The Crucial Role of an Occupational Hygienist
Utter the phrase “occupational hygienist” in a crowd, and many of those present will likely think of those non-medically qualified assistants employed by dentists to advise their patients about dental care and perform specific technical tasks. The analogy is not without merit, although there are significant differences between these two occupations and their requirements. Firstly, unlike the dentist’s assistant, the role of these operatives calls for a much broader range of practical skills to support their advisory responsibilities. Secondly, they do not operate in a consulting room. Their examination area is the client’s workplace, and often, their findings will need further confirmation in a laboratory.
The role of an occupational hygienist is to focus on the health and safety of employees whilst they are at work. These specialists are not physicians, although some doctors do possess a qualification in occupational medicine. The doctors’ task is to diagnose and treat any illnesses or injuries arising from hazards in the workplace. By contrast, the responsibility of these non-medical specialists is predominately technical. They must apply their skills to identifying, evaluating, and mitigating any workplace hazards that could otherwise result in such injuries and illnesses.
To become an occupational hygienist, one must complete an appropriate course of training. Its purpose is to provide the knowledge and skills required to perform a comprehensive health and safety inspection of a client’s workplace. The task also requires good interpersonal skills. It will be necessary to liaise with management to gain the crucial background information needed to define the scope of the proposed inspection. The objectives of that inspection are threefold. The first is to identify anything that might be considered potentially hazardous to an employee.
The workplace hazards of interest to an occupational hygienist can be conveniently divided into three groups – physical, chemical, and biological. Many of the physical threats, such as slippery floors, exposed cutting blades, and missing handrails, will require no more than patience and a keen eye to spot. Nevertheless, management and employees often fail to do so for years. Oversight, complacency, and general apathy are frequently the reasons for industrial injuries. The role of these professional third-party assessments can be transformative by raising awareness of danger and motivating preventative or protective actions.
Even untrained staff members can spot some threats, but only an occupational hygienist or a suitably trained employee can hope to identify most chemical or biological hazards. Some knowledge of the client’s activities gained from dialogue with management can provide valuable clues regarding what to look for and where. Once armed with that knowledge, the specialist might then collect air and water samples and swabs of possible contaminated surfaces. After confirming the presence of a potential hazard, the next step will be to evaluate how much risk it poses. Not all threats are necessarily a cause for alarm. For example, five ppm of hydrogen cyanide in the air might seem like a reason to panic. However, there is far more in cigarette smoke.
When such values exceed acceptable exposure levels, the occupational hygienist must identify those at risk and propose ways to eliminate those hazards or protect those vulnerable employees. The professional services described above and many more are all available from IOH Solutions. Give us a call to ensure your employees’ health and safety.