Different Industries are known for different hazards and work-related injuries. While working in construction increases the risk of being in an accident resulting from a trip, slip or fall, office-workers are prone to back pain and declining vision due to sitting in front of a computer for many hours a day.
Government bodies, like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), are implementing new safety and health regulations to decrease the number of accidents and occupational diseases. Stricter controls, higher breach fines and better guidance aim for improved working conditions and fewer accidents each year.
Yet, those regulations tend to focus on the most extreme cases, where chemicals are proven to cause severe diseases such as cancer. The hidden danger lies in those substances that appear relatively harmless at first but can physically damage in the long run.
Unknown dangers in the workplace
Heavy industrial machinery is notorious for accident risk but there are many potential hazards in the workplace much less visible than cutting, welding or grinding machines.
Often overlooked are illnesses caused by exposure to dangerous substances at work. Some chemicals, like asbestos, are commonly known for causing cancer and therefore require special handling and labelling. Asbestos has now been banned in the EU, after years of not knowing its deadly consequences.
Until today, new chemicals that were previously thought safe are revealed to cause illnesses when it’s already too late. Asbestos had been known to threaten worker’s health for more than a decade in Europe before regulations finally prohibited the use of the highly dangerous mineral.
But it gets even more difficult when a substance is not obviously dangerous.
Flour, for example, can cause a runny nose, sneezing and coughing which can lead to bacteria getting into the product. When exposed to fine dust, like flour, for a longer term, constant inhalation can trigger asthma and other lung diseases. It might not seem like an especially dangerous job, but people working in a bakery will need to consider those risks.
Other apparently harmless substances, like paint, ink, glue, detergent or beauty products can cause diseases, too. Handling wet substances for a long time can lead to dermatitis and fungus infections. This includes products, such as flowers, fruits and vegetables or bulbs. Welders, quarry workers or woodworkers are exposed to fume-laden air which can trigger lung diseases. Wet cement can lead to chemical burns. Long-time exposure to pesticides increases the risk of developing leukaemia - the list is long.
OSHA has made efforts in the past to ban substances, like silica, that have been causing lung cancer to workers for decades now. However, such efforts are sparse and time-consuming as it often takes many years for a new regulation to come into place.
The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work has now started a new campaign to help raise awareness and provide companies and employees with helpful tips and insight on how to manage risks efficiently.
They specifically address employers, managers and staff to work together to work towards a safer working environment for everyone. Business owners are legally obliged to carry out risk assessments to allocate and prevent potential hazards. Those audits should always be done by a competent health and safety consultancy, not by the employer himself.
The campaign is meant to run two years and will issue certificates and good practice awards for firms who want to get involved.
A company’s responsibility
Common-sense can certainly help approach dangerous substances but isn’t always given or sufficient. Often employees aren’t even aware of the potential health risks of a substance which makes it impossible for them to safeguard against possible consequences. A company’s main concern should always be their employees, not economic growth.
Managers should encourage their workers in creating a sustainable, healthy work life. That includes regular training, extensive education and providing resources and help at any time needed. Workers should feel sure of how to handle any situation they might encounter during their day.
Safe work practices are essential and vary from company to company. Regardless of the type of workplace, however, some simple guidelines apply to all; cleaning chemicals should be treated with care and instructions on how to use or store them always need to be followed neatly. Enclosed spaces in which dangerous substances are used need to be ventilated frequently and correctly. The correct recycling or discarding of substances will help avoid accidents further down the line.
Having an extensive chemical safety exposure plan in place is very important when working with dangerous substances. An essential step is to measure the concentration of substances in the air to find out whether exposures are below the workplace limits. In the UK, the COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) can help setting up an exposure plan.
Still, sticking to official guidelines and classifications is not enough when it comes to toxic chemicals. Such guidelines are not extensive and often only cover the most dangerous substances.
How to take action
Both in the manufacturer’s, and the consumer’s interest, safety and health should always be a priority. There have been too many cases where products had to be recalled because of safety issues. At that point, buyer and worker will already have taken damage.
The chemicals industry will try to keep as many products on the market as possible. It is important that those directly exposed to dangerous substances start taking the initiative when it comes to protecting their health.
Don’t blindly accept anything your company tells you to do. Research is important when it comes to any kind of working conditions, whether it is working in front of the computer or at a construction site. Your wellbeing is more important than carrying work out fast. Deadlines can create unnecessary stress in situations where safety should be the number one priority.
If you feel unsure about working practices in your company or have further questions, reach out to OSHA.