Detecting and Managing Hazardous Chemical Substances
The current lockdown and social distancing regulations have led to increased public awareness of the dangers of biological agents, such as the coronavirus and the need for suitable precautions. However, most people remain unaware of the many hazardous chemical substances to which they are unknowingly exposed. Even in the home, everyday products, such as oven cleaners, bleach, paint strippers, nail polish remover, anti-freeze, and paradoxically, even air fresheners can be dangerous if not handled with due care.
Fortunately, we tend to use these household products intermittently, so our exposure is minimal. By contrast, employees in some industries might be at risk of continuous exposure to toxic materials while earning their living. Most doctors recognised the dangers posed by coal dust, asbestos fibres, and hazardous chemical substances, such as lead, mercury, and arsenic long before governments introduced laws requiring employers to protect those workers exposed to them every day.
In South Africa, things changed when, on the 23rd of June 1993, the state president signed the Occupational Health and Safety Act. The new legislation made all employers responsible for ensuring their staff were adequately protected against any known potential hazards whilst at work. The act addressed significant types of threats: physical dangers, such as machine tools without protective guard rails or failsafe features and biological agents like Legionella in the water supply or aircon filters. The third category covered hazardous chemical substances, which, like bacteria and viruses, require specialised detection and identification procedures.
The Role of the Occupational Hygiene Specialist
The health and safety act also introduced training schemes to help companies implement its provisions by teaching the techniques for detecting and evaluating the various workplace hazards. The training was open to the personnel of companies wishing to perform in-house testing. However, most employers prefer to rely on dedicated occupation hygiene companies with the necessary equipment and more experienced trained staff, especially for evaluating potentially hazardous chemical substances and biological threats.
It is important to differentiate between occupational hygiene and occupational health specialists. The latter are medically trained individuals, consisting of doctors and nurses. Their role is to diagnose and treat injuries and illnesses resulting directly from workplace activities. By contrast, the hygiene specialists are more technically oriented. Their skills lay in identifying, evaluating, and mitigating those factors responsible for such injuries and illnesses. The primary role of these technical specialists is to conduct a workplace assessment.
Spotting physical hazards might combine a visual inspection with radiation or noise dosimetry, while identifying hazardous chemical substances will involve collecting samples from the air, walls, floors, and work surfaces, as well as clothing and hands. The samples will then undergo laboratory analysis to detect any possible threats. However, identifying a threat is only the first step. Intensive research has established concentrations that are most commonly considered safe. If ambient levels remain within these limits, personnel are not at risk.
However, higher levels will require the technician to identify everyone who could be at risk and recommend measures to ensure they are protected, followed by further testing to evaluate their effectiveness.
If you are concerned about possible hazardous chemical substances, contact IOH Solutions. Our organisation is approved by the department of labour as an inspection authority and we have almost twenty years of experience as occupational hygiene specialists.