In busy workplaces like warehouses, factories, construction sites, and hospitals, employees can be put at risk for injury or illness just by doing their jobs. You might strain your back lifting heavy boxes, injure your lungs with exposure to toxic chemicals used in industrial cleaning, or develop a repetitive motion injury to your arm or wrist by working on the same assembly line for hours at a time.
“Workplace injuries can be either acute or chronic,” says Carisa Harris-Adamson, PhD, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences and deputy director of the Center of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health. “Acute injuries are from some sort of accident or sudden exposure, which we try to prevent through good safety measures. Chronic injuries result from cumulative exposures, which happen over time when the demands of a task you have to do over and over again ultimately put too much strain on your body.”
How can you protect yourself from injuries caused by your job? Every job has its own unique risks, experts say, but there are basic principles that can help keep you safe in any job. It’s called a “hierarchy of controls,” and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) says it is the “fundamental method of protecting workers.”
“Employers and employees are both responsible for worker health and safety,” says Martin Cohen, ScD, a teaching professor in the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington School of Public Health. “The employer is responsible for providing a healthy and safe workplace, and the employee needs to take that seriously, understand the hazards they are exposed to, and work with their employer to minimize those hazards.”
Keep Yourself Safe
The hierarchy of controls starts with the most effective and protective methods at the top, working down to the ones that are less effective at the bottom. What should you ask for to keep yourself safe at your job?
Elimination. If there’s a way to eliminate the hazard, that’s the best way to ensure workplace safety. For example, if you work on a building construction site, are there jobs people are doing nine stories above ground that could actually be done on the ground, eliminating the risk of a fall?
Substitution. The next best thing to elimination, substitution means switching out the dangerous situation for something less dangerous. That could mean replacing a toxic chemical with a less toxic one, like paints that are “low VOC,” meaning they contain very low or no volatile organic compounds that can be hazardous to your health.
Engineering controls. If you can’t eliminate the hazard or substitute something else, can you redesign the way the job works to lessen that hazard? If you’re working at heights, that can mean installing guard rails and covering holes. If you’re exposed to dust and fine particles from construction or cutting marble countertops, adding ventilation fans and ducting can help.
“Many workplace injuries are the result of repetitive motion,” Cohen says. “People performing the same task over and over again can develop chronic pain and musculoskeletal damage. To prevent this, redesign of the job may help, by changing how a workstation is set up or how the flow of a task works.”
Administrative controls. If the other solutions don’t completely address the problem, administrative controls should also be put in place, like warning labels on dangerous machine parts, reducing the time a worker is exposed to a dangerous situation through things like regular breaks and job sharing, and providing training programs on how to safely operate machinery or lift heavy materials.
Personal protective equipment (PPE). You should always use PPE if any hazard is present. This can include respirators to lessen breathing in particulates and gases, ear protection when you are exposed to loud noises, and fall arrest systems if you’re working high in the air.
“Ideally, the different controls should all work together to help make a workplace as safe as possible,” Cohen says. “As an example, think of a worker who uses a loud circular saw all day. You can substitute a quieter saw if possible. You can put the worker in a soundproof area to control others’ exposure. You can adopt breaks so that the worker isn’t constantly exposed to the noise. And then, of course, the worker still needs ear protection.”
“While there are tricks and habits you can incorporate into your day to prevent injury, such as stabilizing your core, maintaining good posture, and holding heavy items close to your body so that you don’t hurt your back when lifting, the most important thing is to minimize workers’ exposure to risks as much as possible,” Harris-Adamson agrees.
Other tips for staying safe at work include:
- Don’t guess. If you don’t know how to do a particular task, or how to operate a piece of equipment, make sure you get the right training first.
- Keep it clean. Keeping your workspace neat, tidy, and free of clutter and spills makes falls and other injuries less likely.
- Report immediately. If you see a dangerous situation, such as a defective piece of equipment, or you have a “near miss,” where an accident is narrowly avoided, let your employer know right away.
- Be prepared. Be sure you’re familiar with things like emergency exits and locations of first-aid kits and eyewash stations, and know your workplace’s policies for what to do in emergencies.