While paid employment may have eventually replaced slavery, in most cases, that transition had little effect on the day-to-day treatment of the average employee. With few exceptions, workers still had to labour for long hours in unsavoury and often dangerous conditions if they wished to retain their jobs. Only in the latter half of the 20th century did widespread government legislation begin prompting employers to reform their practices. The new laws also led to the birth of a new science known as industrial hygiene.
South Africa was one of many countries to adopt similar legislation when enacting the Occupational Health and Safety Act 85 of 1993. Under the terms of this act, the welfare of employees whilst at work became the responsibility of their employers. The onus fell on them to identify anything in the workplace that might threaten the health or safety of personnel and to ensure they adopted suitably effective measures to eliminate such threats or, at least, to contain them within acceptable levels.
Training in industrial hygiene practices is an essential prerequisite for anyone who may wish to undertake these tasks. It is available to the management and staff members of any company if they want it. However, most companies prefer to delegate the responsibility to third-party organisations. These organisations employ specialists who possess the knowledge, skills, and experience necessary to identify, evaluate, and mitigate the many potential threats to health and safety in the workplace.
To ensure they comply with the act’s requirements, business owners need to conduct an industrial hygiene inspection of their various work areas or arrange for a professional to perform it. Either way, the first step in that process will be to locate anything of a physical, chemical, or biological nature that might constitute a possible health or safety hazard. Physical hazards, such as missing guardrails or exposed electrical wiring are relatively easy to spot. However, although one may suspect the presence of hazardous chemicals, biological agents, and even some physical hazards, confirming those suspicions can often require specialised equipment and skills.
For such purposes, most employers will need to retain an industrial hygiene expert to conduct the appropriate tests. For example, factories are often extremely noisy, but subjective assessments of noise levels vary widely and are unreliable. Noise-induced hearing (NIHL) loss is now the most common form of deafness, so accurate measurements with a suitable instrument to determine whether ambient noise levels may be hazardous are essential. It is also worth noting that NIHL is the source of most claims for industrial compensation. Identifying the risk and instituting effective countermeasures can be far cheaper than settling those claims.
Next, the industrial hygiene specialist must evaluate any hazards detected to determine the severity of the risk they pose to exposed personnel. Where those risk levels fall within acceptable limits, no action will be necessary. However, levels above those limits will require the specialist to suggest appropriate measures to protect the exposed workers.
Protecting the health and safety of your staff is not just a legal requirement. It is a means to ensure a happy and productive workforce. As industrial hygiene consultants to some of the largest companies in South Africa, IOH Solutions is well-positioned to help you protect the health and safety of your employees.