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Unpredictable workplace safety risks challenge urban employers

Unpredictable workplace safety risks challenge urban employers

SAN ANTONIO — Homeless encampments and meth labs present unique workplace safety risks that are difficult to identify and predict, but these dangers need to be managed as much as possible, according to a safety expert.

Employees vulnerable to the risks present in these unique urban environments include law enforcement, security personnel, emergency responders, health care workers and retail employees, said Cynthia Braun, founder of occupational safety compliance, management and training firm Braun Safety Associates L.L.C. in Littleton, Colorado, who consulted on a project to clear and clean up a local homeless encampment.

“This is an area of safety that’s quite new,” she told attendees at the American Society of Safety Professionals’ annual conference in San Antonio on Tuesday.

Nontraditional hazards associated with these urban environments include physical risks such as sharp objects like needles and booby traps set up by individuals to prevent others from intruding on their space, Ms. Braun said. Unlike more traditional risks such as crane operations, where the area can be cordoned off to protect workers, urban environment hazards can be hard to identify and anticipate, which makes traditional safety measures difficult to apply, she said.

“They are unique, but mostly they’re unpredictable,” Ms. Braun said. Most of these risks are human-related, which is “really the reason for the unpredictability.”

Workers in industries dealing with such urban environments have to be made aware of the hazards, including the potential for assault, she said, citing a situation where a homeless person pulled a knife on a Colorado Department of Transportation employee.

“We’re going to have to plan for those types of things,” Ms. Braun said.

This includes not sending employees into urban environments by themselves, she said: “When you say buddy system, you mean buddy system.”

Meth labs are a rising workplace safety risk because of the chemicals used and the waste left behind, Ms. Braun said.

“As safety professionals, we should know what a meth lab looks like,” she said. “We should know the ingredients.”

“The meth lab scene can be very dangerous, and we want our workers to stay away,” Ms. Braun added.

Mitigating these risks starts with designating a steering committee or task force that will conduct a hazard risk assessment, develop written policies, train workers and conduct drills. These written plans and procedures should specify exactly what employees should do in certain urban environments or with these particular hazards, such as whether or not to pick up a needle or touch a weapon, or what to do if they encounter a corpse.

“It’s very dangerous and takes a lot of preplanning,” Ms. Braun said.





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