Hesperian Health Guides

Solve health and safety problems at work

This book can help you identify and correct problems in your workplace, and to become a worker health promoter (see Chapter 2: Learning and teaching about health at work). Because everyone in the factory is exposed to problems, everyone has a stake in improving conditions. Some approaches to solving problems are more effective than others.

Strategies that do not protect workers

Making the workplace safe is the responsibility of the factory owner. But when faced with dangers in the workplace, bosses respond in different ways. Often they put the blame on workers for complaining unreasonably or for not following the rules already in place. If they do admit there is a problem, they look for the "solution" that costs less, not the one that most effectively promotes health and safety.

a woman speaking as she cleans a circuit board with a rag; fumes rise from a can labeled "cleaner."
The boss yells at me to work faster but this cleaner makes me so sick!

"Do Nothing" strategy

The boss may deny the work is dangerous and do nothing. When a worker becomes injured or ill, he will get rid of her and hire someone else. He will not keep records or will hide records of worker illness or injury. safety.

the worker from the previous image, now in protective clothing and a mask.
I’m so hot and uncomfortable now. It’s too hard to work like this.

"Change the Worker" strategy

The boss may try to change the worker by making her do the work differently or forcing her to wear uncomfortable safety equipment. And when she cannot do the work like that, he blames her for being lazy and causing her own injuries or illnesses. "Change the worker" often just means "blame the worker."

Strategies that make work safer

With the help of OSH professionals, an employer committed to the health and safety of workers will ask: what dangers do workers really face and how dangerous are they? A good boss will change the workplace by fixing or replacing equipment, tools, and processes to eliminate dangers and make the work safer. Knowing that the workers are the real experts about their jobs, a good boss will involve workers in all steps of making work safer. Health and safety committees that include management and workers are necessary to make work safer, and they function best when everyone can ask OSH professionals for help in finding solutions.

a woman speaking as she cleans circuit boards with a brush; fumes from a can labeled "Safety Clean" are going out through a vent.
This new ventilation system changes everything! And the brush cleans better!

"Change the Workplace" strategy

Prevent the harm that work dangers can cause.

Eliminate the danger. Improved machines and products are being developed all the time to make work safer. They might cost more, but if they prevent a cancer or save one life they are well worth it. It is also important to train workers in the new processes, and in how to use warning systems and alarms.

Enclose the danger, remove it, or protect the worker from it. Install enclosures, barriers, separate work areas, machine guards, ventilation, and whatever else is needed.

Change the organization of work. Reduce the amount of time individual workers are exposed to dangerous work. Make work less boring. Interesting and fulfilling jobs tend to lead to fewer accidents.

Provide safety equipment when necessary. When the 3 previous steps are successful, there should be no need for personal protective equipment (PPE, see Chapter 18). But if work dangers still remain, PPE can be used to make work safer as long as the workplace has a program to ensure that PPE:

  • fits each worker using it.
  • is the right kind for the dangers faced in each job.
  • is cleaned or replaced as often as needed.

Make work safer by removing social dangers

Workplace problems are not only caused by chemical exposures, electrical problems, unguarded machines, and other dangers that can be fixed by repairs or better equipment. Workplace problems are also caused by discrimination against women, racism, and other attitudes, customs, behaviors, and conditions that deny workers their rights and dignity. Most of these social dangers reflect the power relations in our communities and may be harder to see than work dangers. When communities are not fair and just, workplaces will not be either. It is necessary to change these conditions for a healthy and safe workplace, and sometimes it may even be easier to begin to undo poverty, discrimination, racism, and sexism in the workplace than in the larger community.

a worker speaking to a boss while another worker speaks to a black man moving a large drum.
Just because he’s black doesn’t mean you can give him the heaviest, dirtiest jobs.
Let me help you with that.

This page was updated:28 Feb 2021