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How Employees Can Identify Safety and Health Problems in the Workplace

Excerpted from Safe Jobs Now, An AFSCME Guide to Health and Safety in the Workplace.

Identifying health and safety problems means answering basic questions. Answering these questions will determine if there are health and safety problems that need to be addressed. The questions you need to answer are:

  • Do workers have injuries or health complaints? If so, what types?
  • Who has been hurt or is having symptoms?
  • When do the workers feel these symptoms?
  • Where in the workplace are safety or health problems occurring?
  • What are the conditions that are causing problems?

You can get the answers to these questions in many different ways. Here are a few suggestions.

  • Survey workers.
  • Inspect the workplace for hazards and talk to workers about conditions that cause pain, injuries or sickness.
  • Investigate injuries and close calls.
  • Make a "risk map" for the workplace. Find out where hazards are located by surveying the workers and then draw the hazards on a map of the workplace.
  • Request and review injury, medical, training and other records from the employer.
  • Keep up with changes that may affect workers’ health and safety. Keep up with toxic materials and dangerous machinery being used. Is construction or remodeling happening?
  • Start a library. Get copies of regulations, safety codes, and training materials.

Health Hazards

Common types of health hazards in the workplace are:

  • Chemical (asbestos, solvents, chlorine)
  • Biological (tuberculosis, HIV, hepatitis, molds)
  • Physical (noise, heat and cold, radiation, vibration)
  • Ergonomics or Repetitive Strain Injuries (carpal tunnel syndrome, back injuries)
  • Psychological (stress)

How health hazards enter your body:

  • Breathing (inhalation)
  • Swallowing (ingestion)
  • Skin (absorption)
  • Cuts (injection)

The harm caused by health hazards depends on:

  • Strength, or potency, of the agent.
  • Amount of the agent that is present.
  • How long you are exposed to the agent.
  • Part of your body that is exposed.

Types of health effects:

  • Acute: the effect shows up right away.
  • Chronic: problems show up after a long period of exposure and/or long after the exposure ends.
  • Local: only the part of the body that was exposed is affected.
  • Systemic: an agent enters the body and affects other parts of the body.


  • Cancer is a term for many diseases in different parts of the body.
  • Carcinogens are agents that cause cancer.
  • There is no totally safe level of exposure to something that causes cancer.
  • Cancer from a workplace exposure may develop 10, 20 or more years after the exposure.

Reproductive effects

  • Both men and women can be affected by reproductive hazards at work.
  • Reproductive hazards cause miscarriages and birth defects.

Safety Hazards

Workers also face a wide variety of safety hazards on the job. Examples of common safety hazards are:

  • Slips, trips and falls
  • Being caught in or struck by moving machinery or other objects
  • Fire and explosions
  • Transportation and vehicle-related accidents
  • Confined spaces
  • Violence

Slips, Trips and Falls

Poor housekeeping and inadequate drainage can make floors and other walking surfaces wet and slippery. Electrical wires along the floor pose a tripping hazard. Workers can fall if they are not provided safe ladders and footstools.

Caught In or Struck By Moving Machinery/Objects

Machinery can cause injuries in different ways. Workers can get parts of their body caught in or struck by exposed moving parts if machines are not properly guarded, or if they are not locked out when being repaired. Workers can be struck by flying objects from grinders and other machines that do not have protective guards.

Fire and Explosions

Improper labeling, handling or storage of certain materials can pose a risk of fire or explosion. Every workplace should have an evacuation plan for getting people out of a building in case of fire. Every workplace should have an alarm or alert system to quickly inform employees of an emergency. Every worker should be trained on what to do in case of an emergency.

Transportation and Vehicle-Related Accidents

Workers can be seriously injured or killed after being hit by a vehicle while repairing roads or doing other work in traffic zones. This danger exists when traffic is not properly routed and/or adequate barriers are not placed between the workers and the traffic. Also, operators of vehicles and equipment can be injured or cause injury to pedestrians if equipment is unsafe or if adequate training has not been provided.

Confined Spaces

A confined space is an area with small openings for a worker to enter and exit and is not designed for regular work. Examples of confined spaces include manholes, sewer digesters and silos, tunnels, pumping stations, and utility vaults.

There are many hazards in confined spaces. Workers can become unconscious and die from a lack of oxygen. At other times, there may be too much oxygen, or other chemicals that can catch fire or explode. Poisonous gases and vapors, such as hydrogen sulfide or carbon monoxide, may also build up in a confined space. Confined spaces can also pose physical hazards. They can be very hot or cold. Such an area can be very loud. Workers can slip on wet surfaces. Grain, sand or gravel can bury a worker.


Violence on the job has been a growing problem. In fact, homicides are the second leading cause of workplace fatalities. Workplace violence includes physical assault as well as near misses, verbal abuse and sexual harassment.

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