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The Role of Occupational Hygiene in Health and Safety

Every year, employers must cope with the staff shortages and lost production resulting from illnesses and accidents. It has been estimated that, on any given workday, around 15% of the nation’s workforce is absent. The Human Capital Review recently calculated the resulting annual cost to the South African economy as a staggering R19,144 billion. What is even more worrying, however, is that a significant portion of that absence is due to the failure or absence of occupational hygiene measures in the workplace.

The nation’s earliest concerns for the health and safety of its workers were centred on the mining industry and the high incidence of respiratory disease among underground workers. Unfortunately, conflicting views between management and unions regarding the cost of preventative measures compared with their possible benefits meant that little action was taken to protect these individuals for several decades. In practice, there were several acts that addressed individual industries, as well as some independent initiatives. However, it was the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1993 that finally ensured that the elements of occupational hygiene would apply to all of the nation’s employees.

The act established the Advisory Council for Occupational Health and Safety. Its role was to conduct research into workplace practices and to establish standards for the guidance of employers regarding the levels of safety required. In addition, it was tasked with promoting education and training in the field of workplace health and safety or, as we are more inclined to describe it today, occupational hygiene. This might reasonably be defined as the cleansing of any potential hazards to health and safety in the working environment.

The task requires two types of specialists. There are medical specialists, consisting of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals trained in the diagnosis and evaluation of work-related illnesses, and the technical specialists whose task is to inspect premises, identify hazards, to evaluate the risk they represent, and to propose whatever measures may be needed to overcome them. These technical specialists will generally be in the employ of an accredited occupational hygiene company, and are required to hold an appropriate qualification in order to provide their services to the nation’s employers.

Those services will begin with a needs assessment during which the technical specialist will liaise with management while conducting an inspection of all the operational areas with a view to identifying any potential hazards. Hazards, such as traces of chemicals in the atmosphere might be present, but not necessarily in concentrations that pose a risk to employees, so the potential risk inherent in each hazard detected must be carefully evaluated by the occupational hygiene specialist and graded accordingly. Where the risk is significant, the effectiveness of any existing countermeasures must then be assessed and the employer advised of necessary improvements.

There will be a need to carry out laboratory tests on water, dust samples, and other items, as well as to measure certain physical parameters, such as workplace temperatures and levels of noise, as prolonged exposure to extremes of either can adversely affect the health of employees.

The bottom line is that an effective occupational hygiene programme benefits both employees and their employers. For affordable, professional services to protect their interests, many South African businesses now choose IOH Solutions.