Prioritizing employee safety should be the number one concern for any employer. Whether large or small, every organization must have in place relevant safety and health protocols that are geared to ensure worker safety in the workplace. However, when employees’ work tasks require them to work with hazardous materials, there is a higher possibility of adverse effects on the health and safety of employees. Whether it is chemicals, biological agents, radioactive substances, or explosives, these hazardous materials (often referred to as ‘hazmat’) can cause injuries, illnesses, or even death if not handled properly. Therefore, every employer must implement effective measures to protect workers from harm and comply with the relevant regulations.
In the United States, the safety and health of workers are governed by several federal bodies including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA’s mandate is to “ensure safe and healthful working conditions for workers by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education, and assistance (OSHA, n.d.).”
Thus, employers are obligated to provide adequate training to employees to ensure they understand OSHA standards and are better equipped to handle hazardous materials and hazmat incidents. Such training can be offered as online safety training courses supported by on-the-job training.
Let’s examine some reasons why employers must ensure the safety and health of their employees when working with hazardous materials.
To Protect Employee Health
One of the first reasons for implementing safety and health programs in the workplace is to safeguard employee well-being by preventing accidents and injuries. Accidents involving hazardous materials can result in burns, cuts, fractures, poisoning, suffocation, or other long-term incurable illnesses. Such incidents can cause severe pain, disability, or loss of life for workers. Workers and their families could also suffer due to financial constraints and the inability to work for an extended period. By following the appropriate regulatory requirements and safety procedures and using the right equipment, employers can eliminate workplace hazards or minimize the likelihood of such accidents thereby protecting their employees from harm.
To Avoid Legal Liabilities and Penalties
In the United States, laws and regulations strictly govern worker safety. Organizations such as OSHA, monitor safety at worksites. Employers who fail to comply with the occupational safety and health standards and regulations for hazardous materials face not only legal consequences but heavy fines as well as worker compensation claims. Additionally, employees or their families can sue organizations and employers for negligence or wrongful death. Regulatory bodies and other authorities will also fine or penalize employers for violating the law. These can damage organizational reputation and cost employers a lot of money.
To Reduce Absenteeism and Turnover
Working with hazardous materials can affect the physical and mental well-being of employees. Workers may suffer from stress, anxiety, fatigue, or depression due to constant exposure to danger and uncertainty. They may also develop chronic diseases or disabilities that prevent them from working effectively. This can lead to increased absenteeism and turnover, which can affect organizational productivity and impact profitability as well as sustainable business operations.
To Improve Morale and Motivation
Ensuring the safety and health of employees can boost their morale and motivation. Employees working for an organization that values a safety culture will feel appreciated by the employer and consider that the organization values them as individuals. Workers will also feel more confident and comfortable in their work environment and be open to giving feedback on safety protocols as well as making suggestions to improve safety at the workplace. This can enhance employee performance and satisfaction, as well as their loyalty and commitment to the employer and the organization.
To Foster a Positive Culture and Image
Ensuring the safety and health of employees can foster a positive culture and image for an organization. By demonstrating that the organization and the management care about workers and their well-being, a positive attitude will be earned. Additionally, the adoption of good safety practices will showcase the organization as responsible and ethical in its business practices. This can attract prospective staff and retain talented employees, as well as customers, investors, and other stakeholders who share similar values and visions.
To Support Innovation and Growth
Ensuring the safety and health of your employees can support the innovation and growth of an organization. By encouraging workers to learn new skills and knowledge related to hazardous materials handling and management, employers will enable employees to explore new ideas and solutions to improve workplace processes and products. This will also result in increasing process efficiencies which can have long-term positive impacts on organizational success. Additionally, organizational standing and competitiveness in the market can also be enhanced.
To Contribute to Social and Environmental Sustainability
Ensuring the safety and health of your employees can contribute directly to social welfare and indirectly to environmental sustainability. Employers who make the extra effort to safeguard employee safety and health at the workplace will reduce the negative impacts of hazardous materials on human health. Such actions can have indirect positive impacts on the environment as every effort will be made to reduce spills or mishandling of hazardous substances and hazardous waste. Furthermore, the organization will be considered as being proactive in considering the wider consequences on society and natural resources. Thus, employers will also promote the principles of social responsibility and environmental stewardship among their stakeholders. This can enhance organizational reputation and influence society positively.
Bonus: Measures to Protect Employee Health
As seen above, ensuring the safety and health of employees when working with hazardous materials is not only a legal obligation but also a strategic advantage for any organization. Below are some measures that employers should implement to safeguard employee health.
- Conduct a risk assessment to identify and evaluate potential hazards associated with the materials and processes used in the workplace. Such a hazard assessment is mandated by OSHA and will help in understanding the risks so that appropriate controls may be implemented.
- Ensure clear and effective communication of potential hazards to all employees. This includes labeling hazardous materials properly, providing safety data sheets (SDS) for each chemical, and offering training on handling and storage procedures. In a simple sense, understand and follow OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard and other safety regulations as relevant.
- Conduct regular training sessions to educate employees on the regulatory requirements mandated by OSHA as well as to better understand the risks of hazmat, safe handling practices, emergency procedures, proper use of PPE, etc. Such training courses are available as online courses, on-site training, or as virtual instructor-led training programs.
- Establish strict safety and health programs which include protocols for the safe handling, transportation, and storage of hazardous materials.
- Implement safety protocols in line with the Hierarchy of Controls. This includes engineering controls such as using ventilation systems, isolating hazardous areas, and utilizing automation to reduce direct contact with hazardous substances to minimize exposure to hazardous materials.
- Provide appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) to all employees based on the identified hazards. This may include gloves, safety goggles, respirators, overalls, and other specialized gear.
- Develop a comprehensive emergency response plan in case of accidents or spills involving hazardous materials. Regularly practice drills to ensure all employees are familiar with the procedures.
- Implement a regular health monitoring program for employees who work with hazardous materials which should include medical examinations and other tests to help identify potential health issues early and prevent further complications. Medical surveillance is another aspect of employee safety advocated by OSHA.
- Implement proper waste management procedures for hazardous materials. Ensure that hazardous waste is disposed of according to regulations and guidelines.
- Stay up to date with relevant safety regulations and standards set by local, state, and federal bodies. Ensure full compliance with these regulations.
Remember, protecting employee health in hazardous material environments is an ongoing process that requires commitment from the employer and active participation from all employees. By regularly reviewing and evaluating safety protocols and procedures, organizations will be able to identify gaps and areas of improvement. Encourage feedback from employees to make necessary adjustments and address any safety concerns.
By prioritizing safety and following best practices, employers will create a safer work environment and reduce the risk of accidents and illnesses.
OSHA. (n.d.). About OSHA. [Website]. https://www.osha.gov/aboutosha