The Essential Role of the Occupational Hygienist
During the tax year 2019/20, South African workers were awarded a massive R2,7 billion in industrial compensation. Furthermore, that figure does not include the cost of sick leave and lost production due to related absenteeism. While the combined sum is considerable, it could have been a lot higher without the support and expertise of the nation’s occupational hygienists.
The Occupational Health and Safety Act 85, published in 1993, was designed to protect all of the country’s employees. Before that, there had been legislation regarding safety requirements for mining companies and treatment centres for underground workers affected by respiratory diseases, such as silicosis, TB, and pneumoconiosis. In addition to setting the standards of practice necessary for employers to safeguard their staff, the act was also instrumental in launching a new profession. The training courses provided for company employees created an opening for the professional industrial hygienist with a relevant formal qualification.
While some companies continue to rely on trained employees to provide a service internally, there is a growing tendency to rely on these full-time third party professionals. Given the extent of their experience and the specialised resources at their disposal, this trend makes a lot of sense. Let us face it, the cost of a single compensation claim could dwarf that required to hire an accredited specialist and eliminate the risk of having to deal with such claims.
The primary task of the occupational hygienist is to conduct a workplace assessment. Based on the findings of this exercise, an employer will be made aware of any hazards detected. Next, the specialist will evaluate the extent to which those hazards pose an actual threat and which workers may be at risk. The final step will be to advise what countermeasures may be required to mitigate any established threats. The relationship between a company and the consultant is intended to be ongoing and should include follow-up visits to check progress.
In some cases, the occupational hygienist may also conduct advisory sessions with supervisors and workers. Their purpose is to ensure that everyone fully understands the importance of adhering strictly to any recommended countermeasures the company has adopted and that those who fail to observe them do so at their own risk. However, in addition to the legal implications of maintaining a safe working environment, minimising the risk of job-related injuries and illness helps keep costs down, production on track, and improve confidence and loyalty among the workforce.
While employers can help themselves by installing safety guards on machines and regular maintenance, only a trained occupational hygienist has the knowledge, experience, and access to resources necessary to identify, evaluate, and mitigate the more subtle hazards. For example, it requires specialised equipment and training to determine ambient noise levels that could cause permanent hearing loss in a single 8-hour shift. The same applies to chemicals and microorganisms in the air and the water supply or contaminating work surfaces, any of which might threaten workers’ health or even their lives.