Above all, they belong to the young workers' category, one with an inherent lack of on-the-job experience to whom national and regional Occupational Health and Safety (OSH) bodies rightfully pay extra attention and concern.
Engineering graduates can be subject to universal occupational health and safety hazards, for instance, long hours of sedentary office work, acute and chronic work stress, or a lack of support from colleagues or superiors.
However, they can also encounter occupational hazards relevant to their speciality or risks that come from high-risk environments. In addition, engineers are more exposed to emerging risks, such as those related to working with nanotechnologies, green jobs, and ICT/digitalisation or work in cross-disciplinary facilities, which makes occupational hazard management even more strenuous.
Institutional Support for Young Engineers
Two other major reasons for hazardous engineering jobs are the standardisation inconsistency across educational accreditation bodies and the insufficient collaboration between educational institutions and businesses for training young engineers in real-world environments.
Substantial efforts in standardised educational accreditation have been made by the 2015 revisions of the EUR-ACE®Framework Standards and Guidelines adopted by the European Network for the Accreditation of Engineering Education (ENAEE).
This document stresses the importance of lifelong learning for young engineers and the risks of constantly absorbing and working with new technologies.
National work safety organisations have various levels of alertness set for hazards related to engineering jobs. The U.S. Occupational and Safety Administration provides general guidance on specific work risks, for example, guidance on electricity hazards or hazard classification publications for manufacturers and employers.
The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Government applies a similar regulatory guidance approach to working safely in engineering. The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has set FAQ-based interactive online support for engineering professionals across the board.
But what’s common for all these resources is they are burdened with legality and lack detailed role-based hazard precautions, something that can be learned only in a hands-on role and with work-integrated learning.
Engineers have a chance of a more targeted approach toward hazard awareness by becoming a member of a registered workforce, a good example of which is the work-based pathway to professional registration enabled by the UK Engineering Council.
However, this is more of a quality assurance process than hazard prevention.
Work Hazards for Electrical Engineers
When they graduate, electrical engineers face almost all of these problems. On top of general awareness about electrical safety, young engineers must be prepared to identify and handle specific vocational hazards, including those ensuing from working with electronics and microelectronics, power, telecommunications, and signal processing.
Image courtesy of Unsplash.
Work hazards are not the same in a plant or a power station, at a research facility, in interdisciplinary industries, in instrumentation, or in an engineering design offices.
Electronics and Microelectronics
Some of the worst hazards associated to working with microelectronics include exposure to toxic materials when manufacturing and assembling semiconductor chips, static electrification, chemical hazards from dangerous solvents, acids and metals, for example, dermal exposure or breathing in dopants, as well as physical hazards, such as noise and radiation,
Biological and psychosocial risk factors seem to be playing a lesser role for electrical engineers, while circuit boards and computer assembly carry their own health and environmental risks.
Power and Telecommunications
The electrical power industry is a large and diverse one with several sub-industries, each with numerous pertinent hazards. Generic work risks existing within the power industry that young engineers must be aware of include electrocution, as well as work in confined spaces, such as tanks, vessels, tunnels, silos, vaults, and pipelines, that carries a significantly greater risk of fire, explosion, asphyxiation, drowning, and loss of consciousness.
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Falls, for example from communication towers, sprains, strains, and fractures are also common risks for these specialities, as well as exposure to environmental stress factors, including heat and radio frequency radiation.
Signal Processing and Instrumentation
At first, engineering jobs with IT or mathematical cores don't seem to carry the same level of risk associated with other engineering jobs. But, the enormity and sophistication of the digital signal processing career field, especially when cross-disciplined with microelectronics or telecommunications, should keep engineering graduates vigilant to potential work hazards.
These hazards ensue primarily from more direct exposure to field work, especially at high-stake jobs such as aerospace or defence, or in trendy career paths, such as data science, computer vision, image and speech processing, and autonomous vehicles.
Instrumentation hazards arise from measuring sensor input from dangerous variables, including electricity hazards—high voltage, for example, but also pressure, temperature, radiation, chemicals, and vibration.
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Working as an instrumentation engineer carries a sort-of a double risk. The first one is immediate and can surface while designing measuring instruments. The second is indirect and could be a potential outcome of poorly set up safety parameters in measuring instruments. For example, there are still unknown risks in the current application of measuring instruments in open networks, such as IoT and cloud computing.
Possible Solutions to Work Hazards
Despite dense and overwhelming curricula, and the intention to strike a balance between theory and hands-on experience, many universities are focused on theory and don’t seem to have the resources or the means to pay attention to all work hazards.
Nitpicking at hazards can be impractical—it is costly to dedicate resources to all of them and often impossible—nobody can predict all risks that stem from labs and experimenting with new technologies.
Aspiring electrical engineers can in part rely on generic institutional support while managing the other part themselves through the undertaking of personal responsibility for anti-hazard training.
Successful solutions to mitigating work hazards must start from identifying hazards at a graduate level, at least by raising awareness about the rights and responsibilities employer and employees have in regards to hazard prevention. For example, many of the occupational health associations include solutions to hazardous situations by identifying, classifying, and making recommendations about hazards in the engineering profession.
Additionally, engineers should acquaint themselves with basic interventions, such as the hierarchy of controls applicable to engineering work environments, which specifies five levels or universal hazard reduction, starting from the most effective to the least effective methods:
- Elimination—physically removing the hazard;
- Substitution—replacing the hazard;
- Engineering controls—isolating people from the hazard;
- Administrative controls—changing work procedures; and
- Personal protective equipment (PPE).
Hierarchy of Controls. Image courtesy of Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Researching whether a prospective employer has these set in place before applying for a role, or at interviews, is a viable self-help tool that many job applicants probably already use.
To reduce potential hazards, employers must identify, remove or substitute them or, as a less desired alternative, implement a number of control interventions, such as enclosure, ventilation, and personal protection.
Education at work is a prerequisite. Monitoring of environmental risks and personal risks, for example, regular health checks, is also a control mechanism. However, these are simply last resort solutions that can be used as a supplement for self-education and personal research of industry-related authorities.
Ideally, awareness and practice about work hazards should be reinforced at a pre-graduate level, either as a part of standard curricula or in partnerships and via sponsorships/scholarships with interested companies. This would shift the focus more toward engineering in practice.
Overall, managing work hazards for young engineers must include a mindset change, adopting a balanced approach towards education, innovation, safety, and progress, where each of these components will be equally valued as a social benefit for all.