How common are injuries when working with dangerous chemicals?

On the scale of things, for instance compared with the number of fatalities and major injuries caused by falling from height (the most common cause of work related death and injury), injuries sustained working with dangerous chemicals are not that common in the United Kingdom anymore, making up only 2% of all recorded workplace fatal injuries and 2.2% of all non-fatal injuries. In total, less than three thousand people were injured in the UK during 2011-12 due to accidents involving dangerous chemicals, with fewer than five hundred of the those being unfortunate enough to suffer injuries categorised by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as ‘major’.

When the capacity of dangerous chemicals to ignite or burn through bodily tissues, locally or systemically poison or irradiate, blow people and objects to smithereens and cause cancer is considered it is seriously good news that such injuries are relatively rare. However, when you consider that the HSE defines major injuries as those such as fractures of major bones and loss of limbs it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to contemplate what the major injuries of those victims of accidents involving dangerous chemicals must be like, the most common type of which occur due to inhalation of a chemical, closely followed by accidental ingestion and other forms of skin (including eyes) contact.

Even the most hard-nosed business person endlessly reciting their mantra of ‘cost-cost-cost’ is likely to quail, and rightly so, when confronted by the victim of a serious accident involving dangerous chemicals which was caused by a misplaced prioritisation of profit over employee safety. In this day and age there is absolutely no reason why a worker should have to suffer an appalling chemical injury for that reason – or indeed any reason.

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    Avoiding construction accidents

    The law requires that health and safety be managed and controlled on construction sites. It’s as simple as that. Employers know their responsibilities in this respect and should be familiar and adept at using the knowledge and guidance at their disposal to achieve a safe working environment.

    A construction project is a complex operation and integral to its success is the advanced planning, organising, controlling and monitoring and reviewing of health and safety issues. A failure to address health and safety adequately can, apart from the legal and personal pain and suffering consequences, have a detrimental effect on completing the project on time and on the morale and commitment of the workforce.

    The most common accidents on construction sites are:

    • Falls from height – due to poorly designed, positioned or built working positions or inadequate access to those positions.

    • Accidents involving vehicles (mobile plant) – most usually caused by rutted, uneven, holed ground conditions, poor driver visibility (especially when reversing) and plant operators being killed or injured when their vehicle turns over.

    • Falling or moving materials and collapses – caused by vehicles shedding their loads, materials falling off working positions, incorrectly shored excavations collapsing, overloaded or undermined structures falling down and botched demolitions.

    • Trips and slips – caused by untidy sites and unaddressed spillages.

    • Electrical accidents (shocks and burns) – mainly due to using faulty equipment or workers coming into contact with underground or overhead power lines.

    The methods employed to eliminate or control such risks are extensive and detailed but basically boil down to the following:

    • Undertaking a preliminary review of site history to determine the threat of hazardous substances such as asbestos, the location of underground and overhead power lines, the geology of the site, the routes of public rights of way and non-construction project related activity on the site and adjacent to it.

    • Agreement to the work methods and safety precautions by everyone involved in the project (who will also be given a copy of them).

    • A detailed checking to ensure that every employee or sub contracted worker, from the managers through supervisors to site workers are all adequately trained to undertake the jobs required of them.

    • Careful planning of the construction site that will be include, if possible, segregation of vehicles and pedestrians and the demarcation of areas for loading/unloading, parking and manoeuvring of vehicles.

    • Provision of personal protective equipment and training on how to use it.

    • Trips hazards keep away from stairs and walkways.

    • Footpaths kept, firm, level and uncluttered.

    • Guards on all raised walkways.

    • Adequate (preferably natural) lighting.

    • Always considering if hazards can be avoided altogether before imposing controls.

    • Establishment of the standard ‘hierarchy of control’ for working at height which is, in order of preference:

    o Avoid working at height if possible.

    o Use equipment to minimise working from height.

    o Minimise distances and consequences.

    o Adopt collective protective measures.

    o Adopt personal protective measures.

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      Avoiding injuries when working in mines and quarries

      It’s the same old story. Regardless of where you work from the relatively safe environment of a supermarket or office to the harsher settings of construction sites and farms and forests, the same categories of accidents and injuries predominate.

      Mining and quarrying are no different, with falls, vehicles, machinery, being hit by moving or falling objects and explosions killing most people and handling, falls, slips and trips, vehicles, machinery and hand tools causing most non-fatal injuries. Where might you have heard or read this litany of pain and suffering before? Why, from a study of health and safety in practically any industry sector you care to name.

      The injuries are the same; the results for the individual injured the same and the effects on the businesses they work for the same. What of course are also the same are the means by which such injuries can be avoided. We are of course talking about employers in the mining and quarrying industries complying with all the requirements of the UK’s copious and all-encompassing health and safety legislation and providing a safe workplace and ensuring as far as is reasonably practicable their employees’ health, safety and welfare whilst they are at work.

      The risks to be managed in mining and quarrying, such as the unpredictability of the environment, the presence of heavy machinery and the danger from collapses, flooding and exposure to harmful dusts, gases and other particulates, are obviously different from those encountered in other types of workplace, but the process of managing them, based on risk assessment, remains the same. So why, based on the Health and Safety Executive’s workplace injury report data, are these proven tools not apparently doing their job in the mining and quarrying industry?

      There is insufficient space in this article for, and the complexities of mining and quarrying preclude, the inclusion of all the risks and controls involved in helping to prevent injuries, but it still appears that the combination of the hazardous nature of the work and its complexity are continuing to frustrate attempts to bring down the injury rates, both fatal and non-fatal, in the mining and quarrying workforce, despite the industry seriously ramping up its engagement with health and safety over recent years.

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        How to avoid factory accidents

        The works accident book is recommended by the Health and Safety Executive and various Manufacturing trade bodies’ advice on health and safety as a good place to start when seeking to avoid factory accidents. We are of course presuming that the factory owner/employer is already complying with all the pertinent health and safety legislation applicable to the health, safety and welfare of their employers at work and the safety of the workplace itself.

        The contents of the accident book will provide a reliable heads up on any historical and current trends in types of accidents, enabling the employer to identify areas of risk control that need re-visiting. For instance, an upsurge in slipping accidents might point to the fact that shop floor’s none slip surface is wearing out and requires refurbishing or a constant high number of back injuries due to lifting or carrying indicating that the frequency of manual handling training refresher courses needs increasing or more mechanical handling devices need to be integrated into certain processes.

        Another source of information that can help to avoid factory accidents comes from the employees themselves. They also have health and safety duties which should be explained to them when they are initially employed. They are:

        • To carry out their work in the way they have been trained to do and to follow instructions.

        • Report any dangerous situations they encounter.

        • Refrain from behaviour or activity that would endanger themselves or others.

        Employees also have the right to refuse to undertake work that they perceive to be dangerous and that has insufficient risk controls in place. However it is the employees’ duty to report dangerous situations they encounter that can make the long term difference as to whether a workplace is reactive or proactive in the way it deals with the control of risks. ‘Good’ employers will also empower employees, within the bounds of their competencies, to take a ‘see it, sort it’ attitude to health and safety.

        For instance in the case of an artificially lit corridor, where a couple of light bulbs have failed, making a section hazardously dark, the ‘see it, sort it’ empowered employee will take it upon herself, if she can safely do so, to replace the bulbs, rather than report the situation to a central facilities department who might not be able to act on the report quickly enough to prevent another employee tripping over an unseen obstacle in the darkened corridor.

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          Common causes of injuries when working in mines and quarries

          The coal mining industry in the UK today is but a shadow of its former self having contracted in size to approximately one hundred small to medium sized mines employing no more than six thousand people.  The majority of the coal mining specific, generally prescriptive health and safety legislation, was framed and passed into law over fifty years ago when the industry employed tens of thousands and the technology and working processes were different from those of today. Although it has been supplemented by more recent legislation, it is generally recognised as being in need of re-visiting.

          The coal mining industry is also having to cope with an aging workforce and although the remaining workers in the industry are adequately qualified and experienced, the industry is losing far more managers, engineers, surveyors and supervisors due to retirement than it can replace and it is in those categories of employee than the bulk of the health and safety expertise resided.  The Health and Safety Executive acknowledge this loss of health and safety knowledge and awareness at the leadership level in the industry and have linked most fatal and major injuries reported over the last couple of decades to breakdowns of and issues surrounding mines’ safety management systems.  They also express concern about the reduction in scope of mines safety inspections with many concentrating on environmental risks and managing an aging infrastructure at the expense of not adequately addressing work processes related risk.

          This situation, on-going, poses substantial problems around maintaining the required levels of health and safety in coal mines and is further exacerbated by the almost complete disappearance of coal mining specific training within the UK’s educational system – a provision which collapsed as a result of the radical reduction in the size of the industry.  This has made recruiting suitably qualified employees at all levels extremely difficult and in turn led to increasing levels of recruitment of foreign, non-English speaking workers – a situation that has its own health and safety implications.

          In contrast to coal production, the other forms of mining for metals and minerals and quarrying in the UK present a more dynamic picture when it comes to the workforce, recruitment and training.  However, strangely enough and based proportionally on the number of workers they employ, these other forms of mining and quarrying produce a greater number of fatal and serious injuries than does the atrophying coal mining sector – 3000 reportable injuries, including 24 fatal injuries since the turn of the century.

          In 2002 the mining and quarrying sector took top spot, displacing agriculture and construction, as the most dangerous industries to work in.  This might lead to the conclusion that although the mismanagement of risk in the sector is far from systemic, and the rates of fatalities and serious injuries are very slowly reducing there are still far too many pockets of bad practice out there in industries that are by their inherent nature extremely hazardous.

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            How to avoid noise and hearing loss at work

            It is an unfortunate fact that many people don’t realise how impaired their hearing has become due to workplace noise until the impairment is well advanced and becomes noticeable through, for instance, the need to have the TV or radio volume higher or as a difficulty in hearing normal conversations. The severity of the damage to an employee’s hearing usually relates to the level of the noise and duration of the exposure to it. Noise Induced Hearing Loss is often permanent and although further hearing loss can be avoided by removing the effected person from further exposure to harmful noise levels, the damage has been done and the harsh truth is that it was completely avoidable.

            The fact that hearing loss is still all too often work related is mainly because on starting a job which features a noisy working environment, most employees quickly normalise the noise factor, treating it as just another aspect of their working environment and not something that needs changing or avoiding. This response might not be challenged by their co-workers or contradicted by the health and safety culture (or lack of it) of their company and it will only be several years down the line that the damage to their hearing will become apparent and question asked, ‘why didn’t my boss warn me about the noise?’.

            Had of course that boss carried out their legal duty to provide a safe working environment and ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees, the hearing of all their workers would have been preserved intact and they wouldn’t have to be taking hit after hit on their Employers Liability Insurance to cover personal injury claims for compensation from angry and hearing impaired employees and ex-employees. Preventing employees from going deaf at work is, of course, not beyond the wit of man and a competently written health and safety strategy and rigorously implemented risk management plan would have prevented the issue arising in the first place. The steps to managing the risks associated with noise-induced hearing loss are straight forward and do not extend much beyond basic common sense. They include:

            • Avoiding noisy processes or the use of noisy machines.

            • The use of engineering solutions to reduce the noise of machines and tools and processes that can’t be avoided.

            • The use of materials to form sound reducing barriers between noisy machines/processes and employees.

            • Ensuring that employees’ hearing isn’t being adversely affected by workplace noise by providing hearing tests for them at regular intervals.

            • Limiting the amount of time employees are exposed to harmful noise levels.

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              It’s not difficult to avoid suffering a scaffolding injury

              Scaffolding accidents and the sometimes horrible injuries that result simply shouldn’t happen. Although experience and training are required to safely erect and dismantle scaffolding you don’t need a PhD to do it. Likewise there is a pretty concise short list of does and don’ts for people working on and around scaffolding. Language problems and extreme learning difficulties aside, they are not difficult to grasp and apply. Why therefore do falls from height, predominantly from scaffolding, continue to occur at the consistently high rates they do, particularly although not exclusively, in the construction industry?

              Well, you don’t need to a master’s degree in braininess to figure that out either; these injuries continue unabated because of inadequate attention by employers and others in control of employees using scaffolding, to comprehensively engage with their legal health and safety responsibilities. Whilst it might be going over the top to suggest that ‘profits above employees health and safety’ is an industry-wide operating model, there are still certainly some pockets of bad practice to be found out there.

              The current health and safety legislation charges employers with a duty of care towards their employees and specific regulations, such as The Work at Height Regulations 2005, The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 and The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 go into considerable detail as to what that duty practically entails. Health and safety professionals know all about this stuff and although most companies have a health and safety expert on their team or can certainly hire the services of one, having health and safety expertise on tap is of course different from having the commitment to effectively utilise it.

              There is no shortage of law or clearly worded guidance on sound health and safety practice for employers using scaffolding to allow their employees to work safely at height. What there can sometimes apparently be is a shortage of employers sufficiently incentivised enough to engage with health and safety in a way that will save lives and prevent injuries. All too often health and safety is regarded as a box ticking exercise and as a box is ticked but a loose bolt is not checked and tightened another worker falls to the ground and a life is ended or changed forever.

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                How to avoid a forklift truck injury

                The three principle areas of health and safety concern that any employer wanting to ensure that forklift truck accidents don’t occur on their premises needs to address are:

                1) Selection, training, supervision and managing of operators

                • Ensure training meets the minimum required level and is specific to the forklift truck and tasks to be carried out. Carry out ‘conversion training’ if the operator is to operator a different type of forklift truck to the one initially trained on.

                • Ensure that trainees are medically fit to drive a forklift and institute medical examinations for operators prior to training and at regular intervals during their forklift truck driving career. There is a long list of physical and psychological conditions that might preclude a person from driving a forklift truck.

                • Ensure that they identify themselves as reliable, mature and responsible employees before selection for training.

                • Ensure that trainees’ supervisors are familiar with the training regime and guidance.

                • Ensure that the trainees’ managers fully appreciate all the risks associated with the operation of a forklift truck and have taken all recommended steps to minimise them.

                 2) The working environment

                • Take all steps to avoid accidental injury to pedestrians, who statistically make up 70% of the total killed or injured in forklift truck accidents. This can be done by either completely segregating forklift trucks from pedestrians or taking the following measures:

                • Issuing high-visibility clothing to pedestrians.

                • Ensuring that the aisles and gangways are wide enough for a forklift truck to pass.

                • Installing adequate lighting and avoiding situations where the forklift driver would be blinded by sudden glare.

                • Training pedestrians in forklift truck awareness.

                • All doorways to be constructed from flexible, transparent material.

                • Ensuring that the flooring is level and firm and free from potholes and even small piles of debris.

                3) The forklift truck

                • Maintain in good mechanical order.

                • Ensure it is fitted with roll-over protective structures and falling object protective structures (issue a hard hat to the operator as a further precaution).

                • Ensure that it is highly visible to the pedestrians – it should have a flashing light and make a distinctive warning noise, even if that is only the operator sounding the horn.

                • All dangerous moving parts should be fitted with a guard.

                • Operated at all times in such a manner as to preserve the stability of the vehicle.

                Having successfully addressed those areas, the employer can be confident that they will have diligently discharged their duty of care to ensure as far as practicable the health, safety and welfare of their workers with regards to the safe operation of forklift trucks in their workplace. Being able to demonstrate that they have discharged this duty of care and complied with all the workplace health and safety legislation currently enacted might go a long way to eliminating the risks posed by forklift truck operation or help in defending claims for injury compensation brought by employees injured due to a forklift truck accident.

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                  The consequences of construction accidents

                  The obvious and most negative consequence of construction accidents is of course the sometimes terrible injuries that workers suffer. Multiple fractures of major bones, brain injuries, extensive burns, permanently damaged hearts due to electrocution, extensive damage to internal organs as a result of crushing injuries and nerve damage from conditions such as vibration white finger are amongst a list of injuries too varied and long to include here and which are all unfortunately still far from uncommon in the construction industry. Inevitably and tragically some of these injuries can prove fatal; in fact construction accidents accounted for a staggering 28% of all workplace deaths in the UK during the year 2011-2012.

                  If there can be a positive aspect to the grim statistics detailing death and injury from construction accidents, it is that each fatality and injury serves to highlight, in many cases, the negligence of employers in failing to comply with their legal duty to provide a safe workplace and ensure as far as is reasonably practicable the health, safety and welfare of their employees at work. From these instances of negligence hard lessons can be learnt and the deterrent factor of ever increasing insurance costs and tarnished company reputations in the wake of unsuccessfully defended work injury compensation claims, weighed by construction companies against the morally unjustifiable benefits to be gained by skimping on health and safety in order to be able to undercut rival bids for construction projects or simply sinking back into a comfort zone of paying lip service to health and safety.

                  On the evidence of the Health and Safety Executive’s data on accidents in the construction industry over the last couple of decades, lessons are indeed being learnt and the gradual reduction in deaths and serious injuries since the 1990s seems to reflect a more positive and pro-active approach to health and safety amongst companies working in the sector. However the numbers are still high compared to other sectors and whilst they remain so, the previously engrained misconception within the construction industry that the toll in human life and health is an inevitable and unavoidable consequence of the type of work being undertaken will stubbornly persist.

                  Only increasingly proficient project planning, the elevation of health and safety above a merely paper exercise and the will to expunge the pockets of bad practice historically found in areas such as staff recruitment and training, workplace safety, personal protective equipment and the culture of long hours and bonus inducements, will continue the downwards trend in workplace fatality and injury rates.

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                  Common causes of accidents and injury in warehouses

                  Over recent decades, in order to become more efficient, warehouses have generally become larger which has generated the requirement for processes become increasingly automated and mechanised. The results of these changes have resulted in workplaces in which many more vehicles and equipment, than was formerly the case, have to be safely accommodated alongside the employees who themselves often have to manually move roll cages and pallets to tighter timescales than ever before. It can be a stressful environment to work in, often noisy and sometimes, unfortunately, more dangerous than it should be.

                  By far the most common major accidents in warehouses in the UK since the turn of the century have been slips and trips, accounting for 26% of all injuries. A truly astonishing 45% of all injuries sustained in course of warehouse work that necessitated workers taking three or more days off work were caused by manual handling accidents. Trailing in the statistical wake of those two work accident types are:

                  • Falls from height.

                  • Being hit by a moving or falling object.

                  • Being struck by a vehicle.

                  • Impact with a stationery or fixed object.

                  • Other kinds of accident.

                  The main causes of these accidents fall under two main headings:

                  1) Environmental

                  2) Work processes

                  Environmental factors include:

                  • An insufficiently clean workplace.

                  • Poorly maintained systems, devices and equipment.

                  • Inadequate lighting.

                  • Poor floor surface, due to presence of contaminants or inadequate maintainance, inappropriate covering, slopes, ramps and holes.

                  • Accumulations of waste.

                  • Staircases without handrails (one or two).

                  • Insufficient space for employees to work.

                  • Temperature too hot or cold.

                  • Poorly designed warehouse floor plan.

                  • Vehicles not separated from pedestrians.

                  • Vehicle movement, not controlled when operating in an environment with pedestrians.

                  Work processes factors include:

                  • Inadequate job and health and safety training for employees.

                  • Managers/supervisors not challenging unsafe behaviour by employees.

                  • Jobs that require repetitive heavy lifting or the application of excessive physical force.

                  • Absence of personal protective equipment or a lack of training on how to use it.

                  • Inadequate communication with non-employees (visiting lorry drivers, members of the public) regarding site health and safety rules.

                  • Lack of lifting and carrying equipment to enable manual handling to be avoided.

                  • Overstocking causing packs to fall off shelves.

                  • Poorly designed shift rotas leading to employee fatigue.

                  • Insufficient training on the movement and storage of hazardous substances, leading to mishandling that causes hazardous contents to be accidentally released from their packs.

                  The list is almost endless. The factors are all addressable and indeed, under the current and extensive UK workplace health and safety legislation it is the legal duty of employers to maintain their workplaces in safe and good order and as far as is reasonably practicable ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees at work  – or risk the chance of a personal injury compensation claim.

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