Emerging and Classical Hazards

Classical safety and chemical hazards in the workplace have been the traditional foci for environmental safety and health professionals; however the importance of the recognition and control of non-traditional physical and biological hazards is increasing. This paper reviews and introduces re-emerging and classical hazards due to these agents and provides a conceptual framework for the prevention and management of these categories of exposures.

Physical Hazards

Physical hazards are related to the interaction of the worker and physical agents. There are three general sub-classes of physical hazards:

  • Worker-material interface;

  • Physical work environment;

  • Energy and electromagnetic radiation.

Worker - material Interface

The worker-material interface includes what is generally considered to be classic safety concerns as well as issues of more recent concern such as ergonomics. It can be defined as the physical interaction between the worker and the immediate working environment. During the past decade, there has been a marked increase in repetitive motion conditions of the upper extremity caused by or influenced by the elements in the workplace. "In 1999, nearly 1 million people took time away from work to treat and recover from work-related musculoskeletal pain or impairment of function in the low back or upper extremities"(IOM 1). Many of these conditions are occurring among workers for whom the safety professional previously has had minimal contact. These conditions include maladies such as tendonitis of the shoulder joint, epicondylitis (often called tennis elbow), carpal tunnel syndrome, etc. Stressors like vibration can also play an important role in these and related conditions of the upper extremities.

Injuries of the back, especially the lower back and the cervical spine, have been the bane of occupational safety and health and safety professionals for more than 100 years. Material handling and other activities that require strength of the back are frequently precipitating events to developing back complaints. Most back injuries are muscle strains or other sprains and readily resolve. In the aging worker with underlying degenerative changes in the discs of spine, an injury that would be minor in a younger worker can lead to prolonged morbidity and disability.

Physical Work Environment

The physical work environment includes heat, cold, high and low pressures and work schedules. Individuals working in hot environments will have to adapt to the heat and make certain that they do not become dehydrated or develop electrolyte imbalance due to the heat. Heat adaptation occurs gradually over time. Thus, an outdoor worker will respond to the summer heat and humidity better if the worker has been working outdoors from spring to summer than does a worker who suddenly arrives at such a worksite and is not acclimatized. The same is true for cold environments. The hazards of very cold environments include freeze injuries of the extremities, face, ears and lungs. Low-pressure concerns are generally related to high altitude. Working at high altitude also requires considerable time for acclimatization and can take upwards to one or more months.

This content is only available via PDF.
You can access this article if you purchase or spend a download.