Some workplace hazards are obvious, such as washing windows on a scaffold attached to a skyscraper or operating heavy machinery in a construction zone on a busy highway. However, there are many other serious workplace hazards that are often overlooked. Collectively, workplace hazards account for millions of work-related injuries and illnesses each year. Employers can take steps to protect the safety of workers simply by ensuring that the following hazards are no longer overlooked.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), more than 22 million workers in the United States are exposed to hazardous noise levels at work. Hearing loss is the third most common chronic physical condition affecting adults, followed by high blood pressure and arthritis. One in four U.S. workers lose their hearing due to auditory hazards on the job.
NIOSH states that exposure to more than 85 decibels of noise is considered hazardous. Workers who need to raise their voices to speak to someone three feet away are in an environment where the noise level is over 85 decibels. Workers performing tasks under these conditions should wear hearing protection and take regular breaks away from the noise.
Chemical exposure can also create auditory hazards. Solvents such as styrene, toluene, and trichloroethylene, as well as mercury, lead, carbon monoxide, nitriles, and certain pharmaceuticals, can make the ear more susceptible to the harmful effects of noise. NIOSH estimates that up to 10 million workers may be exposed to these types of chemicals during the course of their jobs.
Employees are at risk for permanent, work-related hearing loss across every industry sector. Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, often accompanies hearing loss and can cause sleep disruption and lack of concentration. By using hearing protection, reducing exposure to chemicals, taking breaks away from noisy areas, and working to reduce the source of noise, unnecessary hearing loss can be avoided in the workplace.
Although the dangers of extreme heat and cold are well known, harm caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays may be less apparent, particularly because it occurs over time. UV rays are a type of radiation that can change the structure of skin cells. Overexposure to UV rays can increase a person’s risk for developing skin cancer; evidence also suggests these rays can damage connective tissue.
While working outdoors during the summer creates the highest likelihood of dangerous exposure to UV rays, snow and light-colored sand can also reflect UV light and increase the risk of permanent skin and tissue damage. Furthermore, if workers are taking certain types of prescription drugs, their skin may be more sensitive to the harmful effects of UV rays.
There is a wide range of biological hazards that may arise from working with animals, people, or being outdoors. Workplaces where these hazards are found include the following:
Workers in contact with patients in hospitals, nursing homes, and doctor’s offices may be exposed to bacteria, viruses, blood, and other body fluids. Although these hazards are well known, less attention is paid to workers in schools and day care facilities who may face the same risks. Only now, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, has the health risk of teachers’ exposure to hundreds of students per day been raised to national awareness.
Other overlooked biological hazards include vector-borne diseases that are spread by mosquitoes or ticks. Workers outside can easily contract a parasite, virus, or bacteria if they are bitten by an insect or come in contact with animal or bird droppings. The risk is particularly high if an individual is working by themselves in a remote location. Severe allergic reactions can occur after an insect sting or spider bite.
Lyme disease is another concern for outdoor workers. It is spread by the deer tick, which is quite small and may not be noticed. Some individuals develop a bulls-eye rash around a tick bite, but others do not. The effects of Lyme disease can be halted if antibiotics are promptly administered. Symptoms include fatigue, fever, and joint aches, and other complaints can linger for months or years if left untreated.
Ergonomic hazards typically cause harm to workers over a long period and are therefore easy to overlook. Workers may notice muscle soreness from time to time when, in fact, an ergonomic hazard is slowly damaging the eyes or musculoskeletal system as a result of poor lighting, repetitive stress, vibration, unnatural body positions, and awkward bending or lifting. Nearly every type of job presents some sort of ergonomic hazard, whether it is typing on a computer or operating a jack hammer.
Ergonomic hazards can be mitigated by paying attention to the way spaces are designed at work and what tasks employees are asked to perform. Employers should focus on the following:
Employers should evaluate all factors to determine if short or long-term strain might contribute to work-related injuries. If it is impossible to mitigate workplace design issues, employers should provide employees with ample breaks to reduce strain and rotate employees to give them time off from tasks that involve heavy lifting or exposure to excessive vibration.
Psychosocial factors may be the most overlooked workplace safety hazards today. These factors contribute to both short-term stress and long-term strain that, although invisible to the eye, are just as damaging to a worker’s health as an accident or illness. Psychosocial hazards may materialize as a result of workers experiencing lack of control, excessive workloads, disrespect, or threats from co-workers or customers.
Workplace bullying is unfortunately too common in certain industry sectors. Certain behaviors might appear demeaning, causing undue stress and anxiety. Examples of bullying include practical jokes, offensive language, and unjustified criticism. Depending on the circumstances, bullying may also involve sexual harassment. Workplace culture may create a climate that fosters bullying. Left unaddressed, bullying can lead to occupational violence where workers are threatened or physically assaulted.
The effects of overlooked workplace hazards often show up immediately. If a worker gets stung by a bee and develops an acute allergic reaction to this biological hazard, the effect is immediately apparent. Other health effects may not show up until much later. These include chronic problems with hearing loss due to noise and musculoskeletal conditions arising from long-term repetitive stress brought on by ergonomic hazards. Skin cancer and other conditions can develop as a result of sun exposure. Health effects caused by psychosocial workplace hazards may be particularly difficult to identify.
In all cases, employees who are suffering from an injury or illness that they believe to be work-related should seek medical care. If a physician determines that the condition may be work related, employees should promptly alert their supervisors and file a Workers’ Compensation claim.
There are hazards present in every occupation. Some risks are quite apparent, whereas others are often overlooked. The Philadelphia Workers’ Compensation attorneys at Galfand Berger LLP have been helping injured workers across all types of industries. If you are experiencing a work-related illness or injury and would like legal representation in filing your claim, we invite you to call us at 800-222-8792 or contact us online for a free consultation. From our offices in Philadelphia, Bethlehem, Lancaster, and Reading, Pennsylvania, we serve clients throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey, including Allentown and Harrisburg.