Formal Workplace Safety Assessments

Would a more formal safety assessment of workplaces using chemicals improve safety?

In the US, employers have a legal duty to provide a safe work environment under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, sec. 5(a); which implies that employers must assess the workplace. OSHA regulations such as the Hazard Communication Standard (1910.1200) for employers that use chemicals in the in their process, more explicitly require the employer to assess the workplace, but largely leave it up to the employer to determine what criteria to apply.

Contrast this situation to employers who use chemicals in the UK which have to undergo a formal written assessment of occupational hazards under their Control of Substances Hazardous to Health regulations (COSHH). The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the UK’s counterpart to OSHA, provides detailed written guidance (48 pages) on how to perform an assessment called appropriately “A step by step guide to COSHH assessment” available for free download.

The guide walks the user through fives steps, 1) Gathering information about chemicals used in the workplace, 2) evaluating health risks, 3) deciding on necessary protective measures, 4) recording the assessment and 5) determining when the assessment needs to be reviewed.

Obviously the HSE guidance is written around the UK’s COSHH regulations but the basic principles behind the regulation are similar to those in the US. According to OSHA 4,628 people died in occupational injuries in 2012, but these only represent people who died on-the-job. It is estimated that roughly 60,000 deaths and 860,000 occupational illnesses are attributed to occupational exposure per year in the US. Perhaps the US workforce would benefit from a more formal risk assessment procedure.