With COVID-19 capturing all the media attention, it is easy to overlook the other global pandemic that has been going on since humans invented employment. Workplace injury is the silent pandemic as the number of annual fatalities, injuries, and illnesses from workplace accidents and illnesses rivals that of the COVID-19 pandemic according to the International Labour Organization figures. Yet we rarely hear much about it. Earlier this year I gave a talk on the topic for the Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences fall symposium.
Workplace Injury Is the Silent Pandemic
There are many things at work that can cause illness, injuries and even death. This might come from a single accident or it can come from continued exposure over a period of years. Harm might be physical, but it can also be psychological as working conditions lead to mental health problems. For example, first responders who are experience traumatic events are at risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder. Work can make underlying mental health problems worse.
Much of the injury done by the job is controllable through proper management of the workplace. Although developed countries particularly in Europe and North America have made great strides in reducing workplace harm through government regulation, there is still a long way to go. It begins by understanding the risks and then developing strategies to manage them.
What Are the Major Hazards?
The nature of hazards that can affect mental and physical health depends on what people are exposed to at work. Hazards vary by the type of work, for example, does the person work with toxic chemicals or with people who are ill? The best strategy for controlling hazards begins by taking stock of what they are.
- Biological: The COVID-19 pandemic has made us all aware how easy it is for illness to spread. This is nothing new for healthcare workers who treat individuals with contagious diseases and have long known that they need to protect themselves for air borne pathogens and bodily fluids.
- Chemical: People who work with toxic chemicals are obviously at risk of accidental exposure, but many of us can be exposed to potentially toxic substances without realizing it. For example, copy machines in offices can emit fumes that some people might be sensitive to. Reactions to chemicals can be immediate as with an accidental poisoning, but the effects of some chemicals can be gradual and not be seen for months and even years. An example of this was the contaminated dry wall imported from China in 2006 and 2007 that caused respiratory problems after long-term exposure.
- Mechanical. This is what we generally refer to as an accident. We fall off a ladder, slip on a wet floor, or have an automobile collision. We also might cut ourselves with a sharp knife or other tool. In most cases there is an unfortunate encounter between the person and the physical environment.
- Bio-mechanical: When we perform repeated tasks or tasks that are strenuous, there is the risk of a musculo-skeletal injury to our muscles and joints. Perhaps the most well-known repetitive strain injury is carpal tunnel.
- Physical Violence: Many occupations put people at risk for physical violence from the general public. Nurses and other healthcare workers can be at high risk for assault from patients, although such assaults are rarely life-threatening. The risk of more dangerous assaults occurs for other occupations.
- Psychological Mistreatment: There is growing awareness that people can be harmed by psychological mistreatment, such as being bullied at work. In the extreme such treatment can make underlying mental health conditions worse and can lead to post-traumatic stress.
- Workplace Stress: When asked to describe the most stressful aspects of their lives, most people will note something that happened at work. Excessive demands and other stressful aspects of work can have similar effects to psychological mistreatment, leading to emotional distress and in some cases, serious mental health problems. It can also contribute to physical health conditions both in the short-term and long-term.
What Are the Solutions?
Workplace injury is the silent pandemic, but there is much we can do to manage it. Reducing hazards at work requires a two-pronged effort. First, the physical design of the workplace must keep safety in mind. In many countries there are safety standards enforced by governments such as OSHA in the U.S. Second, the social design of the workplace has to consider safety. This means developing appropriate safety protocols and making sure they are followed. Just as many people resist wearing masks and social distancing to stem the spread of COVID-19, many employees resist wearing safety gear and following safety rules. The problem of safety compliance can be addressed in three ways.
- Have the Right Talent: Safety begins by having people who are willing and able to work safely. This means hiring employees with the right KSAOs (knowledge, skill, ability, and other qualifications), and following up with adequate training. Does every employee know how to work safely? Do they have the skills to use tools in the proper way? Are they willing to comply with safety rules?
- Leadership: Safety begins with leaders who provide safety leadership. This means following my Five Steps to Leadership Success with safety in mind.
- Safety Climate: Climate has to do with the policies and practices of organizations, and when safety is a concern, safety climate is the goal. Building a climate takes work, but it begins by focusing attention on safety and monitoring employees to be sure they follow safety rules.
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