Watch out for These 5 Workplace Hazards! [+ a Lava Lake Example]

workplace hazards

You don’t have to be a health and safety expert to assess the risks in your workplace. Still, if you want to arrive at useful conclusions, you need to equip yourself with some basic knowledge. The most crucial thing is to know how to identify hazards.

Some hazards pose an imminent danger, others become apparent only after some time.

Moreover, not all kinds of hazards can be completely eliminated. These must be controlled.

If all of this sounds a bit boring and abstract to you, bear with me. I’m going to explain it all on an exciting example of a lava lake.

Basic terminology

Before we go any further, let’s get the terminology right.

  • A hazard is anything that may cause harm, such as chemical, machines, electricity, ladders, etc.
  • A risk is the chance, whether high or low, that somebody could be harmed by hazards, together with an indication how serious the harm could be.
  • A harm includes death, injury, illnesses (including mental ones) or disease that may be suffered by a person from a hazard.
  • A control — a system which is in place in order to eliminate harm.

For instance, if your work requires to have a lava lake in your workplace for some reason, the lava lake represents a hazard. The risk is the chance that someone falls into the lava lake. A harm is the natural consequence of that person dying a horrible death. Finally, a control is the railing you install around the lava lake once you’ve identified it as a hazard.

Sure, this is an absurd example. Most safety hazards are not so easy to spot and you might even think your workplace is relatively free from hazards. But then someone dies in a terrible lava lake accident and you realise you could have easily prevented if you only identified the hazard sooner.

5 Types of Workplace Hazards

Notice how the whole process of eliminating risks starts with identifying hazards. It’s crucial that you know where to look for them. If you don’t know where to begin, check out the list below.

1. Physical hazards

These are the most common hazards and can be present in all kinds of workplaces. They can harm the body even without necessarily touching it.

  • Frayed electrical cords
  • Unguarded machinery
  • Constant loud noise
  • Vibrations
  • Scaffolding
  • Ladders
  • Radiation

2. Biological hazards

These include any exposure to harm or disease related to working with people, animals, or infectious biological materials. Workplaces with these kinds of hazards include, for example, hospitals, laboratories, nursing homes, emergency, schools, etc.

  • Bacteria and viruses
  • Fungi and mold
  • Blood, saliva, and other body fluids
  • Plants
  • Insects bites
  • Animal droppings

3. Ergonomic hazards

Occur when the type of work, body positions and work conditions put a strain on your body. They are difficult to spot, since their effects only become apparent after a longer period of time. What starts as a sore back after spending a day in the office can result in severe scoliosis over time.

Examples include:

  • Improperly set up workstations and chairs
  • Frequent heavy lifting
  • Poot posture
  • Awkward repetitive movements
  • Poor lighting

4. Chemical hazards

As the name implies, these hazards are present when a worker comes into contact with a chemical solution in any form — be it solid, gas, or liquid. Some are less damaging than other but to some workers even common chemicals can cause illness, skin irritation, or breathing problems.

  • Cleaning products, paints, acids
  • Vapours and dangerous fumes
  • Gases like propane, acetylene, carbon monoxide
  • Flammable chemicals
  • Pesticides

5. Work organisation hazards

Hazards associated with the human aspect of work. These mostly arise from:

  • Workplace demands
  • Workplace violence
  • Intensity or pace
  • Social support or relations
  • Sexual harassment

Poor work practices create hazards

Sure, all of the above sounds pretty straightforward. However, things can get really tricky once you realise that majority of work hazards is created by employers themselves.

It’s a real nightmare, employers make hazards pop up all over the place, all the time.

  • Using machinery or tools without authority
  • Defective tools or equipment
  • Using tools or equipment in unsafe ways
  • Standing or working under suspended loads, scaffolds, shafts, or open hatches
  • Failing to use personal protective equipment or safety devices
  • Overloading, crowding or failing to balance materials
  • Repairing or adjusting equipment that is in motion, under pressure, or electrically charged
  • Working alone or without a proper tracking equipment

Moreover, hazards created by employers are almost impossible to predict. Even if you have all controlling measures perfectly set up and in place, it’s always just a matter of time before someone finds a creative way to circumvent them and get hurt.

To quote the Interstellar’s tautological wisdom:

“Whatever can happen, will.”

In those cases it’s important to have procedures in place to help the victim quickly. At the same time, every incident is an opportunity to improve your safety practices.

sources: TakeOneStep, HSE 

How I Almost Died While Backpacking in Bolivia and Found Out Why Institutions Like OSHA Really Exist

feeling safe vs being safe


Have you ever heard about the Darwin Awards? Every year, they award people who died in the dumbest ways you can imagine. At the same time they are a testimony to the fact that being safe and feeling safe are two quite unrelated things. I remember the day when I genuinely thought I was about to become a laureate of this prestigious award.

During that time, we did many things others would consider dangerous. We lived in rainforest for a while, went fishing on a raft we had built ourselves, and hitchhiked all across Patagonia. Yet, the only time I feared for my life was when we finally came to La Paz, Bolivia.

Being Safe vs. Feeling Safe: Arrival at La Paz

It was one scary cab ride. Compared to other things we did, this should have been a uneventful transfer to hotel. And objectively, it really was. There was absolutely no risk to our lives or well-being.

But then again, maybe we shouldn’t have talked to that old woman on the bus. In less than an hour, she told us everything about fake taxi drivers in La Paz. How they lure you into their car with a confidence trick, rob you, and then leave you in the outskirts of the city at night.

After a quick google search, the danger seemed very real to us. Even more so once the bus finally arrived at the terminal and no one was leaving. They were all waiting for the sunrise. “It must really be too dangerous outside even for the locals,” we thought. What must they be doing to poor tourists like ourselves? We didn’t dare to move either.

Being Safe vs. Feeling Safe: The Deaf Taxi Driver

At the break of dawn, we finally mustered enough courage and began to look for a safe cab. We knew that real taxis had to have a phone number printed on them, glowing sign on the roof, and a voice radio inside.

We rejected several of the taxi drivers who swarmed us at the entrance. Instead, we took a cab that was parked next to a police officer. By the way, did you know that La Paz is also famous for its fake policemen? Well, we did but hoped for the best.

The cab driver made us write down the address of our hotel for him, which was weird but I thought it was due to our accent. Then I noticed he didn’t have a radio inside. Only fake taxis don’t have a radio! But it was too late for thinking about that, the car had already begun to move.

Crutching my phone in hand, I was following our location on Google Maps. So far so good. Then suddenly, the car turned into a narrow dark alley, my battery died and I started screaming “No, no, no, no, señor!”

Do you remember how the driver wanted me to write down the address of our hotel? Well, he was almost completely deaf, which is why he paid no attention to my screams. Moreover, a deaf taxi driver has no use for a radio.

Being Safe vs. Feeling Safe: My Hysterical Outburst

None of this occurred to me at that moment. I was too busy being petrified by a bin lorry that just blocked the street.

Do you know those scenes from Hollywood movies? You know, the ones where a truck blocks a street while a group of gangsters pulls passengers out of their car. Well, that’s exactly what was going through my head at that very moment. I was certain we were about to get abducted, robbed, raped, and killed off in the end.

Fortunately, this story is somewhat anti-climactic. The taxi driver was a lovely guy who took us exactly where we wanted to. Nothing bad happened to us and La Paz is probably much safer than we were led to believe.

Still, I felt the danger was very real. For some time, I believed it was simply because I’m a wuss. But what if it had little to do with me being a chicken? What if my hysterical reaction can tell us something essential about how humans experience danger?

being safe vs feeling safe

Being save vs. Feeling Safe: Security Is a Trade-Off

Human beings, including me, seem to be hopelessly bad at identifying dangerous situations. Just skim through the Darwin Awards Facebook page.

Immediately, you’ll find a story of a man who got trampled to death by an angry elephant while trying to make a selfie with him. Or story of a college graduate who fell into a spring of boiling acidic water as he was reaching down to check if the water temperature.

Most of these deaths have a lot do with the fact that humans are terrible at making the right security trade-offs. And when you think about it, security is always a trade-off. It comes at a price of convenience, money, time, liberties, and so on.

For instance, you trade the inconvenience of having to carry a key around in your pocket for some additional home security. Similarly, you trade the liberty of making up-close selfies with animals against the security from being trampled to death by an elephant. But you can also do the opposite and trade the security of staying at home against the liberty of hitchhiking across South america.

In my case, it worked out. I made the right security trade-offs. On the other hand, people who received the Darwin Award made a terrible trade-off and now they’re…well, dead.

being safe vs feeling safe

Being Safe vs. Feeling Safe: Cognitive Biases

It’s surprisingly difficult to make correct security trade-offs consistently. Humans are, above all, prone to all kinds of cognitive biases. Selecting only few among many:

  • Most people are less afraid of risks that are natural than those that are human-made.
  • Most people are less afraid of a risk they choose to take rather than a risk imposed on them.
  • Most people are less afraid of a risk they feel they have some control over.
  • Most people are more afraid of risks that we are more aware of and less afraid of risks they are less aware of.

You can probably already trace these biases across my story.

  • While backpacking, I was never afraid to take risks inherently present in nature. The first time I really feared for my life was when I encountered a human-made danger.
  • I felt much better when I was able to reject the taxi drivers who approached me first. Instead, I picked one who allowed me to choose freely.
  • I started panicking once I was completely at mercy of our driver. The moment my phone died, I lost even the last bit of control over the situation.
  • Everything would have probably been fine if the old lady on the bus didn’t tell us all the scary stories. I was overly aware of the risk.

Being Safe vs. Feeling Safe: Why Does OSHA Exist?

Human brain is a fascinating organ, but an absolute mess. Since assessing and reacting to risk is one of the most important things a living creature has to deal with, there’a very primitive part of the brain that deals just with that. However, this primitive part of the brain only works consistently well when faced with the most immediate and obvious threats.

We know the world is more complicated than that. Some scary things are not as dangerous as they seem, others are not scary at all but will kill you just as surely. Moreover, often it can be useful to stay in a dangerous situation and a work out a more sophisticated analysis of the situation.

At the core of the problem lies the facts that we humans have two ways of reacting to risk. First, a primitive system which reacts intuitively. Second, we have the ability of analytical reasoning. However, these two operate in parallel and it’s hard for reason to counter our instincts.

Once you see it this way, even insanely boring jobs like “health and safety inspector” suddenly seem interesting! They’re are fighting an almost existential battle against human nature itself!

If you’re wondering about those cute animated gifs in the article, they come from a song called “Dumb Ways to Die”. You can listen to it here

7 Worst Death Star Health and Safety Violations

death star health and safety

Dear Admiral Motti,

We are gravely distressed by the systematic disregard for health and safety on the new Imperial battle station called the “Liberation Star.” Following our recent inspection, we will be recommending a full suspension of operations until these concerns are addressed. In its current state, the “Liberation Star” is probably more deadly to its personnel than the enemies of the Empire.

We expect the following problems will be remedied within the next 6 months, otherwise we will have to recommend a permanent shutdown.

1. Artificial gravity allocation (a.k.a. “god what’s with those bottomless chasms everywhere?”)

The Death Star uses artificial gravity generators. Any spherical object with the size and mass of a small moon would have its own gravity — “down” would be directed towards the station’s core. On the Liberation Star, as the Imperials like to call it, “down” is always directed toward the station’s south pole.

Our concern is rather obvious — why aren’t these generators turned off or just simply not installed beneath the station’s innumerable bottomless pits?

What’s even worse, the Empire doesn’t even keep records of all bottomless pit accidents. There’s not even an accident book. That’s unbelievable, considering that each of these pits is an accident waiting to happen!

Just think of it. Darth Maul? Bottomless pit (probably still in there). Darth Sidious? Bottomless pit. Han Solo? Bottomless pit. How many good (and evil) men and women have to die before the Empire finally does something about it?

Okay. Fine. I get it. Perhaps the station uses a single gravity generation to service the entire Death Star. Perhaps such generator cannot be used to provide gravity only to certain areas. But if that’s the case, then…

2. Why are there virtually NO RAILINGS around bottomless pits?

Even though there are no official reports, we’ve heard rumours. And boy, are they scary.

According to our data, at least 150 employees died in falls which could have been easily prevented by installation of railings and barriers. We suspect that many more incidents went unreported.

Bottomless chasms are obviously a signature feature of Imperial architecture (Hey, the Empire! You’ve got a lot to learn from the Rebel Alliance!), which makes the absence of safety railings even more criminal. Not so much as a “Watch Your Step” sign.

Oversights such as these make us wonder if the Galactic Empire employs any health and safety officers at all! Reportedly, the one who was responsible for the Death Star project was dismissed under suspicious circumstances.

Sure, any Imperial official will probably argue these facilities are mostly serviced by droids. Still, such explanation doesn’t stand when you consider the following…

3. Whose idea was it to shoot the super-laser down a manned accelerator tunnel?

How come that firing the station’s weapon requires the personnel to stand INSIDE THE BARREL OF THE DEATH STAR’S FREAKIN’  SUPER-LASER!

We are appalled at the utter disregard for stormtrooper lives that went into this design. Who thought it would be a good idea to build a weapon that requires at least 14 people stand within 3 meters of a laser powerful enough to destroy a 1/7 of a planet?

We’re talking 90 gigajoules/sec here! Each time the super-laser is fired, operators are exposed to about 10 000 rem. Exposure to a single blast results in loss of hair, teeth, and some other things that are too horrific to talk about.

These poor Imperial employees weren’t even issued any eye protection. Instead, they were instructed to shield their eyes with their hands “if the beam gets too bright for you.”

Moreover, there are no handrails yet again. The employees are expected to keep their balance on what looks like a platform of 3 square meters. According to some of the death bed interviews we’ve conducted, this was due to the fact the superiors “didn’t want to encourage leaning.”

This alone would be enough for us to recommend the battle station be shut down permanently. Yet, the list goes on.

4. Danger doors instead of safety doors.

Even though we only had limited material to work with, we were only an hour or so into our Death Star footage when we noticed a stormtrooper smash his head against a door. Imagine what happened in those thousands of hours we didn’t see.

How many stormtroopers will have to whack their heads running into rooms before the Emperor (or anyone, really) takes notice? At least, put a sign there.

Moreover, why do these doors close so rapidly? It’s only a matter of time when some slow-moving snail of a stormtrooper gets sliced into halves.

We understand that having rapidly closing blast doors can be useful in case of an explosion, but is it really so difficult to put a motion sensor in there for everyday use? We were told the Death Star is a top-of-the-line military structure. How come it isn’t equipped with something that can be seen in every grocery store nowadays?

5. Mouse droid infestation?

There also seem to be hordes of tiny wheeled robots weaving their way through the dense pedestrian traffic of the station’s corridors. They represent an abhorrent safety hazard and we are scandalised it has not been addressed yet.

You might as well litter the hallways with hundreds of randomly placed skateboards.

We have also received conflicting information as for what purpose these droids serve. Some employees said they were used to deliver messages. We must say we’re totally perplexed — why are you not using computer network for this?

Finally, we were informed these droids tend to explode when frightened with unexpected input. For heaven’s sake, these are the droids you use to guide civilian visitors around the station!

6. A waste disposal system taken straight out of a horror movie

The station’s waste disposal system has evidently already reached a condition of a substantial biohazard. Considering it has only recently become operational, we have reasons to believe the system’s capacity was misjudged from the outset.

How can we otherwise explain that only few weeks after the beginning of normal operation this part of the station is already swarming with dangerous Cephalopoda? If these are left unchecked, the infestation can spread to other parts of the Death Star. They would surely prove even greater nuisance than the ubiquitous mouse droids.

Still, we’re equally disconcerted about the fact that employees can accidentally fall into some of the garbage compactors. What’s more, the compactor doors are impossible to open from the inside. What is the standard procedure in a case of being stranded in a garbage compactor?

7. Missing hangar doors?

Try to imagine hundreds of white-clad stormtroopers slowly dispersing around the station like some kind of screaming Imperial confetti. That’s what would happen in the unlikely event of a power outage!

As we understand it, there is not even an evacuation procedure in place for that kind of event. Put doors on hangar bays.

We look forward, Admiral, to hearing your plan of action at our meeting next month. After all, both the military and health and safety personnel are here to help the Galactic Empire’s war effort. We will be expecting your full cooperation.

Yours sincerely,

— Inspectors from the Imperial OSHA

A Lesson to Be Learned from the EU Accidents at Work Statistics

accidents at work

We took the European statistics on accidents at work and correlated it with the USA’s list of the most cited safety and health violations. What does the result mean for your business?

Every year, the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) releases a list of the 10 most frequently cited safety and health violations. According to Thomas Galassi, “One remarkable thing about the list is that it rarely changes.” Year after year, health and safety inspectors record a similar set of violations in the workplace.

“Year after year, health and safety inspectors record a similar set of violations in the workplace.”

The EU-OSHA doesn’t publish a list of most frequent safety at work violations. Still, the US study can be also relevant to European workplaces. In spite of many differences, the most dangerous work environments are identical both to the EU and the USA: construction, transportation, and agriculture. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics even released a study which compared the two regions in terms of work accidents. Although BLS officials cautioned against reading too much into the data, they showed that a comparison was possible.

We can’t stress this enough — most of the safety incidents that result from these hazards are preventable. This highlights the need for strong safety leadership in setting high safety standards and enforcing them constantly.

Let’s divide the OSHA’s list into three parts, depending on what type of accidents they seek to prevent and see what it indicates in combination with the European accidents at work statistics.

Non-fatal Accidents at Work
Non-fatal accidents according to activity deviation (%)

A. Slipping, tripping, and falling

OSHA most cited violations:

  • Fall protection
  • Scaffolds
  • Ladders

It’s no coincidence that falls are among the leading causes of worker deaths. In 2014, almost 19 percent of all non-fatal injuries and 14 percent of fatal injuries in the EU were caused by falls. These were falls from great heights, falls on slippery floors, or trips over something lying on the floor. We know how to prevent all of these. Yet they still remain one of the most common causes of workplace injuries.

B. Loss of control of machine

OSHA most cited violations: 

  • Lockout/Tagout
  • Powered industrial trucks
  • Machine guarding

In 2014, almost 21 percent of non-fatal and 30 percent of fatal accidents happened as a consequence of sudden loss of control of a machine. We see far too many workers being killed or injured when machinery suddenly starts up while being repaired, or hands and fingers are exposed to moving parts. We shouldn’t forget to add traffic rules violations to the list since the highest number of workers in transportation dies in road accidents every year. It’s no coincidence that three out of ten precautions on the OSHA’s list aim to mitigate these types of accidents.

C. Goods manipulation

OSHA most cited violations:

  • None

The second most common type of work accident is two-fold. First, it relates to pulling, lifting, pushing, holding, carrying, and throwing activities at work. More than 18 percent of non-fatal injuries and only 2 percent of fatal injuries happen due to overexertion. Second, it relates to breakage, bursting, splitting, spilling, fall, or collapse of a material agent. Almost 7 percent of non-fatal injuries and 12 percent of fatal injuries occur in this way. This means that about 25 percent of non-fatal injuries and 14 percent of fatal injuries happen while manipulating goods.

Fatal Accidents at Work Chart
Fatal accidents according to activity or deviation (%)

Foster a culture of safety

Still, we were unable to connect the third type of accidents to any of the OSHA’s list of safety violations. On the first sight, this would point towards the shortcomings of our project. After all, we are attempting to correlate an American statistic with European data. Yet, the data shows that the situations on both sides of the Atlantic are remarkably similar.

One shouldn’t read too much into the data, but let’s give it a shot anyway. The implication points to a significant blind spot in health and safety regulations.

The main point of interest here is overexertion. It is the most frequent and most expensive of all work injuries. Yet, it is impossible to fight overexertion with a simple safety measure — no safeguard is going to be enough. Instead, we have tackle overexertion by fostering cultures of safety within our companies. Such company cultures reduce costs, raise productivity, and improve morale. Problems such as overexertion reveal the necessity to go beyond minimal requirements and simple health and safety rules. It points towards the necessity of m ore robust health and safety education.