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You've Found The Hazards —
Now What Do You Do?

UE News, June 1999

Your local’s health and safety committee has done a walk-through survey of your plant and they have found a number of new health and safety hazards. What’s next? What can you and your union local do to control, or better yet, eliminate these hazards?

If only one or two hazards were found, then it’s clear what to do, using your own good sense and maybe consulting a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). But often, you’ll have a whole laundry list of safety hazards, potentially toxic chemical exposures, noisy operations and poor working conditions — especially if a walk-through has not been done for some time, or if lots of changes have been made in plant operations recently.


The first thing your local will have to do is to set some priorities about which problems to tackle first, and which to put off until later. After all, you can’t tackle all the problems at once.

But what exactly should we tell management to do about each of these problems?

What kinds of control measures make sense? Which ones will get rid of the problems? Which ones are the most effective?

Over the years health and safety people have found three broad categories of controls to reduce or eliminate hazards: engineering controls, administrative measures, and protective devices. Eliminating each particular hazard will often involve one or more of these.

Engineering controls are usually the best and most effective ways to reduce or eliminate a hazard. They involve physical or engineering changes which seek to remove or control hazards at their source. Examples of engineering controls include:

  • Substitutions of a less toxic or non-toxic material for a more toxic one.

  • Local exhaust ventilation to remove vapors, fumes and dusts at their source.

  • Enclosure of a noisy operation or a dangerous process or piece of machinery to prevent worker exposure.

  • Repair of broken or weakened mechanical objects like ladders, steps or links on a chain.

  • Installation of machine guards, and guard rails on stairs and walkways.

  • Elimination of slip and fall hazards on floors and aisles.

  • Repair or replacement of frayed electric wires and faulty electrical switches.

  • Installation of ground fault current interrupters on all two-pronged electrical plugs.

  • Removal of all flammable materials from sources of ignition such as open flames, speace heaters and lighted cigarettes.

The above engineering controls protect all people who work at or near dangerous operations, as well as maintenance and repair people who come by occasionally. That is why they are preferred as the best protective measures.

Administrative controls involve efforts to reduce worker exposures by reducing the time worked at dangerous or stressful operations. For example, workers are often assigned to work only a limited amount of time near radioactive materials or noisy operations.

One of the most effective uses of administrative controls is limiting work-time in stressful operations. For example, working two hours on and two hours off (or 15 minute breaks every hour, etc.) near hot furnaces or outdoors in summer heat are very important protectors against heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Also, taking frequent rest breaks from keypunching and typing on computer keyboards can help reduce the risks of carpal tunnel syndrome.

The trouble with administrative controls is that they do not reduce overall exposure levels. They simply reduce the amount of exposure each person gets. Often, when one person leaves the stressful or toxic situation, another replaces him or her for the rest of the shift — thus the same total exposure is simply spread among more people. It would better, for example, to reduce the heat stress for all by putting heat barriers between the workers and furnace. Or to hire more workers and reduce the workload overall.

Personal protective clothing and devices like earplugs are usually considered the least effective way to protect workers from hazards. A few types of personal protection are quite effective, like safety glasses, steel-tipped shoes and safety helmets. These give important protection to all who wear them. So do safety aprons for toxic chemicals and ankle chaps for work with molten metals. But many personal protective devices like half-face respirators and earplugs and earmuffs often give not protection but the illusion of protection. Only if respirators and earplugs and earmuffs are fit properly, and are well maintained or frequently changed, can they give useful protection.

Also, personal protective devices, even if appropriate and properly fitted and maintained, only protect the individual wearing them, not others nearby. They also only protect that individual when he or she is wearing the device. When the device is not being worn, the individual is not protected.

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