Using Maps to Identify Health & Safety Problems

The first step in a health or safety campaign is to find common problems. Then comes the detective work to find the hazards behind the symptoms. Many health and safety activists use body and workplace maps to see how workers are injured in their workplaces now or how they are affected by what they did years ago.

Body maps
Body maps can show the patterns of symptoms and the long-term effects of hazards. Drawing: Margaret Keith

Mapping is participatory and fun. It involves most senses, can be used where workers speak different languages or don’t read well, and is a quick way to make sense of complex situations. Maps can show the different experiences of workers by age, seniority, job, or gender.

Body maps can show the patterns of symptoms and the long-term effects of hazards. Workplace maps give an overview that individuals do not have. You can use the two types of maps together to see the workplace in a new light.


“This is the first time I’ve known I’m not alone in my pain,” a veteran construction worker said after seeing the body map he and others made in an ergonomics workshop for operating engineers. His reaction illustrates a classic barrier to health and safety organizing—individual workers think their symptoms are just their problem.

Body maps can break that barrier. The most common version is to use the front and back outlines of a body. You can get these (and much more information on different kinds of mapping) at, or you can draw your own outlines. Make a large version for the overall group and smaller sheets for groups of workers.

Next, decide what your questions are. Are you looking for aches and pains? All the symptoms workers have now? Long-term effects, such as cancer, chronic pain, stress? Do you want to see the effects by gender, age, job, or seniority?

Get people into small groups. If you want information by age, for example, divide them into groups based on that category. Give each group colored markers or colored sticky dots and a code to mark their outlines. One method uses red = aches and pains, green = where does your stress show up, and blue = other symptoms that may be work-related. To get the overall picture, have them transfer their information to the large body map (see example).

When you’re looking at aches and pains, one person can act out her job. The others identify which body parts are likely affected by force, repetition, and awkward postures. With permission, they can mark the spots directly on the person, using “ouch” stickers.


Workplace maps usually focus on the hazards behind the symptoms that show up on the body map. If there’s time before making the maps, get workers doing similar jobs to fill out a questionnaire and discuss it together. Focus on:

• How is the work organized? (e.g., number of workers, shifts, hours worked, and breaks)
• What is the work process? (How is work done? What tasks are involved? What machines and tools are used?)
• What are the hazards? (use the categories below)
• What complaints or symptoms show up in conversations?
• What measures are being taken to prevent or reduce the hazards? What else could or should be done?

Groups of workers then draw the layout of their workplace or work area. Be sure to include doors, windows, offices, washrooms, desks, machinery, and equipment. The larger the map, the more details you can add. Try to get the questionnaire information onto the map without making it too cluttered.

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Hazards are often divided into six categories:

• safety (immediate causes of injuries)
• physical (energy sources such as radiation, temperature, and noise)
• chemical (dusts, liquids, gases)
• biological or communicable (infection, needlesticks, mold)
• ergonomic (force, repetition, posture, design of control panels)
• work organization/psychosocial risks (things that cause stress such as long or odd work schedules, no say about the job, workload).

Draw a different colored icon or shape to show each category of hazard. Different sizes can show the seriousness, and the number of workers who may be exposed to the hazard can be marked inside the icon. Use sticky dots or some other format to put the people in the picture and show where they work.

It’s also useful to show the flow of work and workers’ usual paths (movements) in the workplace. The map is easier to read if you use string for this information. One worker made two maps using different colors of string to show her paths in a nursing home, on “normal” days and then when working short-staffed. The clear differences between the maps led to an “ah-hah” about her increased workload, a serious stressor.


Work takes a toll off the job—on our families, our leisure time, and our communities. “World mapping” is one way to show these effects.

Put a large sheet of paper up on a wall, with a small human figure in the center. Then draw or add words around the figure to show how your lives are affected by your work. You might draw guitars you no longer can play because of crippled tendons or broken hearts from a divorce linked to long hours and stress. (See instructions and examples at Hazards Magazine.)


The first question to ask after you’ve made any of these maps is, “What do you see?” Look for patterns and things that don’t fit the patterns.

Put together maps of work areas to get the overall picture of a workplace. Over time, come back to them to record new information or check on changes.

Use your imagination and creativity to make sure that everyone’s story is recorded, if they want it included. If you want to add even more information, you can use see-through plastic layers for separate categories of information or to represent the experiences of different groups.

This article originally appeared in A Troublemaker’s Handbook 2: How to Fight Back Where you Work and Win.

is a long-time health and safety specialist and activist based in Winnipeg, Canada.