The Amazing Hazard Awareness Advisor

By: Edward Stern, Contributor

Overview

OSHA’s Hazard Awareness Advisor uses the decision-logic of an expert panel to identify safety and health hazards (and applicable standards) using expert interactive, diagnostic software. (photo courtesy Adobe Stock)

The Amazing Hazard Awareness Advisor (webapps.dol.gov/elaws/oshahaz.htm) is a very bold title. I would not say it, if it were not true. The official name, OSHA Hazard Awareness Advisor, does not reveal its power.

Imagine if I could arrange for a panel of occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals and doctors, board-certified in OSH medicine, and lawyers specializing in OSHA regulations to meet with you for a short time. They would ask you questions about your work environment; then ask expert follow-up questions (as needed) and give a detailed, written report of what they think are your workplace safety and health issues.

Based on your answers to the questions, the panel’s report would tell you which OSHA standards apply to your work and give you brief guidance on the issues. The report might be from 5-35 pages; it all depends on what happens at your work site. The price remains the same: free. How can this be?

I doubt you could get such free expert advice from a panel of live OSH experts. But, if the decision-logic of the expert panel to identify safety and health hazards (and applicable standards) and their knowledge were captured into expert interactive, diagnostic software, you could get that advice. OSHA did that with the Hazard Awareness Advisor “expert system.” It contains the panel’s problem-identification talent.

Flexibility and Coverage

This expert Advisor is focused on general industry. It can still help those in construction and agriculture, however, because they often have general industry issues, e.g., warehouses.

Consider simple workplaces. A dress shop or law office might need guidance on railings for stairs and fire exits. Next, move up to restaurants. They have sharp tools, slippery surfaces, fire suppression and fire exits, and strong cleaning chemicals.

Now, move up to a small manufacturing site, with issues of ventilation, fire protection, eye and face protection, pinch points on machinery, hazard communication for dangerous chemicals and a paint spray-booth. (A dear uncle was upset that I worked for OSHA, but he still let me walk through his plant.)

OSHA focused particularly on small businesses, because we thought they were most likely to need the help—but we got a surprise. Consultants on occupational safety and health for major companies told me they alerted their clients to the OSHA Expert Advisors.

I asked a senior consultant with a Ph.D. in Industrial Hygiene why they alerted their clients to these tools. (I had spoken with OSH professionals at Dow, Alcoa, IBM, John Deere and the like, and I thought they were extremely knowledgeable.) He told me, “You were speaking to experts at corporate headquarters, but these companies do not have those experts at each of their sites. So, they also need help.”

The Hazard Awareness Advisor can evaluate sites in general industry, from a dress shop to a huge manufacturing site plant. For example, for bigger industry it asks:

There are areas in your workplace where: (Select all that apply and press Continue.)

  • People have to shout to be heard over background noise
  • Workers may have to stand in water because of a wet process or washdown
  • Workers are in physical contact with chemical solutions, solvents or vapors
  • Flying or airborne debris, dust, chips or other particles are generated
  • Workers are exposed to mists, fumes, gases, smokes, sprays or fogs
  • Visitors comment about strange odors…(this is a subset of the questions)

The last question recognizes that people become accustomed to odors in their environments (olfactory fatigue), but visitors notice strange odors.

Also, I checked “Flying or airborne debris, dust, chips or other particles are generated.” The Advisor will react to that in the “Details.” Now, let us look at materials handling equipment.

Which types of mechanical materials handling equipment do you use at your facility? (Select all that apply and press Continue.)

  • Fork-lift or other powered industrial trucks
  • Overhead or gantry cranes
  • Slings used for materials handling
  • None of the above

Checking “fork-lift or other” prompts this follow-up:

Do you have a formal, periodic evaluation of the on-the-job performance of your powered industrial truck operators?

  • Yes
  • No

Follow-up Questions & Your Inputs

Keep in mind that you only see follow-up questions triggered by your answers about your workplace. Some readers who use this Advisor will not see the questions in this article. Instead, they will see other questions appropriate to the workplaces that they describe to the system.

You may wonder what, if anything, will OSHA do with the users’ input into the Advisor. The answer is nothing. OSHA does not see responses to the questions. The Hazard Awareness Advisor is maintained by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy, which does not collect users’ input into the Advisors. The whole point is to help employers make their workplaces healthier and safer.

What’s in the Advisor’s Report?

The first section of the Report contains “Highlights.” Most are on one line. Here are some based on my answers. They do not cover every issue.

Highlights

  • Evaluate the exposure to chemicals in your workplace.
  • Your site needs a hazard communication program.
  • Keep isles and loading areas clear of unneeded materials.
  • Listen when visitors say they smell strange odors.

Details

This section has detailed responses to users’ input. I said I had powered industrial trucks. So, the Advisor produced a brief overview of the related hazards and identified applicable OSHA standards. And it addressed flying particles. Here is part of it:

Materials Handling and Storage

Your answers indicate that mechanical materials handling equipment is present in the workplace. This equipment can cause injury to workers by trapping them between the equipment and materials or structures and by colliding with stacked materials causing overturn of heavy objects onto workers. Equipment can also block exit in the event of fire.

1910.176 Handling materials, general: Provides requirements for use of mechanical handling equipment, and for materials storage.

Eye and Face Protection

Your answers indicate that your employees may require eye or face protection equipment. Safety glasses, goggles or face shields are useful for controlling a variety of common workplace hazards, including flying particles. Many workers suffer eye injuries after issuance of safety glasses, because they wear them only in their shirt pockets.

The OSHA Hazard Awareness Advisor (webapps.dol.gov/elaws/oshahaz.htm) can help businesses doing many kinds of work and using many different materials. It will spot the most likely safety and health issues in your workplace. Maybe you are good, or maybe you have more work to do. Why not find out before federal or state OSHA shows up? Lastly, OSHA did not do this all by itself. Our contractor, Alex Botkin, designed it with many good ideas from OSHA, business, labor and the State Plans.

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