Occupational Hazards: An Overview

Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on July 03, 2023
4 min read

The place you work can sometimes be hazardous to your health, even fatal. In 2019, there were 5,333 fatal work injuries recorded in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Fishing, hunting, logging, aviation, roofing, construction, and waste management industries have higher-than-average on-the-job death rates. Transportation incidents accounted for the largest share of deaths, at more than 2,100, followed by falls, slips, and trips; exposure to harmful substances and environments; unintentional overdoses due to nonmedical use of drugs or alcohol; and fires and explosions.

Fortunately, in order to keep those risks and hazards to a minimum, there are federal and state organizations to monitor and review the work environment to ensure every employee’s safety.

An “occupational hazard” is any workplace condition that causes a risk to employee health. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the government organization in charge of keeping workers safe, has defined six main categories of occupational hazards:

  • Safety. This category includes any condition, substance, or object that can injure a worker, like working from heights, spills on floors, machinery with moving parts, confined spaces, steep stairs, or exposed electrical wiring.
  • Chemical. There are many kinds of hazardous chemicals and toxins in different workplaces, including environmental smoke, cleaning products, acids, pesticides, carbon monoxide, and flammable liquids.
  • Biological. In some settings, such as farms, zoos, hospitals or medical offices, or veterinary clinics, workers can be exposed to biological health hazards like blood, fungi, mold, viruses, animal droppings, and insect bites.
  • Physical. These are hazards in the environment that can harm your body without you actually touching it, like radiation, prolonged exposure to sunlight, extreme high or low temperatures, and loud noise.
  • Ergonomic. These hazards put strain on your body over a period of time. You may just feel sore or cramped in the short term, but repeatedly sitting or standing in awkward positions or completing the same movements over and over, across a long period of time, can lead to long-term injury and illness.
  • Work organization hazards. Workplace violence, discrimination, lack of respect, sexual harassment, and other conditions are hazardous to mental, emotional, and physical health.


With so many potential risks to employee health in the workplace, who’s in charge of protecting workers from these hazards? A few organizations have this responsibility.

One of the largest of these is OSHA, created in 1970 by Congress with the mission of ensuring “safe and healthful working conditions for workers by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.”

The law that established OSHA entitles workers to a safe workplace, and it offers protections including the right to:

  • Receive workplace safety and health training in a language you understand
  • Work on machines that are safe
  • Receive required safety equipment, such as gloves or a harness and lifeline for falls
  • Be protected from toxic chemicals
  • Request an OSHA inspection, and speak to the inspector
  • Report an injury or illness, and get copies of your medical records
  • Review records of work-related injuries and illnesses
  • See results of tests taken to find workplace hazards

It also gives workers the right to file a complaint about working conditions they believe to be unsafe, and it protects them from retaliation.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is a part of the CDC. NIOSH studies occupational safety and health, and it develops new interventions and recommendations to make workplaces safer. It was also established in 1970 by the same law that created OSHA: the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Most state governments also have workplace health and safety programs of their own, operating within the state’s Department of Labor or Department of Health, and sometimes both. They track work-related injuries and fatalities in their state, investigate and intervene in hazardous situations, and provide education about occupational health risks.

Depending on the type of job you have, there are also specific organizations that set standards, develop guidelines, and/or investigate risky workplace environments. For example, if you work in a hospital pharmacy and are involved with compounding IV medications, a job that involves exposure to hazardous drugs, an organization called U.S. Pharmacopeia sets standards for the safe handling of hazardous drugs in health care settings. Or if you work in the mining industry, there is a federal organization, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), created by the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, that is charged with preventing death, illness, and injury from mining and promoting safe and healthful workplaces for miners.

How can you be sure you’re working in a safe, healthy environment? Specific tips for a safe workplace depend on the exact type of work you do and the place you do it in. But there are some principles that apply no matter where you work or what your job is.

  • Keep your work area neat and free of clutter that could cause an accident.
  • Dress appropriately for the job, including personal protective equipment (PPE) if necessary.
  • Lift, bend, and stretch carefully to avoid injury.
  • Don’t operate tools, equipment, or machinery that you have not been trained to use.
  • Do not use alcohol or drugs on the job.
  • Take breaks as needed.
  • Know and follow all emergency procedures, including locations of emergency exits, first-aid kits, and fire extinguishers.

If you believe your workplace is unsafe, tell your employer. If you believe they are not responding appropriately, you can file a complaint with OSHA either online or by calling 800-321-6742 (800-321-OSHA). Don’t take chances with your safety!