Is it a Health or Safety Hazard?

How Is a Health Hazard Different from a Safety Hazard?

Many safety specialists believe they can protect health the same as they protect safety in the workplace, and do not see the need for knowing the difference between a health or safety hazard.

What Does it Matter?

Being both an occupational health nurse and a qualified safety practitioner, I can categorically say it matters a lot because it is the elephant in the room that needs acknowledging first (doing that now) and then eating piece by piece.  And for some, it won’t be easy.  Health changes from person to person.  Take smokers who live to a ripe old age and non-smokers who die from lung cancer.  For safety hazards, the effect is the same for everyone.  If you slip on the wet floor you will, very likely, hurt yourself, the question is just how badly you’ll be hurt.  And that paradox about health hazards makes assessing risk difficult.

Safety hazards are immediate and affect everyone about the same—so by eliminating a safety hazard, you are protecting the majority of workers.

Health hazards, however, are much harder to assess and affects people differently.  For some there is an immediate effect on health, such as coughing and choking from breathing in poison, but, more importantly, there may be other delayed effects (like lungs swelling after inhaling a poison) or a long-term health effect that develops slowly long after the work has finished. Consider those dying today from the effects of working with asbestos up to forty years ago.

That’s right, 20 workers per week are dying today from working with asbestos.

When looking for health effects consider health differently and focus on points 2 and 3 below if you want to safeguard health as well as safety, here are the bodily responses to health hazards:

1. Immediate/Acute Reactions (e.g., carbon monoxide):

·         Occurs suddenly

·         Appears within seconds to hours following exposure

·         Usually has an easily identifiable cause

·         May follow repeated or prolonged exposure to a health hazard

·         May lead to the worker being removed from the hazard and/or seeking early medical attention[i]

2. Delayed Effects (e.g., lung cancer):

·         Occurs hours to years after the exposure

·         May not be easily linked to a specific hazard or workplace

·         May not have obvious signs of ill-health or effect

·         May only be found through health checks or advanced hospital testing

3. Chronic Effects (e.g., asbestosis):

·         Occurs gradually over a long time (often years)

·         May not be easily diagnosed or linked to a specific hazard

·         Does not result in immediate action by employer to correct, as the worker may not link the health problem with work done years before

Differently Treated

For the immediate or acute effect, workers will react, often dramatically, and be removed from the hazard—these health issues dealt with promptly by first aiders provided under the first aid at work regulations. In my experience, these types of reactions become well-known in the business and prompt immediate action to lessen the chances of recurrence. No one will want to work with materials obviously compromise health.

Delayed or chronic effects may need further research, and this is where competent expert advice (occupational health or hygienists[ii]) need an input for advising on the first health needs assessment process.

Ah – but is it Work-Related?

Which brings us to the issue of whether it is even work-related, or more precisely related to the current job, which is why health problems linked to work are difficult to pin down.  Take, for example, vibration white finger, caused by using hand-held vibratory machinery but made worse by smoking and home hobbies like cycling or ‘do it yourself’ work at home.  Who has tried to track down the responsible employer/job when there is such a long ‘incubation’ period?

So it is important to consider whether there is a health or a safety hazard: safety hazards are dealt with today and health risks are left until the worker is sick, by which time no one is around to take personal responsibility.  But things are changing.

Why do I need to Learn the Difference between a Health or Safety Hazard

The Health and Safety Executive is calling on workplaces to focus on health, Safe Effective Quality Occupational Health Services (SEQOHS) is accrediting occupational health services and recommended for government contracts. But the best bit is that society has realised that ignoring health issues caused by work has to stop.

If you are a manager, an employer or safety professional, it’s time to tackle the real big stuff now, there is a big difference between a health or safety hazard, don’t assume they are the same or you could be accidentally harming people.  That may not show up today, but will be there in years to come.

If you need help, why not explore the articles here on this website or read ‘How to Look after the ‘Elf in Health and Safety‘ my latest e-book available in the Kindle Store.  If you want a free pdf copy email me now or fill in the contact form below.


[i] First Aid Regulations and Risk Assessment available from here (you will have to register)
[ii] Occupational Hygienists  information click here 

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