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Physical hazards

For: Employers and managers Information seekers

Physical hazards are factors or conditions within the environment that can harm your health.


Types of physical hazards

The main factors and conditions associated with physical hazards include:

  • body stressing
  • confined spaces
  • electricity
  • heat
  • heights
  • noise
  • vibration.

Body stressing

Body stressing is a collective term covering a broad range of health problems associated with repetitive and strenuous work.

Factors influencing body stressing

Body stressing injuries, or musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), often develop from carrying out hazardous manual tasks.

Body stressing injuries at work can result from a variety of factors:

  • Psychosocial aspects of work – factors such as job demands, control, support and satisfaction, imbalance between effort and reward and monotony of tasks. Financial concerns or relationship issues may also contribute.
  • Biomechanical - soft tissue damage which may occur through:
    • direct exposure (blunt trauma or sudden overload), leading to a muscle tear or sprain, or
    • indirect exposure (repeated light loading), leading to symptoms that may accumulate to cause further degeneration and injury.
  • Individual worker characteristics – factors including health problems or out of hours demands.

Body stressing sources of risk

Manual handling and computer usage are key risks for body stressing.

Using a Risk Management Approach (PDF, 133.8 KB) can help assess the likelihood of a hazard progressing to a risk.

The Body Stressing Sources of Risk checklist (PDF, 184.4 KB) is designed to help managers, workplace health staff and rehabilitation providers identify and address body stressing injury risks including:

  • work area design and layout
  • systems of work and work organisation
  • loads, tools, machinery and equipment
  • workplace environment
  • other considerations.

Common body stressing injuries

Common injuries may include:

  • sprains and strains of muscles, ligaments and tendons
  • back injuries
  • joint and bone injuries or degeneration
  • nerve injuries or compression, or
  • chronic pain.

The Body Stressing infographic (PDF, 148.5 KB) includes a high level overview of body stressing injuries across the Comcare scheme.

Body stressing warning signs

There are a range of body stressing injury symptoms including:

  • muscular pain, sore joints, tingling, burning, inflammation and cramp
  • loss of grip strength
  • reduced mobility
  • feeling overwhelmed at work
  • lack of concentration
  • not being able to complete tasks
  • regular feelings of fatigue
  • sleep disturbance
  • stress and pain affecting mood, work, family and social life.

Seeking help for body stressing

Seek early support if you think you may develop a body stressing injury:

For more information, see Lifting, pulling and pushing (manual handling) advice – Safe Work Australia.

Confined spaces

Confined spaces are enclosed or partly enclosed spaces that are usually not designed for people to work in.

They can have poor ventilation and are a risk to health and safety from dangerous oxygen levels and contaminants like airborne gases, vapours and dusts.

For more information, see Confined spaces advice – Safe Work Australia.

Electricity

Poor electrical installation and faulty electrical appliances can cause serious injury and death:

  • Electrocution can result in burn injuries to skin and internal tissue as well as damage to the heart.
  • Electric shock from faulty electrical equipment can lead to other injuries, such as falling from ladders and heights, muscle spasms, palpitations and unconsciousness.

For more information, see Electrical safety advice and Working near overhead or underground electric lines guidance – Safe Work Australia.

Heat

Heat strain can result from working in hot temperatures and being exposed to high levels of humidity or thermal radiation, such as in foundries, commercial kitchens and laundries.

When working in extreme heat conditions, you must be able to carry out work without a risk to your health and safety, so far as is reasonably practicable.

For more information, see Guide for managing the risks of working in heat – Safe Work Australia.

Heights

Working at heights is a high-risk activity and a leading cause of death and serious injury in Australia.

There are specific obligations under part 4.4 of the Work Health and Safety Regulations 2011 to manage the risk of someone falling from one level to another, as far as is reasonably practical.

For more information, see:

Noise

Noise in the workplace is considered excessive when you need to raise your voice to be heard by someone a metre away.

Excessive noise can lead to temporary or permanent hearing loss or tinnitus (ringing in the ears). It can also affect psychological health including anxiety, depression, fatigue, sleeplessness, memory and decision making.

Part 4.1 of the Work Health and Safety Regulations 2011 sets the legal requirements for noise in the workplace. The same standards apply for people working inside or outside an office.

For more information, see Noise advice – Safe Work Australia.

Vibration

There are risks connected to working with vibrating equipment and plant which need to be assessed and managed.

Evidence also shows that people who experience vibration and noise at the same time are more likely to suffer hearing loss and musculoskeletal problems, than people exposed to noise or vibration alone.

For more information, see Workplace vibration guidance material – Safe Work Australia.

Types of work and industries

People working within an industry or doing the same type of work are exposed to specific physical hazards in the workplace.

Cash in transit operations

The transport, delivery and receipt of valuables is known as cash in transit operations.

It involves the movement of:

  • Cash
  • Securities
  • Jewels
  • Bullion
  • other financial instruments.

Workers are at risk of exposure to dangerous situations that can result in serious injuries or fatalities. Unlike many workplaces, the hazards associated with cash in transit operations may be present in environments outside the normal control of workplaces and workers.

Hazards can include:

  • potential for armed hold up
  • body stressing associated with manual tasks
  • operation of vehicles
  • frequent handling and use of weapons or firearms
  • fatigue from shift work
  • stress related to the workplace.

For more information, see Cash-in-transit guidance material – Safe Work Australia.

Construction work

Construction work is any work carried out to construct, alter, convert, fit-out, commission, renovate, repair, maintain, refurbish, demolish, decommission or dismantle a structure, or to prepare a building site.

Injuries of workers in the construction industry are mainly due to:

  • hitting or being hit by an object
  • lifting, pushing or pulling objects
  • falls from a height.

With higher rates of injury, the construction industry is identified as a national priority under The Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012–22.

For more information, see:

Demolition work

Demolition work is when you knock down or take apart a structure that is load-bearing or related to the physical integrity of the structure.

The health and safety risks associated with demolition work include:

  • falling objects
  • falls from one level to another
  • unplanned structure collapse.

For more information, see:

Ergonomics and office work

Ergonomics looks at how best to design a workplace and the equipment used there for comfort, safety and productivity.

Some ergonomic hazards are physical, including:

  • lifting, pushing and pulling (manual handling)
  • sitting and standing (workstation design and height)
  • systems and computer programs
  • task, job and workplace design.

Use our Tool to find risks in the office. Virtual office helps you identify ergonomic health and safety risks and common hazards found in office-based workplaces.

For more information, see Ergonomic hazards.

Excavation work

Excavation work involves removing soil or rock to make or fill a trench, tunnel or shaft. Excavation work uses tools, machinery or explosives.

Risks from excavation include:

  • injuries from falling or displaced objects, earth or rock
  • inrush of water or liquid
  • unstable structure
  • build-up of dangerous gases or bad air quality in an excavation.

For more information, see:

Plant and structures

Plant includes any machinery, equipment, appliance, container, implement or tool and anything fitted or connected to any of these things.

Plant includes items as diverse as:

  • lifts
  • cranes
  • computers
  • machinery
  • conveyors
  • forklifts
  • vehicles
  • quad bikes
  • power tools
  • amusement devices.

Risks from plant and structures include:

  • limbs amputated by unprotected moving parts
  • being crushed
  • fractures from falls while accessing, using or maintaining plant
  • musculoskeletal problems from using poorly designed plant

For more information, see:

Quad bikes

Quad bikes have received attention due to the high risk of injury when using them. To determine if you need to use a quad bike, see the Suitable Vehicle Risk Decision tool (PDF, 66.3 KB).

Comcare has developed guidance:

For more information, see Quad Bikes in Rural Workplaces information sheet and Quadwatch – Safe Work Australia.

Road transport

The road transport industry involves transporting freight by road and operating buses and taxis to transport passengers.

Risks for road transport workers include:

  • time pressures and tight deadlines
  • shift work and fatigue and physical fitness
  • poor vehicle design and exposure to vibrations
  • handling of heavy weights during loading and unloading a vehicle.

Due to a high fatality rate, road transport has been identified as a national priority under The Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012–22.

Comcare is participating in a research project to improve the health of Australian truck drivers. The aim is to undertake the largest survey of Australian drivers to identify the factors important to both good and poor health.

For more information, see Transport safety advice – Safe Work Australia.


More information

You can find more practical advice on the Safe Work Australia website to help you identify and manage workplace hazards and risks, including:

Page last reviewed: 15 December 2019
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Comcare
GPO Box 9905, Canberra, ACT 2601
1300 366 979 | www.comcare.gov.au

Date printed 27 May 2020

https://www.comcare.gov.au/safe-healthy-work/prevent-harm/physical-hazards