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.
PRIORITIES — AND CONTROL MEASURES
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
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.
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
Elimination of slip and fall hazards on floors and aisles.
Repair or replacement of frayed electric wires and faulty
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
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
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.
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