Hazard Identification and Assessment

Published On: May 7, 2024By Categories: Safety, Safety Matters

Proactively identifying risks before accidents happen is good business.

By Alexandra Walsh

One of the root causes of workplace injuries, illnesses, and incidents is the failure to identify or recognize hazards that are present or could have been anticipated.

A critical element of any effective safety and health program is a proactive, ongoing process to identify and assess these hazards.

Hazard assessment is a term used to describe the overall process or method whereby a business:

  • Identifies hazards and risk factors that have the potential to cause harm (hazard identification)
  • Analyzes and evaluates the risk associated with that hazard (risk analysis and risk evaluation)
  • Determines appropriate ways to eliminate the hazard or control the risk when the hazard cannot be eliminated (risk control).

A risk assessment is a thorough look at your workplace to identify the situations and processes that may cause harm, particularly to people. After identification is made, you analyze and evaluate how likely and severe is the risk. When this determination is made, you can next decide what measures should be in place to eliminate or control the harm from happening.

Such hazards as falls and tripping should be fixed when they are found. Fixing hazards on the spot emphasizes the importance of safety and health.

Collect Existing Information

Information on workplace hazards may already be available to employers and workers from both internal and external sources.

Information should be collected, organized, and reviewed with employees to determine what types of hazards may be present and which workers may be exposed or potentially exposed.

Information available in the workplace includes quite a number of sources:

  • Equipment and machinery operating manuals
  • Safety data sheets (SDS) provided by manufacturers of chemicals
  • Self-inspection reports and inspection reports from insurance carriers, government agencies, and consultants
  • Records of previous injuries and illnesses such as OSHA 300 and 301 logs and reports of incident investigations
  • Workers’ compensation records and reports
  • Patterns of frequently occurring injuries and illnesses
  • Exposure monitoring results, industrial hygiene assessments, and medical records
  • Existing safety and health programs (lockout/tagout, confined spaces, process safety management, personal protective equipment)
  • Input from workers, including notes from safety meetings and safety toolbox talks
  • Results of job hazard analyses, also known as job safety analyses.

Inspect for Hazards

Hazards can be introduced over time as work areas and processes change, equipment or tools become worn, maintenance is neglected, or housekeeping practices decline. Setting aside time to regularly inspect the workplace for hazards can help identify shortcomings so they are addressed before an incident occurs.

  • Conduct regular inspections of all operations, equipment, work areas, and facilities. Have workers participate in the inspection and talk to them about hazards they see or report.
  • Document inspections so you can later verify that hazardous conditions are corrected. Take photos or video of problem areas to facilitate later discussion.
  • Include all areas and activities in these inspections such as storage, facility, and equipment maintenance; purchasing and office functions; and the activities of any part-time or temporary employees.
  • Regularly inspect work vehicles (forklifts, powered industrial trucks) and transportation vehicles (rigs, trucks).

Use checklists that highlight what things to look for. Typical hazards fall into several major categories:

  • General housekeeping
  • Slip, trip, and fall hazards
  • Electrical hazards
  • Equipment operation
  • Equipment maintenance
  • Fire protection
  • Work organization and flow (staffing and scheduling)
  • Work practices
  • Workplace violence
  • Ergonomic problems
  • Lack of emergency procedures.

Before changing operations or introducing new equipment, materials, or processes, seek the input of workers and evaluate the planned changes for potential hazards and related risks.

Many hazards can be identified using common knowledge and available tools. By way of example, you can easily identify and correct hazards associated with broken railings and frayed electrical cords.

Workers can be a useful internal resource, especially if they are trained in how to identify and assess risks.

Identify Health Hazards

Identifying workers’ exposure to health hazards is typically more complex than identifying physical safety hazards. For example, gases and vapors may be invisible, often have no odor, and may not have an immediately noticeable harmful effect on health.

Health hazards include chemical hazards (solvents, adhesives, paints, toxic dusts), physical hazards (noise, radiation, heat), biological hazards (infectious diseases) and ergonomic risks (heavy lifting, repetitive motions, vibration).

Reviewing workers’ medical records (redacted to ensure patient/worker privacy) can be useful in identifying health hazards associated with workplace exposures.

  • Identify chemical hazards. Review SDS and product labels to identify chemicals in your workplace that have low exposure limits, are highly volatile, or are used in large quantities or in unventilated spaces. Identify activities that may result in skin exposure to chemicals.
  • Identify physical hazards. Identify any exposures to excessive noise, elevated heat (indoor and outdoor), or sources of radiation.
  • Identify biological hazards. Determine whether workers may be exposed to sources of infectious diseases, molds, toxic or poisonous plants, or animals capable of causing allergic reactions or occupational asthma.
  • Identify ergonomic risks. Examine work activities that require heavy lifting, work above shoulder height, repetitive motions, or tasks involving significant vibration.

Also helpful is to conduct quantitative exposure assessments. When possible, use air sampling or direct reading instruments. Likewise, review medical records. Identify cases of musculoskeletal injuries, skin irritation or dermatitis, hearing loss, or lung disease that may be related to workplace exposures.

Identifying and assessing health hazards may require specialized knowledge. Small businesses can obtain free and confidential occupational safety and health advice services, including help identifying and assessing workplace hazards, through OSHA’s On-site Consultation Program.

Conduct Incident Investigations

Workplace incidents—including injuries, illnesses, close calls/near misses, and reports of other concerns—provide a clear indication of where hazards exist. By thoroughly investigating incidents and reports, you will identify hazards that are likely to cause future harm. The purpose of an investigation must always be to identify the root causes (there are often more than one) of the incident or concern in order to prevent
future occurrences.

  • Develop a clear plan and procedure for conducting incident investigations so that an investigation can begin immediately when an incident occurs.
  • Plan who will be involved; lines of communication, materials, equipment, and supplies needed; reporting forms and templates.
  • Train investigative teams on investigation techniques, emphasizing objectivity and open-mindedness.
  • Conduct investigations with trained representatives of both management and workers.
  • Investigate close calls and near misses.
  • Identify and analyze root causes to address underlying shortcomings that allowed the incidents to happen.
  • Communicate the results of the investigation to managers, supervisors, and workers to prevent recurrence.

Effective incident investigations do not stop at identifying a single factor that triggered an incident. They ask questions such as “Why?” and “What led to the failure?”

Similarly, a good incident investigation does not stop when it concludes that a worker made an error. It asks, “Was the worker provided with appropriate tools and time to do the work?” “Was the worker adequately trained?” and “Was the worker properly supervised?”

Emergency and Nonroutine Situations

Emergencies present hazards that need to be recognized and understood. Nonroutine or infrequent tasks, including maintenance and startup/shutdown activities, also present potential hazards.

Identify foreseeable emergency scenarios and nonroutine tasks, taking into account the types of material and equipment in use and the location within the facility. Scenarios such as the following may be foreseeable:

  • Fires and explosions
  • Chemical releases
  • Hazardous material spills
  • Startups after planned or unplanned equipment shutdowns
  • Nonroutine tasks such as infrequently performed maintenance activities
  • Structural collapse
  • Disease outbreaks
  • Weather emergencies and natural disasters
  • Medical emergencies
  • Workplace violence.

Control Measures

The next step is to assess and understand the hazards identified and the types of incidents that could result from worker exposure to those hazards. This information can be used to develop interim controls and to prioritize hazards for permanent control.

  • Evaluate each hazard by considering the severity of potential outcomes, the likelihood that an event or exposure will occur, and the number of workers who might be exposed.
  • Use interim control measures to protect workers until more permanent solutions can be implemented.
  • Prioritize the hazards so that those presenting the greatest risk are addressed first. Remember, employers have an ongoing obligation to control all serious recognized hazards and to protect workers.

Alexandra Walsh is the vice president of Association Vision, a Washington, D.C.–area communications company. She has extensive experience in management positions with a range of organizations.

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