Physical Hazards and Risks

Physical hazards in OSH refer to the potential risks that can cause physical harm or injury to workers due to physical agents, factors or conditions present in the workplace.

Examples of physical hazards at work include noise, vibration, radiations, electricity and extreme temperatures.

Loud noise at work can damage workers hearing. This usually occurs over longer periods of time because of prolonged exposure to high noise levels. Hearing loss may be only temporary after short periods of exposure to noise, but if workers continue to be exposed to high noise levels they will suffer permanent damage to their hearing or other diseases such as tinnitus. Permanent damage can also be caused immediately by sudden, extremely loud noises. High noise levels can interfere with communication and making warnings harder to hear, and they can also increase worker fatigue, cause stress, irritability and sleep disorders, reducing performance. Read more on Noise.

Exposure of workers to hazardous vibration mainly comprises:
  1. whole-body vibration (when the body is supported on a surface that is vibrating, such as in vehicles or when working near vibrating industrial machinery; or
  2. hand–arm vibration (which enters the body through the hands and is caused by various processes in which vibrating tools or work pieces are grasped or pushed by the hands or fingers).
Short duration exposure to whole-body vibration or to hand– arm vibration may result in temporary disability, but prolonged or repeated exposure leads to permanent damage. Read more on Vibration.

Radiation hazards encompass exposure to ionizing radiation or non-ionizing radiation and can lead to burns, tissue damage, or even cancer.

Ionizing radiation includes cosmic rays, X rays and the radiation from radioactive materials. Ionising radiation has many uses in industry, such as energy production, manufacturing, medicine and research. Ionising radiation attacks the cells of the body by producing chemical changes in the cell DNA, leading to abnormal cell growth, therefore it is important that exposures are properly managed to protect workers.

Non-ionizing radiation includes radiant heat, radio waves, microwaves, terahertz radiation, infrared light, visible light, and ultraviolet light. Workers performing operations where they are exposed to non-ionizing radiation should be adequately protected, including with personal face and eye protective equipment. Read more on Radiation Protection.

Electricity can kill or severely injure people and cause damage to property. The main risks of working with electricity are electric shock and burns from contact with live parts; injury from exposure to arcing, fire from faulty electrical equipment or installations; explosion caused by unsuitable electrical apparatus or static electricity igniting flammable vapours or dusts, for example in a spray paint booth. Electric shocks can also lead to other types of injury, for example by causing a fall from ladders or scaffolds etc. Read more on Electrical safety.

Extreme temperatures, whether in the form of extreme heat or cold temperatures, pose risks to workers’ health and safety.
Workers who are exposed to extreme heat or work in hot and humid environments may be at risk of heat stress. Exposure to extreme heat and high humidity can result in occupational illnesses caused by heat stress, including heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat syncope, heat cramps, heat rashes or death. Heat and humidity can also increase the risk of injuries as it may result in sweaty palms, fogged-up safety glasses and dizziness. Other heat injuries, such as burns, may occur as a result of contact with hot surfaces, steam or fire.

On the other side, extreme cold environments may increase a range of health disorders for workers, including frostbite, cumulative musculoskeletal disorders, damage to the tissue and may even lead to hypothermia.