Invisible Workplace Hazards

By Mark Swartz
Monster Contributing Writer

Next time you're at work, take a deep breath. Then have a long look around.

As you breathed, how was the air quality? When you looked around, was the lighting adequate? And did you happen to notice if the premises were well-maintained, or if disrepair posed a threat to your health and safety?
Invisible hazards: what we don't know can hurt us. Most employees aren't trained to spot dangers unless they're obvious. A poorly installed ceiling light that has sparking wires dangling; now that's a clear and present peril. Not quite so visible are the way you sit in your chair, type on a keyboard, or deal with stress or harrassment on the job.
Listed below are some common workplace hazards that tend to be less visible. Here's how to deal with each one.
Gradual Invisible Injuries
Each year, there are about 15.5 cases of work-related injuries per 1000 employed Canadians Lifting heavy objects can pose immediate risks to your body. But according to Health, there are also gradual, less strenuous activities – typing, or sitting in a chair for long periods, as examples – which can inflict harm over time.
Do you work in the same position a lot? If you stand all day, you might get sore feet, varicose veins, muscle tiredness, and lower back pain. Sitting all day means you could develop hemorrhoids, or a habit of slouching that could cause back pain. So check your posture often, and stretch and move around at regular intervals.
Repetitive strain
Do you use the same joints and muscle groups too often, too fast, or for a long period of time?  For example, using a computer mouse (or typing) for extended periods can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. So take regular breaks from anything repetitive. Stretch and move your muscles in different ways. Also, try varying the way you do the task. For instance, you might try a stylus in place of a mouse.
Do you drive a bus or truck, or use power tools? You may gradually experience symptoms such as loss of feeling in your hands and arms. So give yourself a break every so often, and try using padded materials – for example, seat cushions or padded gloves – to absorb some of the vibration.
Do you work someplace that exposes you to extreme heat or cold? Too much heat – like you might find in a tight restaurant kitchen – can lead to faintness. And obviously coming into contact with smouldering hot items, such as sizzling cooking oil, can cause serious burns. Excessive cold can be harmful as well. Numbness and frostbite are possible. So try to remove yourself from the extreme temperatures before injury sets in. Dress appropriately beforehand. And use insulated gloves or clothing to handle boiling or freezing objects.
Do you work somewhere loud? Too much noise can cause stress, headaches, nausea, and hearing loss. It can also affect your concentration, a real danger if you work with hazardous materials. You can get used to loud noise after having been surrounded by it for a while. But that doesn't mean it's less damaging to your ears. So take some time every so often to go somewhere quiet, not just to rest your ears but to readjust your sense of loudness. Wear earplugs or use noise-reducing headsets where necessary. And if a co-worker is being too loud, respectfully ask them to keep it down if possible.
Other Gradual Injury Factors
Air quality. Gradual exposure to toxic chemicals. Repeated lifting. Excessive stress. Bad ergonomic design. Radiation. All of these factors can cause longer-term injury or illness if not dealt with properly. So if you want to know more about these, visit the federal government's Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), Health Canada's Environmental and Workplace Health site, or CANOSH, Canada's health and safety website.
Immediate Invisible Injuries
Some invisible risk factors cause damage faster than others. Among these are certain kinds of emotional and physical trauma.
Emotional Trauma: Harrassment, Bullying, Abuse of Power
Are you subjected to workplace bullying, sexual or other harrassment, or abuse of power over you? Maybe your boss has made unwanted sexual advances. Or a colleague is taunting you for being different somehow, making your wokday miserable.
This type of emotional abuse can scar you if you don't look after it quickly. You may end up feeling helpless, degraded, or you could even become ill with clinical depression or other physical ailments caused by traumatic stress.
If you're experiencing these kinds of issues, you needn't be ashamed or feel alone. That's often what the perpetrator wants: to leave you feeling isolated and vulnerable. You can fight back by doing the following:
·         Document and report the abusive behaviour to your boss, to Human Resources, or to a trusted colleague
·         Contact external specialists for emotional support. If your employer offers a confidential EAP service (Employee Assistance Plan), contact the EAP right away. If not, seek out a trained professional (e.g. psychologist, psychiatrist, Help Line, social worker) to talk things out
·         Get advice from an Employment Lawyer on your rights and duties in this matter
·         Explore the option of taking your case to one of Canada's federal or provincial Human Rights Tribunals or related complaint mechanism
·         Try to get temporarily reassigned or moved to another part of your workplace, so that you don't have to be in direct contact with the perpetrator
Physical Trauma: Workplace Violence
Do you worry that someone will be physically violent toward you at work? In Canada, eight provinces have specific legislation dealing with workplace violence. This isn't surprising given that each year more close to 400,000 cases of "violent victimization" occur at work, according to Statistics Canada (StatCan). This includes physical assault in the workplace, as well as outside of it (e.g. at work-related conferences, social gatherings, and on business trips).
Certain workers are more likely to be affected: in a StatCan survey, 33% of the violence victims worked in social assistance or health care, 14% in accommodation or food services, and 11% in education. Police and prison workers also encounter higher risks of violence at work, of course.
In 2/3's of the workplace incidents, someone known to the victim committed the violence. One in three incidents was committed by a stranger. If you feel it necessary to better protect yourself, here are some steps you can take:
·         If you feel threatened, or have been threatend by someone at work, report this immediately
·         Insist on being removed from the threat right away if possible
·         Prepare a daily work plan, so that you and others know where and when you're expected to be somewhere
·         Identify a designated contact at the office and a back-up
·         Keep your designated contact informed of your location and consistently adhere to the call-in schedule.
·         Use the "buddy system", especially when you feel your personal safety may be threatened
·         Have emergency contact info and a charged-up mobile phone handy at all times
·         Avoid being alone in a workplace late at night if possible
·         Refuse to enter any situation or location where you feel threatened or unsafe
·         Check the credentials of new clients carefully