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Although there was a time when such matters would have been of little concern to most of the country’s employers, legislation covering the health and safety of employees at work has changed that. An act introduced in 1993 places the onus on employers to do whatever may be necessary in order to create a safe and healthy working environment. While hazards, such as asbestos fibres and coal dust are easily recognised, it often requires an experienced occupational hygienist to spot the possible dangers in other environments where they may be somewhat less obvious.

It may not take a specialist to recognise the importance of fitting a safety guard to a circular saw and to educate the operators in the importance of never utilising the machine unless the guard is in place. It does, however, take an expert to identify that, due to an inadequate ventilation system, there might be a danger that levels of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide from machinery could pose a health hazard. It is in situations like this that the services of a qualified occupational hygienist can prove to be invaluable.

Workplace hazards come in many forms and will vary according to the type of work being performed and the methods employed for the various tasks that may be involved. It is also true to say that, although a given potential hazard might have been recognised, it need not necessarily pose a significant risk to those in the immediate area. In effect, this means that the role of an occupational hygienist is not just to locate any potential hazards, but to also evaluate the seriousness of any risk they might actually pose and which of the company’s workers could be exposed to that risk. The act of grading hazards according to their risk serves to highlight the urgency with which suitable remedial measures may need to be implemented.

Hazards fall into one of three main categories. They might be chemical, as in the case of the toxic exhaust fumes mentioned earlier, or they could be physical, as seen in the circular saw example. In other circumstances, it might be necessary for an occupational hygienist to be on the lookout for biological hazards, such as the presence of Legionella in the water supply or the air conditioning system, which could carry the risk of serious respiratory infections. In certain occupations, it might also be necessary to investigate the possibility that employees could be exposed to ergonomic or psychological hazards. For example, inadequate office seating could result in poor posture accompanied by pain and restricted mobility.

Clearly, an occupational hygienist must receive specialist training in the detection and grading of the potential hazards commonly associated with a wide range of different industries. In addition, they need to be familiar with the acceptable standards for factors, such as ambient noise, temperature, and air quality, as well as the various remedial methods that can be employed to achieve these standards.

In order to carry out these inspections commercially and to advise clients regarding potential risks and any necessary preventative measures requires the service provider to employ only qualified occupational hygienists and to hold the appropriate SANAS accreditation, OH0112, and to be registered with the Department of Labour as an approved inspection authority.