by Carol Milano


Has anyone in your union ever taken a sick day because of a hearing problem, a respiratory illness, or a severe headache? These are just a few of the huge array of health problems that members may actually develop on the job. Workplace injuries are more common than anyone would like them to be. In addition to an individual member’s pain, your entire organization is impacted. Lost workdays mean lower productivity. Having an injured colleague can be hard on co-workers’ morale. And of course health care costs are affected.

The causes and types of workplace injuries span the spectrum of jobs and settings. In this issue, we offer ways to lessen the likelihood of injuries caused by a few common problems.

  • Problem: Poor Indoor Air Quality.

Ventilation involves bringing air into and out of a building, through a combination of procedures that include cooling and exhaust systems. If any part of the ventilation process is not working properly, the quality of air inside a building deteriorates, and can develop harmful concentrations of pollutants. Workers may become drowsy, develop headaches, or perform tasks more slowly.

Some Protective Steps:

    1. Identify sources of pollution. Find a way to remove each source or install an improved ventilation process to eradicate it.
    2. Eliminate anything that restricts air circulation. For example, make sure furniture is not blocking an air vent.
    3. Perform maintenance and inspection of your ventilation system as often as its manufacturer specifies, to keep it working properly.
  • Problem: Eye Injuries

Thousands of American workers are blinded each year by job-related injuries. These health emergencies cost over $300 million each year in medical expenses, lost production time, and worker’s compensation.

Important Protective Step:

* Make sure that members have appropriate Personal Protective Equipment whenever they are exposed to eye or face hazards. These can include flying particles, molten metal, liquid chemicals, gases, vapors, or potentially injurious light radiation. Members working at or near fireworks displays or political demonstrations, for example, may be at risk

  • Problem: Fires and Explosions

Workplace fires and explosions kill 200 Americans each year, and injure another 5,000 workers. It’s urgent to survey the fire safety of your members’ worksites regularly, at least once a year.

Some Protective Steps:

    1. Make sure that fire exits can be easily reached and that fire alarm systems and fire extinguishers are in good working order. Someone at each workplace must know who to call in case of a fire or explosion.
    2. To evacuate an area quickly in an emergency, use stairs instead of elevators. Each site should rehearse its evacuation routes.
    3. To reduce the likelihood of a fire, keep workspaces free of waste paper and other combustible materials. Replace damaged electrical cords and train workers not to overload electrical circuits.
  • Problem: Electrical Hazards

In our increasingly technological workplaces, everyone is exposed to the electromagnetic fields (EMF) that surround all electrical devices. Scientists are not yet sure of the health problems caused by EMF exposure, but occupational safety experts already know that electrical equipment and wiring can lead to injuries (as well as become fire hazards, as mentioned above).

Some Protective Steps:

    1. Make sure all extension cords have a grounding conductor. Any portable electric tools and equipment also need either grounding or double insulation.
    2. Before any work with electrical equipment or power lines, members should do either a preliminary inspection or an appropriate test to determine the exact conditions.
    3. As a precaution, increase a member’s distance from any EMF source. Magnetic fields decrease dramatically about three feet away from the point of origin.
  • Problem: Preventing Falls

Falls are a leading cause of disabling workplace injuries. In fact, one out of every 5 emergency room visits in America for an injury is because of a fall! Yet these are among the simplest wounds to prevent.

Some Protective Steps:

    1. If the stairs in a workplace are wide enough, install a second handrail. Put light switches at both top and bottom of any interior staircase.
    2. Re-route any obstructing electrical cords that someone could trip over.
    3. Remove boxes from all high-traffic areas.
  • Problem: Work-Related Hearing Loss

About 30 million American workers are exposed to hazardous levels of noise on the job. Noise-induced hearing loss is 100% preventable, but is permanent and irreversible once a member is afflicted. The National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) has named hearing loss as one of its top priority areas for research.

Some Protective Steps:

    1. Remove hazardous noise from the workplace by engineering controls, such as a muffler or acoustic barrier.
    2. Offer hearing protectors (ear plugs or ear muffs) when it is not possible to reduce noise to a safe level.
    3. For any worksite with a high noise level, conduct periodic assessments, seek to install engineering controls, and educate workers about how to protect themselves.



For a comprehensive workplace Hazard Assessment Checklist, visit Another excellent source of information is the Labor Occupational Health Program at University of California, Berkeley ( Work-related injuries and illnesses are also covered in depth at

Many of these articles appear on the publication's website, which are often password-protected or members-only. For your convenience, I've gathered them on my own website.