A hazard is a potential source of harm. Substances, events, or circumstances can constitute hazards when their nature would allow them, even just theoretically, to cause damage to health, life, property, or any other interest of value. The probability of that harm being realized in a specific incident , combined with the magnitude of potential harm, make up its risk, a term often used synonymously in colloquial speech.
Hazards can be classified in several ways. They can be classified as natural, anthropogenic, technological, or any combination, therefore, such as in the case of the natural phenomenon of wildfire becoming more common due to human-made climate change or more harmful due to changes in building practices. A common theme across many forms of hazards in the presence of stored energy that, when released, can cause damage. The stored energy can occur in many forms: chemical, mechanical, thermal, radioactive, electrical, etc. Situations can also be hazardous, for example, confined or limited egress spaces, oxygen-depleted atmospheres, awkward positions, repetitive motions, low-hanging or protruding objects, etc. They may also be classified as health or safety hazards, by the populations that may be affected, and the severity of the associated risk. In most cases, a hazard may affect a range of targets and have little or no effect on others.
Identification of hazards assumes that the potential targets are defined, and is the first step in performing a risk assessment.
Here are the common definitions of the terms hazard, risk, risk assessment and control as they apply in the workplace.
Environmental hazards include long term environmental deterioration such as acidification of soils and build-up of atmospheric carbon dioxide to communal and involuntary social hazards such as crime and terrorism to voluntary and personal hazards such as drug abuse and mountain climbing. Environmental hazards usually have defined or common characteristics including their tendency to be rapid onset events meaning they occur with a short warning time, they have a clear source of origin which is easily identified, the impact will be swift and losses suffered quickly during or shortly after the onset of the event, risk of exposure is usually involuntary due to location or proximity of people to the hazard and the “disaster occurs with an intensity and scale that justifies an emergency response”.
Hazards may be grouped according to their characteristics. These factors are related to geophysical events which are not process specific:
- Areal extent of damage zone
- Intensity of impact at a point
- Duration of impact at a point
- Rate of onset of the event
- Predictability of the event
Natural hazards may be defined as “extreme events that originate in the biosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere or atmosphere” or “a potential threat to humans and their welfare” which include earthquake, landslide, hurricane and tsunamis. Technological and man-made hazards include explosions, the release of toxic materials, episodes of severe contamination, structural collapses, and transportation, construction and manufacturing accidents etc. A distinction can also be made between rapid-onset natural hazards, technological hazards and social hazards which are described as being of sudden occurrence and relatively short duration, and the consequences of longer-term environmental degradation such as desertification and drought,
In defining hazard Keith Smith argues that what may be defined as the hazard is only a hazard if there is the presence of humans to make it a hazard and that it is otherwise merely an event of interest. In this sense, the environmental conditions we may consider hostile or hazardous can be seen as neutral in that it is our perception, human location and actions which identify resources and hazards within the range of natural events. In this regard, human sensitivity to environmental hazards is a combination of both physical exposure (natural and/or technological events at a location related to their statistical variability) and human vulnerability (about social and economic tolerance of the same location).
Smith states that natural hazards are best seen in an ecological framework to distinguish between natural events as natural hazards. He says “natural hazards, therefore, result from the conflict of geophysical processes with people and they lie at the interface what has been called the natural events system and the human interface system.” He says that “this interpretation of natural hazards gives humans a central role. Firstly through location, because it is only when people and their possessions get in the way of natural processes that hazard exists.”
A proposed level crossing at railroad tracks would result in “the worse death trap in Los Angeles,” a California traffic engineer warned in 1915, because of the impaired view of the railway by automobile drivers. A viaduct
was built instead.
A natural hazard can be considered as a geophysical event when it occurs in extremes and a human factor is involved that may present a risk. In this context, we can see that there may be an acceptable variation of magnitude which can vary from the estimated normal or average range with upper and lower limits or thresholds. In these extremes, the natural occurrence may become an event that presents a risk to the environment or people. Smith says “most social and economic activities are geared to some expectation of the ‘average’ conditions. As long as the variation of the environmental element remains fairly close to this expected performance, insignificant damage occurs and the element will be perceived as beneficial. However, when the variability exceeds some threshold beyond the normal band of tolerance, the same variable starts to impose a stress on society and become a hazard.” Thus above average wind speeds resulting in a tropical depression or hurricane according to intensity measures on the Saffir–Simpson scale will provide an extreme natural event that may be considered a hazard.
HAZARD in general means anything that can cause harm but, for your purposes, this must be workplace-generated (e.g. dangerous chemicals, electricity, working at heights from ladders, poor housekeeping).
RISK is the likelihood, great or small, that someone will be harmed by the hazard, together with the severity of harm suffered. Risk also depends on the number of people exposed to the hazard.
Hazards and risks are not the same things.
A hazard is an act or condition that has the potential to cause damage to plant or equipment or result in an illness or injury. Hazards can be categorized by the type of outcome, energy exchange process or geographic location, e.g. manual handling hazards, slips and trips, laundry hazards. A risk is the likelihood of a specific consequence occurring. Risks are usually expressed in terms of likelihood and consequences, e.g. the risk of contracting Ross River Fever while working in Tasmania might be considered to be very low.
In many cases, the terms ‘hazard’ and ‘risk’ are used interchangeably, however, remember that hazard has a more general application and risk a specific application. Risk management has 3 main stages, risk identification, risk assessment and risk control. In many cases in the early phase of identifying risk, we may, in fact, be looking to identify all the risks associated with a particular activity or process, in which case the activity is more properly referred to as hazard identification, risk assessment and the risk control.
RISK ASSESSMENT is a careful examination of what, in the workplace, could cause harm to people, so that the employer can weigh up whether he or she has taken enough precautions or should do more to prevent harm.
CONTROLLING RISK means that the employer (as the law requires) does all that is reasonably practicable to ensure that a hazard will not injure anyone (e.g. by eliminating the hazard, enclosing it in a totally enclosed container, using general or local exhaust ventilation, implementing safe operating procedures, or providing personal protection, as a last resort).
The first step in safeguarding safety and health is to identify hazards from materials, equipment, chemicals and work activities. You are required to systematically examine your workplace and work activities to identify workplace-generated hazards.
If you control more than one work location, different types of work activity or changing work locations (as in road repairs or building work), you may need to prepare a safety statement that has separate sections dealing with the different locations or activities.
Employers will be familiar with the hazards associated with the type of work they are involved in. But to identify the main hazards and put risks in their true perspective, employers can also check:
Records of accidents, ill health, and insurance claims
- any relevant legislation or standards covering the hazard (e.g. the Construction Regulations for construction-site hazards, the Chemical Agents Regulations and Code of Practice for chemical hazards and their control)
- manufacturers’ instructions or datasheets
Some hazards are obvious, such as unguarded moving parts of machinery, dangerous fumes, electricity, working at heights, or moving heavy loads. Less obvious, but at the root of many accidents, are hazards presented by untidy workplaces and poor maintenance. In the case of some hazards, such as excessive noise, it may take months or even years before damage materializes.
Don’t be overcomplicated. In most firms in the office, retail, commercial, service and light industrial sector, the hazards and hazardous work activities are few and simple. Checking them is common sense, but necessary. In small firms, employers understand their work and can identify hazards and assess risks themselves. For larger firms, a responsible experienced employee or safety officer should be used. Consult and involve as necessary all employees, including the safety representatives. But remember – the employer is responsible for seeing that the work is adequately done.
If you use external advisers to help prepare the safety statement, make sure they know the work activity and have the appropriate experience. If you do the work yourself, walk around the workplace and look afresh at what could reasonably be expected to cause harm. Ignore the trivial and concentrate on the significant hazards that could result in serious harm or affect several people. Ask employees and their representatives what they think. They may have noticed things that are not immediately obvious.
The following checklists provide a systematic, though not exhaustive, approach to identifying hazards:
Some common causes of accidents, with examples, are:
- Manual handling (heavy, awkward or hard-to-reach loads, handling patients, treating farm animals)
- Slipping/tripping hazards (poorly maintained or untidy floors, passageways or stairs)
- Falling from a height (from mezzanine floors or scaffolding)
- Being struck by material falling from above
- Getting caught or cut by machinery, especially moving parts of machinery (blades or rollers, power take-off shafts on tractors and farm machinery)
- Equipment (poorly maintained or whose guards have been disabled)
- Falling objects
- Being struck by internal transport (fork-lifts) or external transport (delivery trucks at loading bays)
- Introduction of new machinery or work systems
- Fire (from flammable or combustible materials, hay, waste material)
- Ejection of material (from plastic molding or woodworking machines)
- Electricity (poor wiring or not being protected by residual current devices)
- Special hazards of maintenance of equipment and the workplace itself (the roof, windows or gutters)
- Injury by another person or an animal
- Hot substances or surfaces
- Hand tools (noise, eye injury, electrocution)
- Poor housekeeping
- Burial in trenches or by loose material such as grain or soil
- Suffocation by drowning or from exposure to carbon monoxide (from portable generators)
- Pressure systems (steam boilers)
You can find out the most common causes of accidents in your sector by consulting the Health and Safety Authority website or the most up-to-date ‘Summary of Fatality, Injury and Illness Statistics’ published by the Authority – available at www.safework.ie.
- Negative stress (e.G. From poor work organization or control, repetitive strain, etc)
- Noise (e.G. If people must raise their voices to be heard)
- Harmful dust (e.G. From grinding)
- Unsuitable lighting levels
- Some types of light (e.G. Over-exposure to ultra-violet light can cause skin cancer)
- Vibration (e.G. From pneumatic rock or concrete breakers or drills)
- Sources of radiation
- Extremes of temperature
- Injury through poor design of tasks or machinery
- Radiation hazards including naturally occurring radon
Chemical substances are used in nearly all organizations. They range from common everyday products such as glues and correction fluids to industrial solvents, dyes, pesticides or acids. In most cases, the hazards are well documented and the information is available on safety precautions to be taken. Regulations require certain chemicals to be labeled according to their hazards.
Manufacturers and suppliers are legally required to provide material safety data sheets, which give information on the safety and health risks of any chemical substances. They should be asked for this information. The code of practice for the Chemical Agents
Regulations list several hundred dangerous chemical agents. Check this list if chemicals are used in your operations.
To identify chemical hazards and assess their risks, you need data on at least the following:
- Immediate problems, (e.G. Acute toxic effects or catching fire)
- Long-term effects of exposure on health (e.G. Cancer-causing)
- Likelihood of an explosion
- Likelihood of skin problems (e.G. Skin irritation or sensitizer causing dermatitis)
- Likelihood of chest problems (e.G. Respiratory irritation or sensitization, asthma)
Biological Agent Hazards
These include viruses and bacteria that can cause infection and substances from plants or animals that can lead to other health problems. These hazards are likely to occur in places such as laboratories, hospitals, farms or abattoirs. They include:
tuberculosis from contact with infectious cases
- Farmer’s lung, caused by spores from moldy hay
- Hepatitis from the unprotected handling of infected body fluids or waste
If you work in or are responsible for any of the above activities you should consult the Biological Agents Regulations for further information on identifying biological agent hazards and methods of control.
Human Factor Hazards
Apart from physical surroundings, human factors must also be taken into account when identifying hazards:
- People should be mentally and physically capable of doing their jobs safely.
- The workplace, the work system, the organization of work and the job should be designed so as to avoid causing sustained stress.
- Workers should not be subjected to bullying by or violence from other workers or members of the public.
Some groups are particularly vulnerable:
- Young workers, who have a higher accident rate
- Pregnant women (see the general application regulations)
- People with disabilities
- New or inexperienced workers
- Workers who have recently changed roles or jobs or started work in a new workplace – older workers, workers whose first language is not English