What is Occupational Health?
Occupational safety and health (OSH) is a cross-disciplinary field, which deals with protecting the health, safety and welfare of employees. The aim of occupational safety and health programs is to promote a healthy and safe working environment for the workers/employees. Other people who may also be protected are: family members, co-workers, customers, employers and those individuals who may be affected by the workplace. Occupational health is concerned with all the aspects of safety and health at the workplace. Its primary concern is prevention of hazards. The health of the employees is determined by many factors, which include risk factors at the workplace which may cause accidents, cancers, respiratory diseases, musculoskeletal diseases, circulatory diseases, hearing loss, stress related disorders, communicable diseases etc. Occupational health is concerned with identifying, controlling and preventing the risks occurring due to physical, chemical and other such workplace hazards so that employees have a safe and healthy working environment. These hazards can be of various types, such as, chemical agents, solvents; heavy metals like lead and mercury; physical causes such as loud noise; electricity or machinery hazards.
Occupational safety and health is vital for moral, legal and financial reasons. The organizations are duty bound to warrant the safety of their employees and those individuals who can be affected by the workplace. Moral duties comprise of protecting employee’s life and health. Legal duties include the law’s preventative, retributive and compensatory effects which safeguard an employee/worker’s health and safety. OSH is also concerned with preventing and reducing an employee’s injury, costs related to the injury/illnesses such as sick leave, medical care and disability benefit costs. OSH also comprise of interactions between other subject areas such as occupational medicine, occupational hygiene, public health, industrial engineering, safety engineering, health physics, chemistry, ergonomics and occupational health psychology.
Physical and Mechanical Hazards
Physical hazards cause many injuries in organizations and industries. They can be of various types and sometimes can be unavoidable such as seen in construction and mining; however, over a period of time, employers have developed many safety methods to control and prevent the physical hazards at the workplace.
- Falls are a common reason of many occupational injuries and are frequently seen in construction, transportation, extraction, healthcare and cleaning and maintenance of buildings.
- Machines are another source of injuries and are found in various industries such as construction, manufacturing, mining and agriculture. Machines pose a serious threat to workers’ safety and health. The reason for this is, majority of the machines contain sharp edges, moving parts, hot surfaces etc. which have a high risk of causing injuries through crushing, burning, cutting, shearing, stabbing etc. if they are not used safely and appropriately. There are many safety measures which help in minimizing all these hazards such as lockout-tagout procedures for machine maintenance, roll over protection system for vehicles etc.
- Enclosed or confined spaces are also another work hazard, as they have limited openings for entry and exit along with lack of natural ventilation which can be detrimental to an employees’ health if continued for a long period of time. Confined spaces include ship compartments, storage tanks, pipelines and sewers. Confined spaces are not only dangerous for workers, but also pose a risk for those people who are rescuing them.
- Noise is another common workplace hazard resulting in occupational hearing loss. Other causes of occupational hearing loss include: exposure to chemicals like aromatic solvents and metals like arsenic, lead and mercury.
- Extremes in the temperature are also a source of hazard to the workers. Excess heat can cause heat stroke, exhaustion, rashes, cramps, sweaty palms, dizziness and it also fogs up the safety glasses thus increasing the risk of injuries. Workers who work near steam and hot surfaces are at risk of burns, dehydration etc. Excess cold can cause hypothermia, frostbite, chilblains and trench foot.
- Electricity is also a hazard to workers as it can cause various electrical injuries such as fatal electrocution, electric shock, burns and falls after coming in contact with electric force.
- Machines which vibrate, air pressure and lighting are other sources of work-related injuries and illnesses.
- Good ergonomic designs and avoiding repetitive and vigorous movements can prevent musculoskeletal problems.
Biological Hazards: Include bacteria, virus, fungi, mold, blood-borne pathogens and tuberculosis.
Chemical Hazards: Include acids, bases, heavy metals, solvents, lead, petroleum, particulates such as asbestos, various fine dust/fibrous materials and silica; fumes such as toxic gases/vapors, highly-reactive chemicals; fire, conflagration and explosion hazards such as explosion, detonation, deflagration and conflagration.
Psychological and Social Hazards:
- Stress related to work such as working overtime.
- Bullying such as verbal and emotional abuse.
- Sexual harassment.
- Exposure to harmful factors such as tobacco, uncontrolled alcohol during business meetings etc.
Risk and Hazard Assessment
This is the analysis of the various risks of the hazards of the workplace where they are identified, analyzed and prevented/eliminated as much as possible. The main aim of hazard analysis is focusing on the source of the hazard. This assessment comprises of:
- Identifying the hazards.
- Identifying individuals who are affected by the hazard and how.
- Evaluating the risk.
- Identifying and prioritizing proper control measures.
The risk is calculated on the basis of likelihood of the hazard occurrence and its severity. This assessment should be recorded and appraised regularly or if there is any significant change in the work customs. The assessment should also contain practical suggestions to manage the risk. When these suggestions are implemented, then the risk should be re-assessed to find out if it has decreased to an appropriate level or not. However, it is better if the recently introduced controls lower the risk by one level, i.e., from high to medium or from medium to low.