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Why Occupational Hygiene Measures Are so Crucial in the Workplace

When applied to life in the home, most of us are inclined to associate hygiene with basic cleanliness. However, in the workplace, the term has gained a much broader definition that covers far more than the need to wash one’s hands thoroughly before eating or preparing food. Nevertheless, the association with cleanliness remains relevant, but extends beyond personal habits to include the management of any hazards present in the working environment that may have the potential to threaten the health or safety of a company’s employees.

Most countries, including South Africa, have introduced legislation to protect employees. To conform with its requirements, employers will normally engage a specialist with a recognised qualification in occupational hygiene whose task is to identify potential hazards in the workplace. Thereafter, the inspector will then proceed to assess the extent of any risk they might pose and to make recommendations regarding the most effective measures to eliminate that risk or, at least, to reduce it to an acceptable level.

As in the home, germs can also be a threat when at work. They can contaminate the water supply to cause enteric disorders or accumulate in the filters of air conditioning units where, unless these are cleaned or changed regularly, they could eventually be expelled back into the atmosphere, exposing workers to the risk of infection through inhalation. Other particulate matter and chemicals in the air can also be a threat to health and safety. Air- and water-borne contaminants are among the hygiene hazards commonly encountered in the workplace, but they are certainly not the only threats.

Some hazards may be less obvious, but they can be equally harmful if not more so. For example, high levels of ambient noise can not only be a distraction and cause unnecessary stress to those who are exposed to them, but can also cause permanent hearing loss. Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is now the predominant form of auditory impairment worldwide, as well as the most frequent reason for an employee to claim industrial compensation. An occupational hygiene specialist will measure sound levels in the workplace and will first look for ways to reduce their volume and check the effectiveness of any protective measures in place, calling for their introduction or improvement as indicated.

Many employees are required to work in extreme temperatures. Prolonged activity in a refrigerated environment, such as a cold store, or in close proximity to a furnace or a machine that generates excessive heat can also be serious health risks from which workers must be protected.

Occupational hygiene specialists are also required to check the workplace for many other common threats. These could be slippery surfaces due to frequent spillages, exposed electrical wiring, or ageing equipment that could cause an electric shock or volatile solvents and gasses that could be a fire risk.  The list goes on and its full content will, of course, be determined by the nature of the work being performed at any given site.

Once the inspection is completed and any necessary action made known to the employer, the hygiene specialist will return to the workplace, after a suitable interval, to check that the recommended measures have been implemented and are effective. To learn more, give IOH Solutions a call.