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Occupational Health and Safety Hazards in Public and Governmental Services

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Public and government services encompass a wide variety of industrial and occupational categories. For example, included are workers employed within telecommunications and postal services, inspection and field services, as well as sewage treatment, recycling, landfill and hazardous waste operations. Depending on the individual country, industrial categories such as telecommunications and postal services may be located within either the public or private sector.

Occupational and environmental safety and health hazards in public and government services include exposure to chemicals, ergonomics, blood-borne pathogens, tuberculosis, machinery hazards, violence, motor vehicles and flammable materials. In the future, as public and government services continue to grow and become more complex, it is anticipated that occupational safety and health hazards will increase and become more widespread. In turn, led by tripartite (labour, management and government) initiatives, improvements in occupational safety and health hazard recognition and control will provide improved resolution of identified hazards.

Health Problems and Disease Patterns

Patterns or identifiable trends of occupational health problems have been associated with the type of work (i.e., use of visual display units (VDUs) or chemicals), as well as where the work is performed (i.e., indoors or outdoors).

Indoor work

The primary hazards associated with indoor work are poor or inadequate physical and work organization ergonomics, inadequate indoor air quality or heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, chemicals, asbestos, workplace violence and electromagnetic fields (low-level radiation).

Health symptoms and disorders or illnesses have been associated with exposure to these hazards. Since the mid-1980s, a large number of ergonomic-related upper extremity physical illnesses have been reported. Disorders include carpal tunnel syndrome, ulnar deviation, thoracic outlet syndrome and tendinitis. Many of these are related to the introduction of new technology, particularly VDUs, as well as the use of hand tools and equipment. Causes of identified illnesses include physical and work organization factors.

Since the engineering and construction of “tight-buildings” in the 1970s, a pattern of increasing incidence of upper respiratory and dermatological health symptoms and illnesses has been observed. Such health problems are associated with improper maintenance of the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems; chemical contaminants and microbiological agents; and the inadequate provision of fresh air and air flow.

Exposure to chemicals in indoor work environments has been linked to upper respiratory and dermatological health symptoms and illnesses. A variety of different chemical contaminants are emitted from copying machines, furniture, carpets, cleaning materials (solvents) and the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. One particular syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivity, has been associated with chemical exposures in indoor work environments.

Asbestos exposure may occur when building renovation and service work are performed and asbestos products or materials are deteriorated or damaged, thus causing asbestos fibres to become airborne.

Since the 1980s, workplace violence and associated safety and health problems have become increasingly widespread. Work environments where increasing rates of workplace violence have been documented are characterized as follows: handling money, working with the public, working alone, coming into contact with patients or clients who may be violent and dealing with customer or client complaints.

Health concerns include physical harm and death. For example, homicide was the second leading cause of death in the US workplace in 1992, accounting for 17% of all workplace deaths. In addition, from 1980 to 1989 homicide was the leading cause of death in the workplace for women, as discussed in more detail in the chapter Violence in this Encyclopaedia.

Work with and exposure to electronic equipment and related electromagnetic fields or non-ionizing radiation has become commonplace, as is exposure to high frequency non-ionizing radiation emitting products such as laser and microwave transmission equipment, radio-frequency heat sealers and electric tools and generation equipment. The relationship between such exposures and consequent health effects such as cancer, visual and skin disorders is not yet clear and much research is still needed. Several chapters in this Encyclopaedia are devoted to these areas.

Outdoor work

Outdoor work environment occupational hazards include exposure to chemicals, lead, hazardous and solid waste, environmental conditions, inadequate ergonomics, motor vehicles, electrical and mechanical equipment and electromagnetic field emissions.

Exposure to chemicals occurs in several identified occupational categories including waste disposal operations, water and sanitation services, sewage treatment, domestic waste collection, postal collection and technician jobs in telecommunications. Such exposure has been related to upper respiratory, dermatological, cardiovascular and central nervous system illnesses. Exposure to lead occurs among telecommunications workers while performing splicing operations with and removing lead telecommunications cables. Such exposure has been liked to a variety of health symptoms and illnesses, including anaemia, peripheral and central nervous system disorders, sterility, kidney damage and birth defects.

Hazardous work environments are common to waste disposal operations, water and sanitation services, sewage treatment and domestic waste collection. Occupational safety and health hazards include microbiological and medical waste, chemicals, inadequate ergonomics, motor vehicles, confined spaces and electrical and mechanical equipment. Identified health symptoms and illnesses include upper respiratory, dermatological, upper and lower extremity musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, central nervous system and visual problems. Additional concerns include lacerations, heat exhaustion and stroke.

Inadequately designed workplace tools and equipment are common to all outside public and government service occupations. Hazards comprise poorly designed hand and power tools, machinery and motor vehicles. Associated health problems include upper and lower extremity musculoskeletal symptoms and illnesses. Safety-related concerns include visual problems, strains, sprains and fractured and broken bones.

Hazards associated with motor vehicles include poorly designed equipment (e.g., hoppers, compaction boxes and aerial equipment), as well as improperly operating machinery and equipment. Associated health problems comprise musculoskeletal injuries and death. Motor vehicle accidents account for the greatest number of injuries and fatalities outdoors.

Hazards associated with electrical and mechanical equipment include poorly designed equipment, electrical shock and electrocution, as well as chemical exposures. Health problems include strains, sprains, broken bones, central nervous and cardiovascular system disorders, as well as upper respiratory and dermatological disorders and death.

Work with or in close proximity to electrical transmission equipment and the associated electromagnetic fields of non-ionizing radiation emissions has been linked with the occurrence of certain central nervous system symptoms and disorders as well as cancer. However, scientific and epidemiological research has, as of yet, not clearly defined the degree of harm posed by electromagnetic fields.

Outdoor public and government services activities present several environmental and public health problems. For example, chemicals, microbiological agents, sewage and domestic waste may be used and disposed of improperly, thus finding their way into the water table as well as streams, lakes and oceans, causing environmental contamination. In turn, such waste may lead to the contamination of public water supplies as well as the creation of toxic dumps or sites. Such contamination has been related to the deterioration and destruction of the environment as well as public health. Associated human health effects include dermatological, central nervous and cardiovascular system health symptoms and disorders, as well as certain types of cancer.



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