Occupational health exposures occur when a worker is exposed to a harmful substance within the workplace that causes, or may cause acute or chronic health effects. Acute health effects are noticed almost immediately, such as a heart attack while chronic health effects develop, or worsen over an extended period of exposure time, such as silicosis.
From the sun shining on bare skin causing sun burn to an employee ingesting a toxic chemical, workers can be exposed to health hazards in countless ways within the workplace. Employers are responsible anticipate potential hazards, recognize potential hazards, evaluate the exposure, plus risk and control the exposure and risk to their employees. If a hazard is present, an employer must reduce the exposure of the hazards to below the Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA has developed a “Hierarchy of Control” the employer must implement in order to protect their employees. The controls that employers can use to accomplish the lowest possible exposures are by the following means, in respective order:
Eliminating the hazard or using a different material in a process that eliminates the hazard.
Example: Using a water based paint rather than a solvent-based paint minimizes the flammable vapors, as well as, eliminates the hazardous vapors associated with the solvent-based paints.
2. Engineering Controls
Physical changes to the work area or process that effectively minimize a worker’s exposure to hazards.
Example: Enclosing a mechanical unit with a wall to reduce the amount of noise an employee is exposed to.
3. Administrative Controls
Limiting the exposure of the hazard per employee to ensure the employee is working under the allowable levels.
Example: Rotating jobs between employees to ensure the level the employee is below the allowable levels.
4. Personal Protective Equipment
Equipment used by an employee when hazards cannot be eliminated through engineering or administrative controls.
Example: An employee that is cutting concrete using a respirator because the tools they are using do not eliminate the exposure to silica.
A worksite with no occupational hazards is pretty unrealistic. However, by recognizing and anticipating hazards, then using all available resources, employers and employees alike can safely eliminate or control safety issues. Just remember, the key to any program is communication, cooperation, and keeping an open mind.