Environmental Hazards in the Workplace

Environment By Matthew Coombes

When you think of environmental hazards, you may well be drawn to big disasters like oil spills, massive factory fires and gas leaks. While these sorts of events can have a massive negative impact on the environment in one big hit, the truth is that nearly any part of a workplace can cause environmental risks.

Anything that is produced or disposed of has a cost, and by its very nature the cost will be coming from the environment. Additionally, if the cost isn’t seen in your country, then it’s probably being paid overseas. A good example of this is the popularity of electric vehicles – electric vehicles have lower level of harmful emissions but the batteries that power e-scooters, e-assisted bikes and electric cars have to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is often from lithium-ion batteries. These batteries are reliant on the extraction and processing of lithium, along with other elements and materials such as cobalt.

Electric cars, solar panels and electricity don’t just appear, they have to be made somewhere, so often the cost to the environment is occurring in another country. In the instance of cobalt, this country is the Democratic Republic of Congo, who produce around 65% of the world’s cobalt.
It is because of this that even digital and ‘green’ products can come with weighty costs to the environment.

Sustainability

It is important to consider that sustainability and business continuity go hand in hand. If something that you are using is essential for your company to operate, such as aluminium to create cans for a food packaging company, you should have a vested interest in ensuring the consistent supply of materials. Sometimes this will mean ensuring that you recycle materials that are required for your supply chain, and sometimes this will mean choosing a company that has enough resource and know how to avoid an environmental incident, such as a company that is ISO 14001 certified. (While certification isn’t a guarantee, it at least demonstrates a company has done more than the minimum).

A sustainable environment

The environment being clean is essential for human health, and human health is essential for workplace productivity and happiness. Sustainability extends from the need to keep supply lines working and also should include social sustainability, and ensuring health.

Usage vs waste

A key environmental risk comes from waste. Not only is wasted materials, food and energy bad for the environment, it’s also bad for business. If your organisation is leaving empty fridges, computers, heating and other devices on standby or even on overnight/when there is no need, this can have a massive cumulative effect on costs, and this will inevitably bite into your profits.

Often these aspects of our organisations go unmeasured, and will just bleed into an overall cost, e.g. an electricity bill. This can mean that they don’t get monitored, noticed or that risks aren’t addressed.

There are also issues of waste through misuse of materials and equipment, such as not making efficient cuts of materials and throwing more out as scrap than you need to. Not keeping equipment properly and frequently replacing it, and purchasing equipment that you don’t need. Just because materials are plentiful now doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be careful with what we use and throw away.

Key example – Digitisation of paperwork

Paper, paper everywhere and what a waste of ink!
A key issue identified by many organisations was the waste produced by printing, copying and keeping massive amounts of unnecessary paperwork, either because paperwork was the done thing, or software didn’t exist to replace the paperwork.

Paper materials are a great source of readily flammable fuel, and having your workplace full to the brim with unnecessary files is going to increase your fire-related risks, by increasing the ‘fire loading’ in the room.

Paperwork can often take up a lot of space, and if stored incorrectly it can present a risk to health and safety in the form of trip hazards. People also often underestimate how much boxes filled with paper can weigh, leading to manual handling injuries.

Cutting down on as much unnecessary paperwork is a great way to improve fire safety, health and safety and reduce environmental risks.

Disposal based risks

How does your organisation deal with waste?
In the UK, the majority of commercial waste is dealt with under license by the council, or other well-established waste management service providers.

But even a low risk or low waste workplace can end up with issues. Certain things aren’t accepted by the council, so you may have to source a waste management service. A good example of this is things like office equipment, IT equipment, batteries, and most bulky items.

Location based risks

One of the biggest factors to consider in your environmental management is the type of work you do, in relation to the environment around you.

  • Are you working with toxic gas/fumes near to a school or housing estate, where an accidental release could require an evacuation?
  • Are your chemicals toxic to plant and marine life and your site is situated near a water source?
  • If there is an incident, who or what may be harmed or killed?

It’s important to have the right spill prevention and clean-up kits at your disposal, and to know how to use them.


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