9 Implementing: Hazard Identification

This is the first of three chapters focused on managing hazards and the risks they pose to workers.  In this implementation phase, safety professionals are required to enhance organisational capacity, by ensuring adequate resourcing of activities and should foster a positive safety culture, while building-up individual worker capacity through training and engagement.

In this chapter, the focus is on effective hazard identification as some hazards will be obvious, but some will be very specific to a particular task undertaken at a particular time of day, or even time of year.  It is vital that organisations seek to identify hazards because they can lead to occupational disease or a WHS incident.  Identifying hazards is the first step towards strengthening an organisation’s safety defence layers (see Swiss Cheese Model, Chapter 5).


Learning Objectives

This chapter introduces:

  • The concept of hazard identification.
  • Common hazard classifications; chemical, ergonomic, biological, physical, psychosocial, safety, and workplace.
  • Strategies to identify work-related hazards and scenarios that uncover unanticipated hazards.

A hazard may be defined as “anything with the potential to harm life, health or property” (Dunn, 2012, p. 53) and, in WHS management, risk is the “likelihood and consequence of injury or harm occurring” (Standards Australia & Standards New Zealand, 2001, p. 5) due to an interaction between a hazard and a worker.  Hazard identification, risk assessment and hazard controls attempt to make an organisation’s safety defence layers as strong as possible, mitigating everyday occupational health risks while reducing the likelihood of a WHS safety incident occurring.  According to the Swiss Cheese Model of safety incident causation (Chapter 5), this requires management of human factors to avoid “active failures” and system-based factors, to proactively identify and address any “latent conditions”.

In blame-the-system approaches, some people are not considered innately more hazardous than others (Hopkins & Palser, 1987).  Instead, it is recognised that there are situations (conditions) that increase the likelihood of human error (active failures), see Box 9.1.  These conditions have been extensively researched in different fields including clinical psychology, experimental psychology, organisational psychology, educational psychology, medical science, anthropometric science, cognitive science, industrial engineering, safety engineering, and computer science (Federal Aviation Administration, n.d.).  Scholars, such as Reason (2000) and Hudson (2007), have undertaken empirical studies on human factors in practice.

Box 9.1: WHS Human Factors

The following video provides a brief overview of human factors as a WHS concept.


A transcript of this video is available here.

Source: Sheridan, L. (producer, narrator) & Treadwell, L. (producer). (2019). Excerpt from Video 6: An introduction to work health and safety management.
Preston, A., audio engineer; Orvad, A., artist and Franks, R., animator, Learning, Teaching and Curriculum, University of Wollongong, Australia. YouTube

In an effective safety management system, human error would not lead to a serious incident because other safety defence layers will protect workers.  Human factors mainly correspond to the ‘people’ layer of the Swiss Cheese Model (including safety culture) but require consideration of the interactions between workers and the other safety defence layers (see Figure 9.1). Just like for the other safety defence layers, human factors need be identified and controlled, however, Reason (1997) suggests this is challenging because human-centric factors are difficult to predict and control.

Four slices of Swiss cheese are presented. These represent four organisational safety defence layers from left to right: people, engineering, procedural and administrative. The slices all have holes in them representing potential weaknesses in each safety defence layer. The people safety layer is presented in a darker colour as it is the focus of discussion around the diagram.

Figure 9.1: Swiss Cheese Model safety defence layers
Source: “Swiss Cheese Model” by Kate Thompson, CC BY 4.0

In contrast, management of latent conditions involves identifying “poor design, gaps in supervision, undetected manufacturing defects or maintenance failures, unworkable procedures, clumsy automation, shortfalls in training, less than adequate tools and equipment” (Reason, 1997, p. 10) which notionally corresponds to engineering, procedural and administrative safety defences (see Figure 9.1).

 Hazard Identification

The first step in reducing the risk of a hazard to workers is to identify it.  It is not possible, or appropriate, to present all possible WHS hazard identification tools and techniques here, instead, the focus will be on providing a conceptual overview.

As general rule, when establishing hazard identification processes and procedures in a business, it is advisable to:

  1. Use industry-specific hazard identification resources: Often available from WHS regulators or professional industry bodies, these resources identify the most common hazards associated with an industry or type of work.
  2. Employee engagement and consultation: First, get workers to identify hazards known to them that are specific to their role and, secondly, have them collaborate with other workers to discover the less obvious hazards that inattentional blindness or change blindness may not enable them to identify.
  3. Hazard identification auditing: Hire professionals, or establish mutually beneficial arrangements with suitably qualified industry peers, to independently review your work site for hazards. This strives to enact a greater level of accuracy, again seeking to avoid biases such as inattentional blindness or change blindness, and takes hazard identification to a more sophisticated level.

Note: Avoid allocating hazard identification to an accreditation body who is auditing your safety management system for two reasons; firstly, it will identify that you have weak hazard identification practices in place putting your certification in jeopardy and, secondly, these audits tend to be at a higher level and focused on system-function rather than undertaking the systematic hazard identification that is actually required for effective safety management.


Note: WHS regulators may undertake a hazard audit as part of a spontaneous site visit to your business or as part of an incident investigation; neither of these two options should be relied upon as an effective hazard identification measure as they expose the business to compliance risk.  However, WHS regulators that take an educative approach (see Chapter 7 discussions on WorkSafe New Zealand as an educative WHS regulator) may genuinely support you in establishing your safety management system by undertaking a hazard audit once you have demonstrated genuine attempts at hazard identification.  These WHS regulators recognise the innate vulnerability of a business at the start-up phase of safety management, where hazard controls are not yet in place, but seek to encourage an organisation’s pro-safety stance.  Furthermore, your proactive engagement with the WHS regulator can be one way to demonstrate efforts towards due diligence during this challenging period.


If you are joining an established safety management system it will be important to learn both the tools that your businesses use, but also to understand why they have adopted those methods.  This enables you to question if the existing tools are the best possible ones for the task.


Although definitions do vary, as a starting point, hazards maybe categorised into:

Chemical Hazards

Chemical hazards “can be a solid, liquid or gas. It can be a pure substance, consisting of one ingredient, or a mixture of substances. It can harm the health of a person who is exposed to it” (Comcare, 2021, para. 1).  The International Labour Organization ranks the risk of these hazards in priority order as: “1. Asbestos, 2. Silica, 3. Heavy metals, 4. Solvents, 5. Dyes, 6. Manufactured nanomaterials (MNMs), 7. Perfluorinated chemicals (PFAS), 8. Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), 9. Pesticides, 10. Workplace air pollution” (ILO, 2021, p. v).  The types of diseases that workers suffer as a consequence include respiratory illnesses, toxicity reactions, and cancer.  Box 9.2 outlines the global scale and consequence of chemical hazard exposure to workers.

Box 9.2: Global perspectives on chemical hazards

A worker in full protective equipment including a whole jumpsuit, gloves, face mask and googles is handling chemical containers on the floor in an industrial warehouse setting.
Figure 9.2: A worker in full personal protective equipment handling chemicals
Source: pix4free.org, CC0

The International Labour Organization’s Exposure to hazardous chemicals at work and resulting health impacts: A global review, found that:

Workers around the world are facing a global health crisis due to occupational exposure to toxic chemicals. Every year more than 1 billion workers are exposed to hazardous substances, including pollutants, dusts, vapours and fumes in their working environments. Many of these workers lose their life following such exposures, succumbing to fatal diseases, cancers and poisonings, or from fatal injuries following fires or explosions. We must also consider the additional burden that workers and their families face from non-fatal injuries resulting in disability, debilitating chronic diseases, and other health sequela, that unfortunately in many cases remain invisible. All of these deaths, injuries and illnesses are entirely preventable.” (ILO, 2021, p. v)

Further reading:

ILO (2021) Exposure to hazardous chemicals at work and resulting health impacts: A global review. International Labour Organization.


The impact on workers of Inorganic dust can be difficult to identify due to its prolonged, rather than acute, presentation.  Identifying these chemical hazards usually are a specialist activity requiring occupational epidemiologists and guidance from public health agencies and WHS regulators (see Chapter 4).  Workers are involved as they may be required to participate in health monitoring, would be expected to report exposure events and, importantly, should be involved in continuous improvement of safe work procedures.

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety reflections for practitioners: “Access chemical information with substance.  Find resources on chemical hazards, product safety; WHMIS [Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System], (M)SDSs [Material Safety Data Sheets], transport of hazadous materials, toxicity, and safe work practices” (2023, para 1).


Ergonomic Hazards

Ergonomic hazards are “physical factors in the environment that may cause musculoskeletal injuries” (ComCare, 2022, para. 1).  Occupational therapists and ergonomists are useful in the re-design of work layouts to prevent ergonomic-related injuries (Capodaglio, 2010).  In Past influencing the present we see how ergonomics for productivity has shifted to ergonomics for health.

Two women workers are collaborating to lift a box in a warehouse setting.

Figure 9.3: Safe manual handling can involve team work.
Source: “Team lifting” by California Department of Industrial Relations, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0


Past influencing the present

Frederick Taylor used scientific principles (Scientific Management) to change the positioning of workers and machines in the workplace to enhance productivity and Henry Ford built on this by designing the assembly line, which brought the task to the worker rather than the workers to the task (see Chapter 3).


A line of cars are at varying levels of assembly. They are all sitting on rails that move each car from one team of workers to the next. This image is in black and white and is from 1923 in America.

Figure 9.4: An automobile assembly in from 1923 in the United States.
Source: “The Automobile Industry – 1923” via Jasperdo, flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Today industrial engineers continue the traditions of Scientific Management by striving to identify efficiencies through industrial design (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2023) but ergonomists and occupational therapists focus on designing work for workers, including personalising the workplace (see Figure 9.5), particularly if a person is returning to work after illness or injury (Ammendolia et al., 2009).


A man is conducting an ergonomic analysis for a woman sitting at a computer workstation. He is measuring the distance between her computer monitor and her head.

Figure 9.5: John Pentikis undertakes a work station adjustment
Source: Fort George G. Meade Public Affairs Office, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0



Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety reflections for practitioners: “Ergonomics is matching the job to the worker and product to the user.  Access information and resources on workplace design and considerations, work-related musculoskeletal disorders, related risks, and helpful exercises” (2023, para. 2).


Biological Hazards

Biological hazards “are organic substances that present a threat to the health of people and other living organisms. Biological hazards include “viruses…toxins from biological sources, spores, fungi, pathogenic, micro-organisms, bio-active substances” (ComCare, 2023, para. 1).  These types of hazards can be acute, and have an immediately obvious impact on health, or lead to chronic conditions (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022) which are “defined broadly as conditions that last 1 year or more and require ongoing medical attention or limit activities of daily living or both” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022, para. 1).

In an Australian survey, 19% of workers had biological hazards present at their workplace; 75% of these workers were exposed to human biological hazards and 30% to animal biological hazards.  Less was known about exposure of workers to less obvious hazards such as plants or mould (Safe Work Australia, 2020).

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety reflections for practitioners: “Many workplace hazards have the potential to harm workers’ short- and long-term health, resulting in diseases, disorders and injuries” (2023, para. 3).


Physical Hazards

America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define physical hazards as “workplace agents, factors, or circumstances that can cause tissue damage by transfer of energy from the agent to the person” (2022c, para. 1).  If only thinking about the Swiss Cheese Model, workers might only identify physical hazards with acute impacts on workers, such as an object striking a worker and breaking their arm, but the transfer of energy aspect of the above definition can refer to many other situations.  One example (see Figure 9.6) is workers operating tools or machinery that vibrate as “excessive exposure can affect the nerves, blood vessels, muscles and joints of the hand, wrist and arm causing Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome” (Health and Safety Executive, n.d.-a, para. 17).


Two workers who are wearing safety boots and gloves use jackhammer tools to break up a hard floor.

Figure 9.6: Two workers jackhammering a hard floor
Source: pickpik.com, pikipik free licence


Physical hazards comprise a broad range of hazards including “loud noises, extreme pressures, magnetic fields, radiation, fire, poor lighting, unsafe machinery, misused machinery, obstructions in walkways, [and] slippery floors” (National Association of Safety Professionals, 2018, para. 11).  They can be challenging to identify at times because piece of workplace machinery might always pose a physical safety risk but slippery floors are a temporary physical hazard.

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety reflections for practitioners: “Physical hazards are substances or activities that threaten your physical safety. They are the most common and are present in most workplaces at one time or another. These include unsafe conditions that can cause injury, illness and death” (2023, para 4).


Psychosocial Hazards

Psychosocial hazards are “aspects of work which have the potential to cause psychological or physical harm” (ComCare, n.d., para. 1).  The Australian Government has classified 14 types of psychosocial hazards (see Figure 9.7) and these are important to manage because:

Psychological injuries have longer recovery times, higher costs, and require more time away from work. Managing the risks associated with psychosocial hazards not only protects workers, it also decreases the disruption associated with staff turnover and absenteeism, and may improve broader organisational performance and productivity. (Safe Work Australia, 2022, p. 5)

Essentially, while overlooked until recently, psychosocial hazards represent an important business risk that must be addressed.


This image provides a list of psychosocial hazards: Job demands, Low job control, Poor support, Lack of role clarity, Poor organisational change management, Inadequate reward and recognition, Poor organisational justice, Traumatic events or materials, remote or isolated work, poor physical environment, violence and aggression, bullying, harassments including sexual harassments and conflict or poor workplace relationships and interactions.

Figure 9.7: Psychosocial hazards
Source: Safe Work Australia (2022, p. 5), CC BY-NC 4.0

What makes psychosocial hazards so harmful that their recovery is prolonged?  Safe Work Australia explain the biochemistry behind the physical harm triggered by psychological harm:

The text reads: Psychosocial hazards can create stress. Stress is the body’s reaction when a worker perceives the demands of their work exceed their ability or resources to cope. Stress creates a physiological and psychological response in the body by releasing adrenaline and cortisol, raising the heart rate and blood pressure, boosting glucose levels in the bloodstream and diverting energy from the immune system to other areas of the body. Stress itself is not an injury but if it becomes frequent, prolonged or severe it can cause psychological and physical harm. Some hazards cause stress when a worker is exposed to the risk of that hazard occurring as well as when they are directly exposed to the hazard itself. For example, workers exposed to workplace violence are likely to experience stress if they perceive that the risk has not been controlled, even if the violence does not occur again. In this situation, despite the hazard rarely occurring, the stress itself may be prolonged.

Source: Safe Work Australia (2022, p. 5), CC BY-NC

Different industries expose workers to different types of psychosocial hazards.  WorkSafe Queensland highlight manufacturing, transport, agriculture, construction, retail and wholesale, and healthcare as particularly ‘at risk’ industries.

In healthcare, for example, workers have low job control as their work comprises shiftwork and the provision of care to patients in challenging circumstances.  There are high job demands, with considerable emotional control required to enable service delivery.  There can be poor levels of support with care staff working very independently.  Low role clarity can emerge because of the autonomy of the role and limited opportunities for supervisory guidance and feedback.  Workplace change is constant as each shifts changes the care team and allocated patients.  There can be poor perceptions of institutional justice around shift allocations or inconsistent implementation of procedures.  Finally, poor relationships can develop, with conflict not being resolved between shifts, or the line between professional and personal being blurred in patient care (WorkSafe Queensland, 2020).  In Chapter 5, Neil Logan (Box 5.1) spoke of the psychosocial hazards of aged care, including personal attachment to elderly people who will inevitably pass away.

In addition to industry-based differences, distinct segments of worker population can be disproportionally exposed to psychosocial hazards (Lovelock, 2019).  In 2021 a national survey of the New Zealand working population (n = 3612) identified on average that 35% had been exposed in the prior year to ‘offensive behavour’ including bullying (23%), cyberbullying (16%), violent threats (14%), sexual harassment (11%), and physical violence (11%).  Colleagues and/or customers could be perpetrators of psychosocial hazards.  However, within this same survey, Māori and Pacific workers reported higher levels of exposure to psychosocial hazards comparable to the entire New Zealand worker population.  For example, bullying was experienced by Māori and Pacific at a rate of 28%, compared to 23%, and physical violence was reported by 17%, versus 11% of respondents (Khieu et al., 2021).  Global populations experience psychosocial hazards at different rates as well, for example violence at work is more likely to be experienced by women than men (see Box 9.3).

Box 9.3: Violence and harassments in the workplace


Source: “Violence and Harassment in the Workplace” by the International Labour Organization via Soundcloud



Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety reflections for practitioners: “Learn about stress, violence, bullying, and other behaviours in the context of a workplace environment” (2023, para 5).


Safety Hazards

Safety hazards comprise hazards that may not easily fall into the above categories but do create conditions that lead to safety incidents, and according to America’s National Association of Safety Professionals are:

Tripping and slipping hazards, including spilled liquid, cords running across the floor and blocked aisles.  Working from any raised work area, including roofs, scaffolding and ladders.  Moving machinery parts and unguarded machinery that a worker can accidentally touch.  Electrical hazards, including improper wiring, missing ground pins and frayed cords.  Confined spaces.  Hazards related to machinery, including boiler safety and the improper use of forklifts. (National Association of Safety Professionals, 2018, para. 22)

One safety hazard that requires particular attention is working alone which is “work is done in a location where the employee can’t physically see or talk to other staff members” (Ministry of Business, Employment and Innovation, n.d.c, para. 1).  This can occur both within a workplace (see Working Alone Example 1) and outside of workplace, given PCBUs are responsible for work wherever it is being undertaken (NZ Parliament, 2015; Safe Work Australia, 2023).  Identifying hazards in potentially unknown worksites poses significant challenges  (see Working Alone Example 2).


Working Alone Example 1: In a workplace setting

In Australia in 2013, Mr Vijay Singh died from organ failure, caused by hypothermia, after being trapped in a commercial freezer.  He was inadvertently working alone when his co-workers all went on lunch break without him (Coroner NSW, 2015).  The Swiss Cheese Model of safety incident causation is applied to this incident below.

Active Failure:

  • Mr Singh has poorly manoeuvred the forklift truck when moving stock into a freezer, leading to him being trapped in the freezer by products and the forklift truck.



A forklift truck is being used to load boxes of Joe IPA into what may be a commercial cool room.

Figure 9.7: Loading stock into confined spaces, particularly if chilled, requires training and personal protective equipment
Source: “Man Riding a Yellow Forklift lifting Boxes” by Elevate, pexels.com, CC0

Latent conditions:

  • Mr Singh was hired via a labour hire company to pack products.  A job change led to him using a forklift and working in the commercial freezer without additional training.
  • While the company had a forklift policy, Mr Singh did not have a forklift licence.  Different staff members assumed that another had checked that Mr Singh had a forklift licence.
  • The incident occurred on a Saturday.  The site did not usually operate on a Saturday, there were fewer staff than usual, and the main supervisor left the site at 12.30pm.
  • Mr Singh became a lone worker, but this was unintentional.  The three other packers on site went on a lunch break together at approximately 1.30pm and returned to work at 2pm.
  • The other workers decided to finish for the day at 2.30pm and realised they had not seen Mr Singh.  It was at this point that they discovered Mr Singh trapped in the freezer and called emergency services.  They tried to turn off the freezer but did not know how and the company was not answering their phones (as it was a non-standard workday).

In this case, there are administrative errors, such as not checking for a valid forklift truck licence, through to procedural ones around working in freezers.  Moreover, the emergency response procedures were lacking also with the workers being unable to turn off the freezer and the company not being available by telephone to advise them how.

Ironically, less than an hour earlier there had been a near miss.  Mr Singh had poorly manoeuvred the forklift truck and called for help.  All the workers then collaborated to re-align and free-up the forklift, which had become stuck in the freezer.  Sadly, once working alone, that one remaining layer of safety defence (access to the other workers) was not available and Mr Singh’s calls for help went unheard, leading to his death.


Working Alone Example 2: Outside of a workplace setting

The disappearance of real estate agent Yanfei Bao, on the 19th July 2023 in Christchurch New Zealand, has raised concerns for lone workers undertaking work outside of workplace settings.

A female real estate agent is standing at an open front door welcoming in a male client. Both are very happy and comfortable in this situation.

Figure: A real estate agent is showing a property to a client
Source:  RDNE stock project, pexels.com, pexels free licence

Ms Bao was door-knocking to expand her client base.  Unfortunately, while undertaking this work activity, she was abducted and, after some hours, her car was found abandoned in a suburb different to where she was doing her work.  A person was arrested for murder despite her still being missing (Radio New Zealand, 2023).

Off-site client engagement is common in real estate work, according to the Real Estate Institute’s Jen Baird, it is “a fairly standard part of real estate, and lots of people still do it and do it perfectly safely.  It’s a great way to meet people and engage with their communities” (Radio New Zealand, 2023, para. 5).  The challenge is then how to ensure a workers can undertake this activity safely and, if not, whether a PCBU can expect a worker to engage in this activity.

Workplace Hazards

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (2023) uses this category to classify some hazards that do not easily fit within other categories but are workplace related including indoor air quality, scents or odours, weather (temperatures, lighting and storms) etc.


In concluding, the overall purpose of hazard assessment is to produce an exhaustive register of work-related hazards, no matter where that work occurs.  Once this has been established, the next required step is to determine the risk associated with each hazard and this is achieved via risk assessment.




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