Environmental Assessment

Safety Equipment hanging on wall

An environmental assessment is an opportunity to tour and observe the workplace to understand more about the setting employees work in and the physical factors at and nearby the worksite that support or hinder employee health and evaluate the physical and organizational work environment for health hazards and risks. The built environment includes all the physical parts of the worksite (e.g., building, open spaces, streets, and infrastructure) which can influence employee health. It considers such components as land use patterns, transportation systems, and design features.

  • Land use patterns refer to the spatial distribution of human activities
  • Transportation systems refer to the physical infrastructure and services that provide the spatial links or connectivity among activities
  • Design refers to the aesthetic, physical, and functional qualities of the built work environment, such as the design of buildings and streetscapes, and relates to both land use patterns and the transportation system4

An assessment of the physical work environment can identify a number of opportunities for employers to create access and opportunity for employees to practice healthy behaviors, such as physical activity, or discourage unhealthy behaviors, such as creating a tobacco free work environment. When conducting an environmental assessment of the workplace, it is important to recognize that there are numerous physical features that may be examined. The organization can decide how narrow or broad to make the assessment.

To properly identify health risks and hazards from the work environment that may cause occupational disease or injury and institute prevention and control measures for these risks, employers can implement a system to collect, analyze, and interpret occupational disease and injury control information. This system involves collecting data from many sources including workplace inspections, measurement and evaluation of exposure, examination of workers, record keeping, and reporting of health effects and exposures for acute (when the time between exposure and disease or injury is short) or chronic conditions (e.g., resulting from repeated exposure).

Direct observation of the work environment through a workplace inspection is an important source of data. Inspections can be conducted 1) on a regular and routine basis to identify hazards; 2) following an incident or accident resulting in injury to identify cause(s) and; 3) when someone at the workplace requests an inspection due to a suspicion of a health or safety hazard. Inspections can be performed by a variety of individuals including workers; health and safety professionals; engineers; external agencies, such as regulatory agencies; insurance providers; corporate officials; or union representatives.  Because of their familiarity with the worksite and work environment, workers are good sources of environmental health and safety risk information and may provide information not found in formal records (e.g., OSHA) or workers compensation claims. However, the information workers provide should not substitute for a professional evaluation of the workplace practices and the work environment by an industrial hygienist or ergonomist.5

The following questions may be helpful to consider when planning a worksite environmental assessment:

  • Is the workplace free of recognized health and safety hazards?
  • Are there health and safety risks that may be anticipated and addressed based on knowledge or experience with similar worksites in the organization?
  • What are the mechanisms for reporting and responding to perceived health and safety threats? How effective are these mechanisms?
  • What are the mechanisms and channels for communicating about workplace health and safety? How effective are they?

Examples of the types of physical factors supporting employee health that an environmental assessment can be used to observe include:

  • Setting
    • Overall site layout – number of buildings (freestanding or connected), square footage (internal), acreage (external – how big is the campus for things like walkability), traffic patterns
    • Meeting and multipurpose rooms
    • Grounds and Parking Lot
    • Stairs/Elevators
    • Appropriate noise level, lighting, ventilation, ergonomics, and safeguards for machines and equipment
  • Communication about Health & Wellness
    • Signs/Bulletin board postings about health and wellness
    • Information kiosks
    • Computer and intranet
  • Fitness Environment
    • On-site fitness center including types and condition of equipment
    • Accessibility for bikes/other forms of transportation (e.g., bike racks)
    • Outdoor physical activity options (e.g., walking paths, running trails)
    • Nearby community fitness facilities
    • Shower/Changing room facilities
  • Occupational Health Clinic
    • Staffing
    • Hours of operation
    • Facilities
  • Nutritional Environment
    • Cafeteria hours and selections including price
    • Vending machine location(s) and selections including price
    • Break rooms/Eating areas
    • Nearby restaurants and food retailers
  • Safety Environment ◦Review of Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS)
    • Hazards Inventory – including physical (e.g., noise, extreme heat or cold), ergonomic (e.g., repetitive motion), chemical (e.g., gases and vapors), biological (e.g., animals and plants), and psychosocial (work load; hours worked) hazards
    • Job specific safety training
  • Safety Equipment (e.g., fire extinguishers, Automated External Defibrillators [AED])
    • Availability and maintenance of personal protective equipment
    • Training in the use of personal protective or other safety equipment
  • Community Resources (presence/absence of these in close proximity to the worksite)
    • Sidewalks
    • Hospitals/Pharmacies
    • Parks and recreational areas

A final component of an environmental assessment includes direct observations of employees in their normal working environment going about their normal routines. These direct observations are important to understand:

  • How employees operate within the physical and social environment. The team may observe issues that went unreported during interviews because employees are too close to their situations
  • How workers interact with managers and each other
  • Where the organization’s social norms (e.g., acceptable standards of behavior) are generated and where social support networks exist
  • The level of trust, confidence, and level of employee engagement in the organizational mission and work processes
  • For worksites with established health promotion opportunities, the team can arrange to have the opportunity to see these programs in action6

Research suggests that employees with the highest health risks are associated with high job demands, low job control and low social support in the work environment. Employee participation and empowerment appear to improve employee health.7

Key things to consider when conducting direct observations:

  • Vary observation days and times so that they are a more representative sample of employees (e.g., multiple shifts)
  • Explain to employees the purpose for observing and get their permission before doing so.  Remember that employees may alter their normal routines in the presence of an observer
  • Make a list prior to observing key health behaviors of interest such as posture at the workstation, physical intensity of the work, perceived stress levels, or interactions with coworkers and record observations
Tools and Resources

Key things to think about when conducting an environmental assessment include:

  • It is often helpful to have an employee/liaison accompany the team to provide insights into their workplace (e.g., information about how often bulletin boards are updated, information about snack and drink machine vendors, etc.)
  • In most cases, it will be necessary for an employee/liaison to accompany the team for safety purposes. Depending on the workplace, the team will need to comply with all safety regulations (e.g., wearing protective clothing and equipment)
  • In unionized workplaces, union representatives should be part of the environmental assessment team and engaged in all the activities related to the assessment
  • There may be limitations on areas within the workplace that are accessible due to intellectual property or proprietary information concerns. Be respectful of that if the team is not part of the company
  • If the team is assessing a workplace that operates multiple shifts, it may be helpful to conduct the environment assessment at different times throughout the working day. The environment may be different at night than during the daytime shifts
  • Take pictures if allowed to emphasize a point or provide visual detail in a report. Make sure to ask for approval from the company before taking any pictures

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