Exposure to Hazardous Chemical Substances at Work

Exposure to Hazardous Chemical Substances at Work

South Africa’s Occupational Health and Safety Act obliges employers to protect workers from exposure to hazardous chemical substances and similar threats. When promulgated in 1993, the act also made provisions for training personnel in the techniques required to detect, evaluate and mitigate such risks by conducting a detailed workplace inspection.

When Hazardous Chemical Substances Become Threats

Hazardous Chemical Substances

The history of work is often defined by neglect on the part of employers regarding their employees’ health and safety, simply dismissing and replacing anyone who became ill or was injured. The mining industry was one of the worst offenders, yet, paradoxically, it was among the first to implement measures to limit exposure. Chlorine, ammonia and organic solvents are just three examples of hazardous chemical substances commonly encountered in the workplace, but the complete list is markedly longer. Some are only harmful when inhaled, while others may also cause problems upon contact with the skin.

However, the presence of a  harmful substance in the air or on work surfaces does not necessarily mean it constitutes a threat. Many that are known to cause serious health issues at high concentrations pose no significant danger when only present in trace quantities. Consequently, if, when conducting a workplace inspection, an occupational hygiene specialist should detect the presence of a hazardous chemical substance, the next step must be to determine whether or not its concentration falls within the published acceptable limits. Should the exposure level prove dangerously high, efforts will be necessary to limit the percentage of the offending substance present. Where this is impossible, issuing staff with breathing apparatus and other protective clothing should provide an acceptable resolution. In such circumstances, regular health checks to detect signs of exposure will also be advisable. A specialised industrial health practitioner and not a GP should undertake the latter task.

What Professional Workplace Inspections Entail

Previous knowledge of a client’s industry will often guide the search for hazardous chemical substances. However, when on unfamiliar ground, the specialist will seek insight through consultation with management and staff before commencing the inspection. Typically, the process will involve collecting air samples and swabbing surfaces in the various work areas, but it could also necessitate collecting swabs of employees’ clothing and skin. The collected material will require in-depth laboratory analysis to identify potential hazards and determine if their concentration poses a significant threat to workers’ health.

Why Workplace Inspections are Important

Some materials pose a more immediate threat than others, whose ill effects may take years to manifest. For example, some hazardous chemical substances, such as asbestos and benzene, are known carcinogens whose consequences can often go unnoticed until the symptoms are severe and it’s too late for a successful intervention. Such possibilities alone confirm the importance of conducting a thorough workplace inspection and eliminating such risks before they can threaten an employee’s health. That said, volatile organic liquids are often highly combustible, and a fire or explosion could cause widespread injuries and even deaths in just a few minutes.

Such an event could prove crippling if it resulted in multiple claims for industrial compensation. Furthermore, a lack of adequate health and safety measures does little to inspire confidence and encourage staff loyalty. If you are in Gauteng or the Eastern or Western Cape and wish to ensure your employees are not at risk from hazardous chemical substances, why not arrange a workplace inspection with IOH Solutions?

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