Unsafe Working Conditions

February 24, 2023

What is a Worker?

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1970 had one primary purpose: to make work safe for all employees. Unfortunately, before OSHA, the average number of worker deaths a day was about 38 which averaged to about 13,870 worker deaths annually. When that number was counted again in 2020, it was at 4,764 workers who died that year due to work-related injuries and accidents. This number went down because workers were given rights and protection through OSHA.

A worker is someone who works for either a person or a company in exchange for wages. Workers do not need to work any certain amount of hours or time to be considered employees, they simply need to be paid to do the work by their employer. “The term ’employee’ means an employee of an employer who is employed in a business of his employer which affects commerce.”

Every employee has specific rights that are given to them through these standards. Some of these rights are:

  • The right to a safe workplace
  • The right to file a confidential complaint with OSHA
  • The right to receive information, materials, training about hazards, and all the OSHA standards that apply to their workplace
  • The right to review records of work-related injuries and illnesses that occur in their workplace
  • The right to participate in inspections and speak in private with the inspector

Each of these rights was set in place to help us achieve OSHA’s goal: to allow every employee in the nation to go home unharmed at the end of their workday.

Safety Fact Sheets

OSHA has a collection of safety fact sheets specific to different job types, industries, and workplaces. These documents offer essential ideas on how to correct these hazards and educate workers about safe work practices. They are available to all employees.

What is Considered a Workplace?

A workplace is a place where employees work. According to OSHA, the workplace is a physical location where the agency’s work or operations are performed. The workplace is also the place where the employees perform tasks, jobs, and projects for their employer. 

The type of workplace can vary depending on the jobs and industry. Regardless of this, federal law entitles every single employee to a safe workplace. It is the employer’s responsibility to keep the workplace free of every known safety and health hazard. The standards limit the number of hazardous chemicals, substances, or noise that employees can be exposed to that may cause an incident and injury.

Working Conditions

The law requires employers to provide their employees with working conditions that are free of known dangers. As stated previously, OSHA gives workers the right to safe and healthful working conditions. Employers must provide workplaces that are free of known dangers that could harm their employees. It is the employer’s responsibility to provide all necessary protective equipment and safety training for their employees. This will help to minimize or eliminate any chances of injuries and fatalities.

Many different types of health hazards can be found within a workplace. The three most important hazards that employees should be able to recognize and avoid are:

  • Environmental hazards
  • Physical safety hazards
  • Hazards that affect employees’ mental health

Environmental Hazards

An environmental hazard is caused by hazards in the work environment. This can mean two things:

  1. The work environment specifically presents hazards that put employees at risk. An example would be a lab technician who works around blood samples that are infected with HBV.
  2. The jobs or tasks being performed present hazards that put employees at risk. An example of this would be a factory job that requires employees to lift heavy items, which puts them at risk of seriously injuring their backs and legs. 

There are four different types of physical safety hazards that are caused by the work environment, which put employees at risk of being harmed. These four physical safety hazards are:

  1. Chemical safety hazards 
  2. Physical surrounding hazards
  3. Biological hazards
  4. Ergonomic safety hazards

Chemical Safety Hazards 

This includes a workplace that has employees working around chemicals that:

  • Have low exposure limits
  • Are highly volatile
  • Are used in large quantities
  • Are used in unventilated spaces

Physical Surrounding Hazards

A workplace presents physical surrounding hazards if they have:

  • Excessive noise
  • Elevated heat levels
  • Radiation sources

Biological Hazards

Biological hazards can be found in many different forms and can be found in many types of work environments. Despite the difference, the risks they present are still the same. A few examples would be:

  • Infectious disease 
  • Molds
  • Toxic or poisonous plants
  • Animal materials that could cause severe allergic reactions

Ergonomics Safety Hazards

Ergonomic hazards are physical factors within the work environment that may cause musculoskeletal injuries. A few examples of those physical factors are:

  • Heavy lifting
  • Working above shoulder height
  • Repetitive motions
  • Using vibrating tools

Unsafe Conditions: Who Stops Them? 

Many unsafe working conditions are unknowingly caused by the actions of employees. Employees and employers both have separate responsibilities that prioritize the safety of everyone in the workplace. Depending on the type of workplace and job, one mistake made by either party could result in a severe injury or fatality.

Employer Responsibility

As stated earlier, every employer must provide protective equipment and safety training to their employees to prevent injuries and accidents. Safety training enables employees to better understand the hazards that are presented within their specific workplace. This allows employees to avoid these hazards and reduces the risk of incidents. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is also specific to an employee’s workplace and helps to protect employees physically. PPE coupled with safety training is the best way an employer can ensure safety within their workplace.

Employers have many other responsibilities as well. If the employer fulfills these responsibilities, it can decrease the likelihood of accidents and injuries throughout the workplace. Some examples would be:

  • Examining workplace conditions on a regular basis to make sure they conform to standards
  • Providing employees with proper safety policies and procedures 
  • Making sure that safe working practices are in place and being followed

If the employers do not provide all the necessary means for their employees, they are at risk of receiving a hefty fine for a willful violation of employee rights.

Employee Responsibility

Employee responsibilities vary greatly from employer responsibilities. Employers are responsible for supplying employees with everything that is necessary for their safety. On the other hand, employee responsibilities consist of using everything their employers have provided them with in order to stay safe. A few examples of this would be:

  • Actively participating in and using safety training and PPE
  • Following safety policies and procedures
  • Reporting hazardous conditions to the employer
  • Following all employer safety and health rules and regulation

If employees do not comply with the safety and health regulations, they are at risk of getting into an accident or being severely injured. Not only are they putting themselves in danger, but they are also putting their fellow employees at risk.

Work Organization Hazards

Work organization hazards are hazards that have everything to do with the effect that the work environment has on the mental health of employees. Work organization hazards are hazards found within the workplace that can cause stress or strain to an employee.

Stress is normally less devastating to an individual and is generally caused by a single stressor. A strain consists of at least two stressors that have more long-term negative effects on an individual’s psychological well-being. Both affect an employee’s mental health and their ability to be productive at work. Some examples of work organization hazards include:

  • Workload demands
  • Workplace violence
  • Intensity and pace of work environment
  • Lack of respect
  • Flexibility
  • Control or having a say in things
  • Relations between employees 
  • Sexual harassment

It is very important that the employers and employees support each other. Nothing causes stress in the workplace like poor management. Proper supervisory training can go a long way and improve communication skills. It also encourages the company as a whole to set achievable goals and bring focus to the positive aspects of the team. 

Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health

The term “Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health” (IDLH) is used to describe hazards in which even the smallest amount of exposure could cause serious damage to an employee’s life or health. The IDLH ideology was designed and then developed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The primary purpose of IDLH determination was to guide the selection of respiratory use, but since then the term has been used in many different types of workplace environments. For a while, Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health was associated with exposure durations of about 30 minutes. In the year 1994, that changed. There is now no exposure duration associated with an IDLH, this means that employees should not be in any IDLH environment for any length of time without the proper protective equipment provided by their employers. 

Here are some examples of gasses that could create an IDLH atmosphere:

  • Argon
  • Nitrogen
  • Carbon dioxide
  • Helium

Any amount of exposure without the proper PPE could result in a rather wide spectrum of harmful health outcomes that may include:

  • Irritation of the eyes
  • Irritated respiratory tract
  • Severe irreversible health effects
  • An impairment that affects mobility
  • Death 

IDLH limits are chosen by NIOSH based on statistics collected from both human and animal data. Two main factors are considered when they establish these limits. Workers must be able to escape from the environment without suffering:

  1. Permanent health damage.
  2. Severe health conditions that would impair their ability to escape.

Identify Unsafe Working Conditions

Sometimes it is easy for employees to identify unsafe working conditions within their workplace. Things such as equipment falling apart or an open flame are easily identifiable. But not all unsafe working conditions can be detected as easily as others. Some examples of other unsafe working conditions are:

  • Too many workers in a hazardous area
  • Failure to clean up spills
  • Repetitive stress injuries
  • Exposure to toxins

Risk Assessment 

Other types of unsafe working conditions can be identified through a risk assessment. Most risk assessments are performed by employers, but sometimes employers hand this task over to an employee. 

When assessing risk, you should always assume the worst. Risk assessments not only identify unsafe working conditions but also determine how severe the outcome would be during an incident. Conducting a proper risk assessment involves asking three specific questions:

  1. How severe is the potential injury?
  2. How often are employees exposed?
  3. What is the likelihood of employee injury?

How Severe is the Potential Injury?

There are four levels of severity. Knowing each individual level will help supervisors to properly assess the risk at hand. These four levels are:

  1. Minor – Minor injuries are injuries such as bruising or light abrasions. These injuries are the least serious to consider, although they’re still important.
  2. Serious – This type of injury is not permanently debilitating such as loss of consciousness, burns, or breakage, but still requires medical attention. 
  3. Major – Major injuries are injuries that are generally permanent such as loss of sight or amputation of a limb.
  4. Fatal – An injury is classified as fatal if it results in death. These injuries are the worst-case scenario and should be prevented at all costs.

How Often are Employees Exposed?

When it comes to deciphering the overall exposure to a hazard there are three variables that the person tasked with the risk assessment should consider:

  1. The number of workers exposed to the hazard
  2. How frequently they are exposed to the hazard
  3. How long they are exposed to the hazard

 Knowing and understanding these factors will help to properly assess and combat the risk.

What is the Likelihood of Employee Injury?

Determining the likelihood of employee injury when an incident occurs is very similar to determining the severity of an injury. Just like there are four levels of severity, there are also four levels of likelihood. They are as follows:

  1. Unlikely – This means there is a very low chance of an employee getting injured when an incident occurs.
  2. Possible – This level refers to a low to medium chance of someone getting hurt during an incident.
  3. Probable – This means that there is a medium to high chance of an employee getting injured. 
  4. Certain – This entails that there is a 100% chance that an employee will get injured during an incident. 

Report Unsafe Working Conditions

All employees have the right to report any unsafe conditions within their work environment without fear of retaliation. If an employee believes there is a serious hazard or that their employer is not following OSHA standards, they should file a report and request an OSHA investigation. Complaints should be filed with the area office that has jurisdiction over the locations of the employee’s workplace. 

If the unsafe working condition is determined to be able to cause an accident or employee injury, OSHA will send an inspector to the reported workplace. OSHA encourages employees to point out hazards and discuss accidents and illnesses that have occurred inside their place of work. Employees are also encouraged to inform the inspector of any prior complaints that have been made.