Health Hazards at Work

Often when we think of hazards in the workplace we tend to think of the harm that can be done by equipment and tools. However, workplace hazards are much more extensive and can, for example, be comprised of illness, psychological health, and issues relating to the the type of work being performed. In the following section, we will review various types of workplace hazards.

Types of health incidents

The main different types of  health incidents that can occur are:

  1. Occupational injury: Cut, fracture, sprain, or amputation resulting from a workplace accident or from an exposure involving an accident in the work environment
  2. Occupational illness: Abnormal condition or disorder caused by exposure to environmental factors associated with employment
  3. Industrial disease: Disease resulting from exposure relating to a particular process, trade, or occupation in industry

One such illness that has received wide attention in the media is that of the consequences of working with Asbestos. Think about all of the workers who were affected by working with Asbestos, whether it be the construction workers or the miners.

Stress and other safety concerns

In addition to issues that are directly linked to injuries there is another facet that is also part of Health and Safety.

Stress management, office-related injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, and no-fragrance areas are all contemporary issues surrounding employee health and safety. In addition , given our new reality, employer’s need to also have provisions in place for communicable diseases such as COVID-19 as we discussed in the previous section.

Let’s have a closer look at the most common issues experienced at work.

Stress and Being Overly Productive

In its annual survey on stress in America, the American Psychological Association found that money (76 percent), work (70 percent), and the economy (65 percent) remain the most oft-cited sources of stress for Americans.

Job instability is on the rise as a source of stress: nearly half (49 percent) of adults reported that job instability was a source of stress in 2010 (compared to 44 percent in 2009). At the same time, fewer Americans are satisfied with the ways their employers help them balance work and non-work demands (36 percent in 2010 compared to 42 percent in 2009). The implications of these findings are obviously important for HRM professionals.

Before we discuss what HR professionals can do, let’s discuss some basic information about stress. As it is currently used, the term stress was coined by Hans Selye in 1936, who defined it as “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand for change” (The American Institute of Stress, 2011).

In other words, we can say that stress is the reaction we have to a stressor. A stressor is some activity, event, or other stimulus that causes either a positive or negative reaction in the body. Despite what people may think, some stress is actually good. For example, receiving a promotion at work may cause stress, but this kind of stress is considered to be positive. Stress is very much a personal thing, and depending on individual personalities, people may have different opinions about what is a stressor and what is not.

For example, a professor does not normally find public speaking to be a stressor, while someone who does not do it on a daily basis may be very stressed about having to speak in public.

Stress Management

Selye recognized that not all stress is negative. Positive stress is called eustress. This type of stress is healthy and gives a feeling of fulfillment and other positive feelings. Eustress can cause us to push ourselves harder to meet an end goal. On the other hand, distress is the term used for negative stress. While eustress can push us, distress does not produce positive feelings and can go on for a long time without relief. We can further classify distress into chronic stress, is prolonged exposure to stress, and acute stress, which is short-term high stress. For example, someone who receives little or no positive result from stress and is continuously stressed may experience chronic stress. Acute stress occurs in shorter bursts and may be experienced while someone is on a tight deadline for a project.

Two other terms related to stress are hyperstress and hypostress. Hyperstress is a type of stress in which there are extremes with little or no relief for a long period of time. This type of stress often results in burnout. Hypostress is the lack of eustress or distress in someone’s life. Remember, some stress can be good and pushes us to work harder. We see this type of stress with people who may work in a factory or other type of repetitive job. The effect of this type of stress is usually feelings of restlessness.


Figure 9.1 The Stress Curve

As you have already guessed, stress on the job creates productivity issues, which is why it concerns HR professionals. We know that stress can cause headaches, stomach issues, and other negative effects that can result in lost productivity but also result in less creative work. Stress can raise health insurance costs and cause employee turnover. Because of this, according to HR Magazine (Tyler, 2011), many employers are taking the time to identify the chief workplace stressors in employees’ lives. With this information, steps can be taken to reduce or eliminate such stress.

Price Waterhouse Coopers, for example, implemented several strategies to reduce stress in its workplace. The firm restructured its work teams so that rather than having one employee work with one client, teams of employees work with groups of clients. Rather than having an employee say, “I can’t go to my son’s baseball game because I need to wait for this client call,” this arrangement allows employees to cover for each other.

The organization also requires employees to take vacation time and even promotes it with posters throughout the office. In fact, even weekends are precious at Price Waterhouse Coopers. If an employee sends an e-mail on the weekend, a popup screen reminds her or him it is the weekend and it is time to disconnect.

Offering flex-time is also a way to reduce employee stress. It allows employees to arrange their work and family schedule to one that reduces stress for them. This type of creative scheduling, according to Von Madsen, HR manager at ARUP Laboratories (Tyler, 2011), allows employees to work around a schedule that suits them best. Other creative ways to reduce stress might be to offer concierge services, on-site child care, wellness initiatives, and massage therapy. All these options can garner loyalty and higher productivity from employees.

Being a Student Can Also Be Very Stressful

Here are the most common stressors for college students:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Relocating to a new city or province
  • Divorce of parents
  • Encounter with the legal system
  • Transfer to a new school
  • Marriage
  • Lost job
  • Elected to leadership position
  • New romantic relationship
  • Serious argument with close friend
  • Increase in course load or difficulty of courses
  • Change in health of family member
  • First semester in college
  • Failed important course
  • Major personal injury or illness
  • Change in living conditions
  • Argument with instructor
  • Outstanding achievement
  • Change in social life
  • Change in sleeping habits
  • Lower grades than expected
  • Breakup of relationship
  • New job
  • Financial problems
  • Change in eating habits
  • Chronic car trouble
  • Pregnancy
  • Too many missed classes
  • Long commute to work/school
  • Working more than one job
  • Impending graduation
  • Argument with family member
  • Sexual concerns
  • Changes in alcohol and/or drug use
  • Roommate problems
  • Raising children

Cumulative Trauma Disorders

Cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs) are injuries to the fingers, hands, arms, or shoulders that result from repetitive motions such as typing.

Carpal tunnel syndrome, or CTS, is a common cumulative disorder in which the hand and wrist is particularly affected. According to one study of CTS (Matias, et. al., 1998), the percentage of a workday at a computer, posture while at the workstation, and the individual’s body features all contribute to this workplace issue. More recently, CTD can be found in people who text a lot or use their smartphones to type or surf the Internet.

There are a number of keyboards, chairs, and other devices that can help limit or prevent CTD issues.

Microsoft is attempting to relieve CTD by developing “surface” technology. First introduced in 2007, the system is controlled through intuitive touch rather than the traditional mouse and keyboard. Microsoft and Samsung in early 2011 introduced the newest consumer-ready product, which looks like a large tablet (or iPad) used to perform the same functions as one normally would on her computer (Microsoft News Center, 2011).

Chemical and Fragrance Sensitivities

Some people have multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) or environmental illness (EI). MCS or EI is the inability to tolerate an environmental chemical or class of foreign chemicals. Symptoms can include headache, dizziness, inability to breathe, muscle pain, and many more depending on the person. As a result, implementing policies surrounding MCS may be not only a legal requirement but a best practice to keep employees safe and healthy in the workplace. Some examples of such policies might include the following:

  1. Institute a fragrance-free workplace policy (e.g., no scented lotions, hair products, or perfumes).
  2. Limit use of restroom air fresheners, cleaning agents, and candles.
  3. Ensure the ventilation system is in good working order.
  4. Provide a workspace with windows where possible.
  5. Consider providing an alternate workspace.
  6. Be cautious of remodels, renovations, and other projects that may cause excessive dust and odors.

If an organization is going to implement a fragrance-free work policy, this is normally addressed under the dress code area of the organization’s employee manual. However, many employers are reluctant to require employees to refrain from wearing or using scented products. In this case, rather than creating a policy, it might be worthwhile to simply request a fragrance-free zone from employees through e-mail and other means of communication. An example of such a policy is used by Kaiser Permanente:

We recognize that exposure to strong scents and fragrances in the environment can cause discomfort, as well as directly impact the health of some individuals. Since we hope to support a healthful environment for employees, physicians, and visitors, it is the intent of Quality and Operations Support to strive for a fragrance-controlled workplace. Therefore, for the comfort and health of all, use of scents and fragrant products by QOS employees, other than minimally scented personal care products, is strongly discouraged (Kaiser Permanente Fragrance Policy, 2011).

Chemicals and Substances

Chemicals should be labeled in English, and employees must be able to cross-reference the chemicals to the materials safety data sheet, which describes how the chemicals should be handled.

In Canada, the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) gives directives on how to properly label, use, manage, store and dispose of chemical substances.

It is estimated that 1,200 new chemicals are developed in North America alone every year (International Labour Organization, 2011). For many of these chemicals, little is known about their immediate or long-term effects on the health of workers who come into contact with them. As a result, policies should be developed on how chemicals should be handled, and proper warnings should be given as to the harmful effects of any chemicals found in a job site

Workplace Violence and Bullying

Another concern of Health and Safety is mental health.

Approximately 2 million American workers are victims of workplace violence every year6.

Workplace bullying is defined as a tendency of individuals or groups to use persistent or repeated aggressive or unreasonable behaviour against a coworker or subordinate. The Workplace Bullying Institute found that 35 percent of workers have reported being bullied at work. This number is worth considering, given that workplace bullying reduces productivity with missed work days and turnover.  Examples of workplace bullying include the following:

  1. Unwarranted or invalid criticism
  2. Blame without factual information
  3. Being treated differently than the rest of your work group
  4. Humiliation
  5. Unrealistic work deadlines
  6. Spreading rumors
  7. Undermining or deliberately impeding a person’s work

Indigenous Perspectives

There is a term that is called Lateral Violence which is prominent in a lot of First Nation communities. It goes beyond just spreading rumors. This is often seen in small communities where everyone knows each other. In the following link you will find a scenario: Here is another one:


Closer to home, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety:

  • 1 in 5 Canadians experience a psychological health problem or illness in any given year. 
  • Psychological health problems and illnesses are the number one cause of disability in Canada.
  • Psychological health problems cost the Canadian economy ~$51 billion per year, $20 billion of which results from work-related causes.
  • 47% of working Canadians consider their work to be the most stressful part of daily life.
  • Psychological health problems affect mid-career workers the most, lowering the productivity of the Canadian workforce.
  • Only 23% of Canadian workers would feel comfortable talking to their employer about a psychological health issue.

It is up to the organization and human resources to implement policies to ensure the safety of workers and provide a safe working environment.

While outside influences may affect employee safety, it is also important to be aware of the employee’s safety from other employees. There are several indicators of pre-violence as noted by the Workplace Violence Research Institute (Mattman, 2010):

  1. Increased use of alcohol and/or illegal drugs
  2. Unexplained increase in absenteeism
  3. Noticeable decrease in attention to appearance and hygiene
  4. Depression and withdrawal
  5. Explosive outbursts of anger or rage without provocation
  6. Threats or verbal abuse to coworkers and supervisors
  7. Repeated comments that indicate suicidal tendencies
  8. Frequent, vague physical complaints
  9. Noticeably unstable emotional responses
  10. Behaviour indicative of paranoia
  11. Preoccupation with previous incidents of violence
  12. Increased mood swings
  13. Has a plan to “solve all problems”
  14. Resistance and overreaction to changes in procedures
  15. Increase of unsolicited comments about firearms and other dangerous weapons
  16. Repeated violations of company policies
  17. Escalation of domestic problems

Anyone exhibiting one or more of these pre-incident indicators should get the attention of HRM. The HR professional should take appropriate action such as discussing the problem with the employee and offering counseling.

Prevention of workplace bullying means creating a culture in which employees are comfortable speaking with HR professionals and managers (assuming they are not the ones bullying) about these types of situations.

Similar to traditional bullying, cyberbullying is defined as use of the Internet or technology used to send text that is intended to hurt or embarrass another person. Examples include using Facebook to post negative comments or setting up a fake e-mail account to send out fake e-mails from that person. Comments or blogs and posts that show the victim in a bad light are other examples of cyberbullying. Similar to workplace bullying, cyberbullying is about power and control in workplace relationships. Elizabeth Carll’s research on cyberbullying shows that people who experience this type of harassment are more likely to experience heightened anxiety, fear, shock, and helplessness, which can result in lost productivity at work and retention issues (White, 2011), a major concern for the HR professional.

Employee Privacy

In today’s world of identity theft, it is important that HR professionals work to achieve maximum security and privacy for employees. When private information is exposed, it can be costly.

Employee privacy is governed by the Personal Information Protection and Electronics Documents Act (PIPEDA) in Canada.

Some of the things to combat employee identity theft include the following:

  1. Conduct background and criminal checks on employees who will have access to sensitive data.
  2. Restrict access to areas where data is stored, including computers.
  3. Provide training to staff who will have access to private employee information.
  4. Keep information in locked files or in password-protected files.
  5. Use numbers other than social security numbers to identify employees.

Another privacy issue that comes up often is the monitoring of employee activities on devices that are provided to them by the organization. Case law, for the most part, has decided that employees do not have privacy rights if they are using the organization’s equipment, with a few exceptions. As a result, more than half of all companies engage in some kind of monitoring. According to an American Management Association7 survey, 73 percent of employers monitor e-mail messages and 66 percent monitor web surfing. If your organization finds it necessary to implement monitoring policies, ensuring the following is important to employee buy-in of the monitoring:

  1. Develop a policy for monitoring.
  2. Communicate what will be monitored.
  3. Provide business reasons for why e-mail and Internet must be monitored.

Working with your IT department to implement standards and protect employee data kept on computers is a must in today’s connected world. Communication of a privacy policy is an important step as well. Agrium, a Canadian-based supplier of agricultural products in North America, states its employee privacy policy on its website and shares with employees the tactics used to prevent security breaches8. The statement is:

At Agrium we are committed to maintaining the accuracy, confidentiality, and security of your personal information. This Privacy Policy describes the personal information that Agrium collects from or about you, and how we use and to whom we disclose that information.

Promoting a Culture of Safety and Health

Employee health and safety is a must in today’s high-stress work environments. Although some may see employee health as something that shouldn’t concern HR, the increasing cost of health benefits makes it in the best interest of the company to hire and maintain healthy employees. In fact, during the recession of the late 2000s, when cutbacks were common, 50 percent of all workplaces increased or planned to increase investments in wellness and health at their organization (Sears, 2009).

Example of Health and Safety Policy

Cordis (A Johnson & Johnson Company) Environmental, Health, and Safety Policy

Cordis Corporation is committed to global Environmental, Health, and Safety (EHS) performance and leadership with respect to its associates, customers, suppliers, contractors, visitors, and communities. To fulfill this commitment, Cordis Corporation conducts its business emphasizing regulatory compliance and collaboration.

We strive for:

  • Comprehensive risk management
  • Pollution prevention
  • Healthy lifestyle culture
  • Continuous improvement and sustainability
  • Engaging partnerships
  • Possession of outstanding EHS capabilities and skill sets

We affirm that EHS is:

  • A core business value and a key indicator of organizational excellence
  • Considered in every task we perform and in every decision we make

We believe that:

  • All incidents and injuries are preventable
  • Process Excellence is the driver for continuous improvement and sustainable results in all aspects of EHS
  • Every associate is responsible and accountable for complying with all aspects of EHS, creating a safe and healthy work environment while leaving the smallest environmental footprint

A safe culture doesn’t happen by requiring training sessions every year; it occurs by creating an environment in which people can recognize hazards and have the authority and ability to fix them. Instead of safety being a management focus only, every employee should take interest by being alert to the safety issues that can exist. If an employee is unable to handle the situation on his or her own, the manager should then take suggestions from employees seriously; making the change and then communicating the change to the employee can be an important component of a safe and healthy workplace.

A culture that promotes safety is one that never puts cost or production numbers ahead of safety. You do not want to create a culture in which health and safety priorities compete with production speedup, which can lead to a dangerous situation.

Another option to ensure health and safety is to implement an employee assistance program (EAP). This benefit is intended to help employees with personal problems that could affect their performance at work. The EAP usually includes covered counselling and referral services. This type of program can assist employees with drug or alcohol addictions, emotional issues such as depression, stress management, or other personal issues. Sometimes these programs are outsourced to organizations that can provide in-house training and referral services to employees.

Possible techniques you can implement to have a safe and healthy work environment include the following:

  1. Know safety laws.
  2. Provide training to employees on safety laws.
  3. Have a written policy for how violations will be handled.
  4. Commit the resources (time and money) necessary to ensure a healthy work environment.
  5. Involve employees in safety and health discussions, as they may have good ideas as to how the organization can improve.
  6. Make safety part of an employee’s job description; in other words, hold employees accountable for always practising safety at work.
  7. Understand how the health (or lack of health) of your employees contributes to or takes away from the bottom line and implement policies and programs to assist in this effort.


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Human Resources Management - 2nd Ontario Edition Copyright © 2022 by Elizabeth Cameron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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