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Occupational Hygiene is Not Actually a New Idea

Concerns regarding the possible hazards to which workers are exposed date back to ancient Greece when the physician Hippocrates wrote about the incidence of lead poisoning among miners. Around 400 years later, Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist, philosopher, and author of the first encyclopaedia of natural history, designed a mask made from a pig’s bladder to prevent miners inhaling harmful dust. These and the many others who, over the centuries, sought to identify and limit the health risks experienced by workers laid the foundations for the modern practice we now refer to as occupational hygiene.

Other milestones in the development of this practice came with the recognition by Agricola, in the middle of the 16th century, of the toxic nature of mercury, nitric acid, and carbon monoxide while studies by one Percival Pott, during the 18th century, suggested a connection between cancer and exposure to chemicals by workers who cleaned chimneys for a living. Today, given the many new industries that have since emerged, the potential hazards in the workplace are more numerous than ever before. Fortunately, parallel advances in occupational hygiene are ensuring that those employees who may be at risk will also be far better protected than in the past.

In 1833, Britain became the first country to formally address industrial safety issues when it introduced a series of English Factory Acts. Similar acts have since been adopted by the other industrialised nations of the world, including South Africa, where the Department of Labour established the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

The act makes specific reference to occupational hygiene, which it defines as anticipating, evaluating, and controlling those conditions that may arise in the working environment, and which could lead to illness or adverse effects on the health of employees. More significantly, it obliges employers to institute such measures as may be necessary and deemed as effective to protect employees who work in hazardous environments.

That said, both the recognition of such hazards and the measures that might be required to eliminate or to reduce them to acceptable levels requires specialised knowledge and expertise. Consequently, these tasks will normally be undertaken by an accredited company. Once its services have been retained, the first task of such a company will be to perform an in-depth risk assessment of conditions in the client’s workplace. The precise focus of the study will tend to vary according to the nature of the work being performed, but is likely to include the assessment of any physical, chemical, or biological hazards that might pose a health risk.

Potential physical risks, for example, might include excessive noise, inadequate illumination, and thermal stress. If deemed necessary, an occupational hygiene specialist might recommend remedial measures, such as the use of earplugs, improved lighting, and better climate control measures, respectively.

As with those miners and chimney sweeps of the past, the air that a factory worker breathes could contain both chemical and biological hazards. Therefore, the indoor air quality (IAQ) will also need to be assessed as a part of the risk assessment process, as will the efficiency of the ventilation system. Water samples are needed to exclude the risk of Legionella.

These are just a few of the tasks undertaken by IOH Solutions, one of South Africa’s leading providers of occupational hygiene solutions.