examples of common hazardous chemicals include:

  • Paints, cleaning supplies, detergents
  • Pesticides, herbicides insecticides
  • Cosmetics, flammable liquids, toxic fumes
  • Medications, blood and other biohazards
  • Refrigerant gases, diesel fuel, petrol, flammable liquids

Compliance

The next step is compliance to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines to ensure all hazardous materials are correctly labeled with a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). Keeping up to date with regulations governing workplace health and safety codes on both a state and federal level is critical too.

Education

The next step is educating employees through training as to what hazardous materials are onsite. Training should cover how to handle, store and dispose of the substances, and should explain what uniforms or protective gear such as gloves, masks, goggles or boots is required when in contact with the chemicals. Paperwork, which is sometimes required to be completed when dealing with dangerous materials, should also be explained in detail.

Risk Management Plan

Finally, a clear and concise written hazard communication program that is posted in plain site will ensure that the workplace is equipped with all the information that employers and employees need to know. By doing so, the entire staff can work as a team to ensure that the protective measures outlined are implemented. The written program should include a list of the hazardous chemicals on site, the risks and hazards associated with chemicals, the provisions for labeling, handling and disposal of the substances, and any other important information.

In conclusion, it is very difficult to avoid all exposure to chemicals at work, or at home for that matter, because they are a fact of life in our modern reality. Yet, some chemicals are known and have been extensively roven to be particularly harmful to humans and the environment. It is therefore the legal and ethical obligation of employers to take all preventative measures possible and the responsibility of employees to abide by and help support these measures – for the safety and well being of everyone.

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