March 18, 2014

What Are Your Occupational Hazards—and Not Just the Health and Safety Risks?

Some occupational hazards are obvious—especially many health and safety hazards. Others are subtler, easily unnoticed, perhaps until it is too late—especially the psychological, social, moral and cultural ones.

Although your own job may not have any obvious health and safety hazards associated with it, how sure are you that there are not any other kinds of hazards?

Any list of job hazards you may compile will only be as clear as your understanding of what constitutes a hazard. Do “social hazards” counts as real hazards?

For example, some occupations are socially more hazardous than others: Tell a date you work in a slaughter house. In all likelihood, she will show more concern and doubts about your sanity than about the sanitation and injury risks there and shun you.

Telling anyone that you sell insurance may elicit a similar social distancing response.

On the psychological side, there are myriad hazards that can inhere in a job—cognitive, perceptual, emotional, volitional and sensory.

For example, I think it must be very difficult, if not impossible, to be a chartered accountant or chief financial officer without perceiving and interpreting most human interaction in chilly cost-benefit, opportunity cost, bottom-line and other “depersonalizing” terms.

That’s a “cognitive-perceptual hazard”, created by habitual and necessary monetization, auditing and cost-benefit analysis of everything on your desk, if you are an accountant or CFO.

If you have trouble imagining an accountant writing a love sonnet, you will probably agree with me.

This accounting example illustrates key differences between and similarities to health-and-safety hazards and these other ¨soft” categories of hazard:

1. The hazard in question often conceals itself—and indeed often encourages denying one exists: If you tell a bean-counting accountant that his outlook is too “cold”, “impersonal”, “calculating”, “unromantic”, “quantitative”, don’t be surprised if your accusation is analyzed and dismissed in precisely that tough-minded, analytical mode.

It may be dismissed as being of no concern, on the grounds that it has no impact on any important “bottom-line”, cost-benefit concerns of his and because it is merely an attempt to cook his psychological books to make it look like sonnets are a net asset.

Although there are analogues of this kind of self-sustaining hazard in the areas of health and safety, they are likely to be exceptions.

One example that does illustrate this is the case in which industrial noise deafens workers to itself, inclining them to underestimate or deny there is any problem or hazard.

But because the mental gymnastics of denial, rationalization and repression are at the disposal of all of us, psychological hazards appear to have more ways to conceal themselves or can do so more easily.

2. Long-term damage from a hazard may be predictable and obvious to everyone except the one damaged: Becoming a Hollywood A-list actor or other entertainment celebrity seems to come with a high risk of becoming an AA (Alcoholics Anonymous)-list celebrity or otherwise ending up in rehab, bankruptcy court or a morgue.

Usually, the hazard and its consequences are first apparent to everyone but the star. So, why this professional myopia or complete blindness to the hazards?

According to various analyses, actors and other emotionally intense performers, such as pop singers, are not merely exposed to substance abuse hazards, but also are predisposed to accept them for one subtle reason, among more obvious ones: Their craft requires relinquishing and avoiding emotional and behavioral self-control.

They must abandon their normal “self” and inhibitions, immerse themselves in the role, the moment, the song, the scene and the culture of temptation and distraction that surrounds and in some sense comes to define them.

Other predisposing and enabling factors include being embedded in a drug-and-alcohol-driven industry and professional culture, being surrounded by enablers and sycophants, affordability of substances and confidentiality—given their stratospheric incomes and psychological issues associated with personal identity

These can include being revered for playing characters who are not really them and feeling that they do not really deserve the insane adoration and staggering paydays they get.

Purely physical on-the-job hazards to oneself or others can display the same feature—being obvious to everyone but the one endangered, e.g., when coworkers worry about the long-haired employee working on a lathe or in a kitchen without wearing a hair net.

3. Paradigm-shift hazards: The accountant’s professional dollar-denominated, cost-benefit paradigms represent a shift away from less “sophisticated” or more “naive” paradigms of human experience, which if not altogether rejected, become less readily accepted, e.g., romantic, dramatic, etc.

Gynecologists may face the same hazard: Total and daily immersion in clinical medical paradigms, perceptions and procedures may make it much harder to appreciate physical beauty, see it as anything but superficial or to have erotica like Fifty Shades of Grey next to his copy of Gray’s Anatomy—every med-student’s standard anatomy-text book, not the TV show, “Grey’s Anatomy”.

[Nonetheless, we do hear news reports about the odd rogue gynecologist who succumbs to the opposite hazard of not perceiving his patients clinically enough, and gets jailed for it.]

4. Cross-cultural hazards: These are legion. In China and Japan, for example, I discovered that using anything in ways not normally associated or identified with it on-the-job will raise eyebrows and doubts about the expat employee.

For example, any teacher who sits on his desk while moving around the front of a classroom will be perceived as very odd—because a desk is not a seat and because “a thing is what it is, not some other thing.”

That was a norm and a lesson I eventually absorbed not only from research, but from my firsthand experience teaching in university and colleges in China, where, like most expats, I was quite happy to use my desk as a lunch table as well as the occasional seat.

This mentality is deeply embedded in Chinese and Japanese culture and in China is enshrined in a socially, politically and intellectually regulatory ancient Confucian concept called “the rectification of names“—which, despite whatever positive uses it has, can inhibit professional and other creativity, e.g., in finding alternate uses for anything or in combining otherwise disparate functions into one object or system, e.g., creating a phone that also takes photos.

The social, cultural and moral utility of the rectification of names is evident from an explanation of what that concept means in practical terms: A daughter who leaves home to become an exotic dancer in a bar, who uses drugs or who does not take care of aging parents is, in some sense, “not a daughter”, because her behavior does not conform to the definition of “daughter”, which excludes such behaviors, by definition.

By internalizing these inflexible professional and personal definitions, the Chinese have, in general, and of course, with exceptions, become very adept at self-regulation by definition, as much as by what we in the West call the “super-ego”, a.k.a., “conscience”.

In these terms, if an HR manager also had paid gigs with a rock band on weekends, the occupational cultural hazard [s]he would face is that of being perceived as “unprofessional”—whether an expat or Chinese, because of the culturally-constructed constraints on personal self-definition.

Mustn’t Forget the Lawyers

The foregoing are, of course, but a sampling of the occupational hazards that can and do plague jobs and careers. However, no such analysis would be complete without a shot at the much-teased, oft-targeted lawyers:

Question: What is the greatest occupational hazard, as a risk to themselves or others, faced by lawyers?

Answer: Somebody actually hiring them.

Read more in Health and Safety

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).