Health risk assessment | Workplace safety

An Occupational Health Risk Assessment Should be Part of Your Workplace Safety Programme

Although less extensive than injuries, work-related illness costs companies millions annually. A regular health risk assessment could save you a fortune. Centuries of deaths and crippling illnesses among miners and workers in other industries finally resulted in a greater awareness of the hazards employees must often contend with to perform their jobs.

The South African government first introduced compensation for miners suffering from chronic lung diseases in 1911 and later set up clinics to provide them with treatment. However, it was more than 50 years before we began to accept that prevention might be better than cure, and it still took until 1993 to draft the legislation that would make employers responsible for the health and safety of their employees whilst at work.

The legislation led to the introduction of the occupational hygienist. The task of these specialists was and remains to do everything necessary to limit the incidence of illness and injuries in the workplace. Because many companies employ safety officers and proto teams, they were often sent for training in the essential elements of occupational hygiene services. By contrast, others used their studies to prepare them to offer their services commercially.

Health risk assessment | Workplace safety

What does a health risk assessment involve?

The assessment is a three-step process and begins by searching for anything that could endanger a worker’s health or safety. While the role of a company’s safety officer is limited to tasks like responding to fire alarms, overseeing emergency evacuations and enforcing general safety rules, conducting a risk survey entails much more and requires specialised skills.

Workplace hazards fall into three categories; physical, chemical and biological, although there is a growing tendency for these to include ergonomic and psychological risks. In this article, we will focus on the first three. Here are some examples of each.

  • Physical hazards:

    Missing handrails on ladders, cutting equipment without safety guards, wet or oily surfaces, extreme temperatures or humidity, excessive noise or vibration, and ionising radiation. 

  • Chemical threats:

    Ammonia, bromine, chlorine or carbon monoxide in the atmosphere, airborne or surface dust containing toxic metals like cadmium, lead and nickel, fibres, volatile organic liquids such as benzene, and toluene. All of these can be very harmful to workers.

  • Biological agents:

    Legionella pneumophila in the water supply or aircon system, E coli and salmonella species, particularly in processed food plants and restaurants, moulds and fungi, animal and bird droppings.

An occupational health risk assessment employs specialised monitoring, sampling and laboratory tests to identify and quantify potential hazards, after which the specialist embarks on the second step, evaluating the extent of the risks posed by each and pinpointing everyone in danger.

The mere existence of a potential hazard does not guarantee danger. For example, health authorities define acceptable limits for atmospheric toxins and dust concentration. While levels remain below these limits, no action is needed. When they do not, it’s time for the final step of the health risk assessment, advising managers and staff about effective countermeasures.

Consult IOH solutions for your health risk assessment

We are certified by the Department of Labour, the SA Institute for Occupational Hygiene, and the SA National Accreditation System to conduct a workplace survey on your behalf. To ensure your workers’ health and safety, and avoid costly compensation claims, contact us ASAP.