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The background of hazard mapping

Hazard mapping is a form of worker participation that concerns marking hazards at work stations on a map. Hazard mapping can be applied to various issues, such as work safety, working with chemicals, exposure to noise etc. This article focuses on the use of hazard mapping regarding hazards related to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Working with the hazards mapping approach concerns examining hazards in workplaces in a participatory manner in which workers identify and locate hazards at their own workstations and in their own work processes so that those hazards can be targeted for elimination. Workers involved learn by gathering knowledge about hazards from their co-workers. While learning they can work together to eliminate and/or reduce hazards that cause accidents and injuries. This is why hazard mapping is considered a small group activity method of learning, in which workers –when performed properly- experience respect, working collectively and ‘sharing the power’. Sharing the power enables workers to see that their opinion and experiences matter, especially where they are combined. A hazard map is a visual representation of the workplace, there is not much paperwork involved and there is no need to write reports or to include OSH specialists.  Sometimes these tools are referred to as ‘risk mapping’ and sometimes as ‘hazard mapping’. This article uses the term hazard mapping because a hazard is something that can cause harm, in this case MSDs. A risk is the chance, high or low, that any hazard will actually occur. So within this context it is preferable to speak of hazards rather than risks.

What is hazard mapping?

A picture is worth a thousand words! A Hazard Map is a technique to gain information by using a visual representation in the form of a map of the workplace. Hazardous locations are marked on this map. Workers record, in a pictorial form, their MSD problems on these maps by simply marking where they experience MSD problems and at the same time adding some basic background information. They do not have to write down much, as it is mostly pictorial. It is quick and easy to do and few language skills are required. As it is a collective exercise, hazard mapping can be a way of identifying common patterns of health problems amongst workers in a particular workplace, normally doing the same or a similar job. Keep in mind that identifying health complaints does not mean you can state with certainty that the causes are all work-related. Hazard mapping is an excellent tool to help highlight areas for direct action or for further investigation. When performed by a group of workers hazard maps are especially helpful for assessing working conditions. Workers share their knowledge of MSD problems, they feel involved and start thinking and talking about solutions to work-related health problems. Hazard mapping is a participatory approach that puts workers first. It takes a similar approach to another method known as body mapping.

Why use hazard mapping?

Hazard mapping is just one method for identifying occupational safety and health hazards. The main advantages of hazard mapping, compared to other approaches such as questionnaires, interviews and OSH specialist risk assessments are as follows:

  • Hazard mapping is known to be an effective tool in gathering information and helping workers to do something themselves about the hazards which affect their health and safety. 
  • Involving workers ensures a collective approach is developed, protecting individuals who may fear being not heard or singled out by management.
  • Workers that are involved learn by gathering knowledge about hazards from their co-workers.
  • Hazard mapping uses a fun approach to encourage discussion, analysis and strategy development.
  • While using hazard mapping, there is no need for expensive consultants, complex questionnaires or intrusive medicals. All that is required is a facilitator, a group of workers, some paper and some markers.
  • Minimum preparation is needed: Ready-to-go- tools are available.
  • Hazard mapping is time and cost effective.

Hazard mapping makes it possible – for instance by pointing out MSDs- to identify workplace problems in a collective way, so that patterns are identified among a group of workers which can then can be tackled as a group, rather than an individual having to argue alone about workplace injuries. The more workers reporting the same symptoms, the more likely it is that the working environment is a factor. Hazard mapping is easy to use and encourages workers to speak up about their musculoskeletal pain and workplace problems. Therefore, hazard mapping can also help increase awareness about MSDs. Keep in mind that there is also a link between hazard mapping and risk assessment. Hazard mapping can be used as a participatory tool involving workers in risk assessment. Information gathered in the framework of hazard mapping, along with data from a health surveillance, outcomes of the risk assessment with checklists and online provided information about both workplace and health problems in the company can guide preventive and protective measures and solutions. When working with hazard mapping, it is advisable to involve the company physician as well if there is one, so outcomes can be interpreted and used in the company’s health strategy.

The benefits of hazard mapping are summarized here:

…it’s free

…is simple to use

…it’s time effective

…no need for experts

…it requires a minimum amount of paperwork

…the paperwork needed is supplied ready-made, you only have to print it

…it is not necessary to write words, it’s all visual, so…

…it overcomes problems of literacy and language

…is more easily and widely understood than most intervention approaches

…it involves workers, is participatory and makes workers talk, think and learn about healthy work

…it uses workers experience and knowledge to paint detailed pictures about hazards, no one

   assesses their work better than they do!

…it raises awareness and encourages discussion and analysis which helps to improve work and


…often delivers quick and simple wins’ to get the ball rolling’

…it involves workers in risk assessment and monitoring of their workstations

…helps employers to meet requirements (risk assessment and prevention, worker consultation) and cover


…and: …it’s is fun!

How does hazard mapping of MSDs work?

Preparation: Appoint a facilitator who will organize the session(s)

This can be the employer, a supervisor, a co-worker or a union representative. This does not need to be someone with MSD knowledge. The facilitator organises and prepares a hazard mapping session by inviting the participants, making sure there is a meeting room, providing flip over sheets of paper or maps, coloured markers (blue, green, grey and black) and tape. In case you want to take pictures of the working areas involved, digital cameras could be provided or in case the worker have smartphones, these can be used as well.  It is advisable to perform sessions with 6 to 10 participants. A session takes 1 hour 15 minutes to 1 hour 45 minutes, depending on the level of preparation, the number of participants and the type of discussion. Keep in mind:

  • Mapping works best when workers feel safe and comfortable that the information they are about to reveal cannot be used against them in any way.
  • Workers will be more open to discussing issues when they are in groups consisting only of other workers, supported by a facilitator that they can trust.
  • The primary role of the facilitator is to prepare the session, ask questions, enhance discussion and to gather information, not to draw conclusions.
  • When inviting workers, explain to them briefly what the session is about and invite them to take pictures of work place situations they think that might be harmful for them.
  • The facilitator must keep in mind to make the right choice which areas should be included in each map/session in order to avoid too much details in the same map/session. Think on beforehand about “narrowing down" processes, areas or jobs per session.
  • When performing several sessions it is advised to combine workers that work within the same departments/areas or workers that perform tasks that are similar.

The hazard mapping session

The hazard mapping session approximately will take 1 hour 15 minutes to 1 hour 45 minutes, mainly depending on amount of prior preparation by the facilitator. It saves time when there is a basic map available and the workers do not have to draw the whole map from scratch. A session consists of the following steps:

Step 1 Provide a map or drawing for each department or building where hazard mapping will take place.

Example of hazard mapping
Example of hazard mapping

At the beginning of the scheduled session the facilitator welcomes the participants and briefly explains the ‘what and the why of hazard mapping’ (see above). Since most workers prefer being active to sitting and listening: quickly move on to presenting and/or making the map. Either the facilitator (partly) provides such a map of the department or building the hazard mapping is focussing on, or the participants (partly) draw a map themselves. Flip chart sheets are ideal for this purpose.  The size of one flip chart sheet of paper usually is A1 (59,4 x 84 cm). It is preferable to work with checkered sheets of paper so that you can use the boxes to work in a more or less correct scale. In case of doubt about dimensions, go to the workplace or the building and roughly measure or estimate the length and width sizes. Remember: this could be a sketch map. There’s no need for a professional drawing. The map/plan does not need to be entirely accurate or exactly to scale. In step 1 you only use the black marker. The preferred sequence of drawing is:

First: draw in all walls and doors and mark pathways (especially this part could be prepared by the facilitator).

Second: draw in workstations, machines and equipment. An extra drawing map is needed for each extra floor within the department. Mark stairs as well.

Third: draw in the workers next to the workstations and/or machines. Don’t forget to put in the workers who are on the move as well (logistics, supply, maintenance, cleaning). Make sure all (types of) workers are represented in the drawing. Look at the map together with the participants and make sure everybody recognises the lay out and is represented in the drawing.

Step 1 will take from 15 minutes (depending on to what level a ready to go map or drawing is presented by the facilitator) up to 45 minutes (if the participants make the drawing themselves).  Remember, if the participants create the drawing themselves, acceptance and involvement may increase. So if the time is available, this is preferable.

Step 2 introduction to hazard mapping MSDs by the facilitator (15 minutes)

Before conducting the mapping exercise itself, the facilitator must inform the workers on the rules:

  • Participation is completely voluntary
  • It is up to the workers how much they want to reveal to each other, since some of the information in the mapping exercises may be personal of nature
  • The issue of confidentiality is a top priority when information is gathered through mapping
  • No names or any other means of identification are to be used on the maps in order to protect workers privacy
  • Every participant agrees that they will not reveal to anyone outside of the group any personal information
  • It is also important to agree to whom the maps will be shown. During mapping activities, workers can decide collectively who will see the maps. They may wish to show the maps to:
    • the workers and the facilitator only
    • other worker groups or a worker health and safety committee
    • trade union representatives
  • Workers are asked if the employer may see the hazard mapping chart because this may be very helpful to solve problems and no personal information is included
  • The facilitator explains to the participants what MSDs are:

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are:

  • disorders, injuries, aches, pains, stiffness, bruises concerning….
  • the human musculoskeletal system, including the joints, ligaments, muscles, nerves, tendons and structures that support limbs, neck and back. Basically this relates to any hazard part that is related to making you move around.
  • MSDs can arise from a sudden exertion (e.g., lifting a heavy object)[2], or they can arise from making the same motions repeatedly, or from exposure to force, vibration or awkward posture.
  • MSDs can affect different parts of the body, we focus on:
    • Lower limbs (foot, ankle, knee, hips, legs)
    • Back and trunk
    • Upper limbs (fingers, hands, elbows, shoulder, neck, arms)

Step 3 Mark hazard areas (20 minutes)

Looking at the map each, of the workers identifies locations where he or she works. Workers mark all potential hazard areas on the map which in their opinion could be related to MSDs. In case of discussion on the type of complaints experienced, you can use photographs if you like. Either the workers have brought them with them or walk to the workplace and take some pictures. In that case, digital cameras should be provided or in case the worker has a smartphone, these could be used as well.

Mark MSD hazard situations as follows:

  • Lower limbs (foot, ankle, knee, hips, legs): GREEN
  • Back and trunk: GREY
  • Upper limbs (fingers, hands, elbows, shoulder, neck, arms): BLUE

Write the number of workers involved next to each workstation where a hazard has been marked on the map. Important notice:

  • Explain to the workers that they first need to talk about hazards, understand each other’s input and then mark them on the map. If workers start marking first and then talk, the map will become unclear. The facilitator needs to guide this.
  • The hazard mapping will be performed by the workers. Every worker looks at his or her workstation and together they fill in the map. Remember, it could be that workers experience the same working conditions in a separate way. Instruct them to not ignore complaints, each complaint experienced should be on the map.
  • Mark each working station with a MSD hazard with unique letter:  A, B, C, D etc. (this is because you also write down the number of workers involved per work area, so that these don’t get mixed up…)
  • If the facilitator can use his or her smartphone/ digital camera to take a photo of the information  gathering sheet, this can be projected on a screen or a wall with a beamer or an overhead projector if available. This is helpful for the discussion, but is not essential.
  • The facilitator provides the workers with tape to stick the hazard map to the wall. The outcomes are elaborated, but not yet discussed. While workers elaborate the outcomes, the facilitator fills in the information gathering sheet. In this way all information will be on one single piece of paper. Completing the information gathering mostly involves ticking boxes, few words are needed.

Step 4 discussing the outcomes (15 minutes)

Looking at the gathered information, a discussion then takes place on what ideas workers have to tackle the MSDs that have been reported. The facilitator takes short notes on this and fills in the hazard mapping chart. The facilitator preferably asks these questions:

  • Overlooking the hazard map: are there common pains/ailments?
  • Overlooking common pains/ailments: are there common causes?
  • What types of work/task is mainly causing problems?
  • Identify if there are other health problems linked to MSDs e.g. work pace, noise, dimmed sight, dangerous situations etc
  • As a result of developing this hazard map, is there an immediate issue/problem that needs to be raised with the employer?
  • Do the workers have suggestions on type of solutions? Determine the type of solution:
    • O=Organisational, for instance: job rotation, add breaks, add workers, change logistics sequences, avoid deadlines, etc.
    • B=behavioural, for instance: following instructions, work together, coach each other, etc.
    • T=technical, for instance: new machines, ((lifting) equipment, tools, PPE’s, floor mats).

Step 5 The wrap up (maximum 10 minutes)

At the end of the session, the facilitator explains again what will be done with the material. Due to privacy reasons, it is advised to let the workers keep their own hazard mapping sheet. The facilitator collects the information gathering sheet. On this sheet no connection between individual workers and MSDs is allowed. Finally, the facilitator tells the workers when they will be informed about actions that will be undertaken by means of follow up. This type of feedback will motivate workers.

Follow up

The facilitator:

  • Supplies – if agreed on-  the information gathering sheet to the employer for making improvements
  • Keeps the workers informed
  • If changes and/or improvements are being made, celebrate this and connect this to the hazard mapping session.

Remember: Of course, usually not every problem can be solved within in a few days, but making some improvements shortly after the session is strongly advised. Workers can then experience especially that their efforts are being rewarding. Tip: save the hazard map, as it is always nice to show this map in the future after improvements have been implemented.  

Input into risk assessment and monitoring processes

Mapping is not a substitute for formal risk assessments, but it can provide useful input to a risk assessment. The results of mapping can be discussed among workers, as well as by safety committees, etc. If the results of a mapping exercise have been used as part of the original risk assessment, it can then be redone, after introducing control measures, to help see how well they are working. It is very important that the results of the activities are acted upon, and that workers are provided with feedback, so that they know that their views and participation are valued and have been taken into account.

Moreover, by comparing the symptoms of workers working in the same area, or doing the same tasks, common themes can be identified. These can then be compared with those of different groups from the same workplace to see how problems differ between jobs. To help get a gender perspective, the techniques can be used with groups of women only or men only and the results compared.

Hazard mapping information gathering sheet

The facilitator fills in the charts:

First of all, look at all GREEN, GREY and BLUE hazard spots on the map:

  • Lower limbs (foot, ankle, knee, hips, legs): GREEN
  • Back and trunk: GREY
  • Upper limbs (fingers, hands, elbows, shoulder, neck, arms): BLUE

Second, make sure the work areas numbered (A,B,C,D,E etc) on the map correspond with the chart.

Third, make sure that per hazard the number of workers is mentioned on the map and the chart.  

Fourth, add and mark workers solutions (O=Organisational, B=behavioural, T=technical).

Work location number A: 
The number of workers involved is….:Type of MSD involved / Tick the correct box:Solutions mentioned by workers  O / B / T:
Workers believe the primary cause is:
  • Lower limbs  GREEN
  • Back / trunk: GREY
  • Upper limbs  BLUE
Work location number B: 
The number of workers involved is….:
  • Lower limbs  GREEN
  • Back / trunk: GREY
  • Upper limbs  BLUE
Solutions mentioned by workers  O / B / T:
Workers believe the primary cause is: 
Work location number C: 
The number of workers involved is….:
  • Lower limbs  GREEN
  • Back / trunk: GREY
  • Upper limbs  BLUE
Solutions mentioned by workers  O / B / T:
Workers believe the primary cause is: 
Work location number D: 
The number of workers involved is….:
  • Lower limbs  GREEN
  • Back / trunk: GREY
  • Upper limbs  BLUE
Solutions mentioned by workers  O / B / T:
Workers believe the primary cause is: 
Work location number E: 
The number of workers involved is….:
  • Lower limbs  GREEN
  • Back / trunk: GREY
  • Upper limbs  BLUE
Solutions mentioned by workers  O / B / T:
Workers believe the primary cause is: 
Work location number F: 
The number of workers involved is….:
  • Lower limbs  GREEN
  • Back / trunk: GREY
  • Upper limbs  BLUE
Solutions mentioned by workers  O / B / T:
Workers believe the primary cause is: 
Work location number G: 
The number of workers involved is….:
  • Lower limbs  GREEN
  • Back / trunk: GREY
  • Upper limbs  BLUE
Solutions mentioned by workers  O / B / T:
Workers believe the primary cause is: 

The chart helps to distinguish the following priorities:

  • Locating hazardous work areas compared to non-hazardous work areas
  • Solving hazards experienced by more workers has priority over solving hazards experienced by one worker
  • Getting an overview on solutions and other prevention practice
  • Getting an overview on how solutions for a work area can benefit several working areas
  • Making a distinction between organisational, technical and behavioural solutions

Sources of information

Existing EU-OSHA resources on hazard mapping:

EU-OSHA,Conversation starter 7: Using hazard mapping to collect data on early symptoms of MSDs, in Conversation starters for workplace discussions about musculoskeletal disorders pp13

EU-OSHA, Healthy workers, thriving companies - a practical guide to wellbeing at work

EU-OSHA, New approaches to engaging young people in occupational health and safety, article in Magazine 9 Safe start! pp 39

Napo for primary schools wise activity lesson 2

Napo MSD training activity ‘Know the early signs of MSDs’, in Napo in the Workplace– Understanding MSDs

Other sources:

Hazard Publications Sheffield UK / risk mapping

Irish congress of trade unions / Using Workplace and Body mapping tool

The Australian National University Canberra / Figtree workplace safety incident & hazard reporting tool

The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health USA / “Mapping" health and safety problems

Continuing Education Programs, University of Washington USA / Identifying Workplace Hazards

New Jersey Work Environment Council USA / hazard mapping training

Health and Safety Authority UK / Slips, trips and falls

Work safe for Live Nova Scotia Canada / OH&S Risk Mapping Tool for injury prevention

Victorian Trades Hall Council's OHS Training Unit Australia / Part 2: Hazard Mapping, Where and what are the hazards causing problems in your workplace?

Wigmorising website / contains sections on body and workplace mapping

Keith M; Brophy J (2004) Participatory mapping of occupational hazards and disease among asbestos-exposed workers from a foundry and insulation complex in Canada. International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health 10 (2):144-153

The hazard map, on how it works?

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