It is unlikely that any other event could have highlighted the importance of personal protection equipment more effectively than the current lockdown conditions imposed to counter the Covid-19 pandemic. However, in some working environments, such as hospital isolation wards, pharmaceutical companies, and virology labs, such precautions have long been a feature of everyday life. The science known as occupational hygiene was developed, specifically, to investigate potential hazards to workers in all types of employment.
In 1993, the South African government introduced legislation making it compulsory for employers to implement whatever precautions might prove necessary to protect the health and safety of their employees whilst at work. The Occupational Health and Safety Act also provided for the training of specialists who would inspect workplace conditions in search of anything that might harbour the threat of injury or illness to any employee. Essentially, the task of these specialists would be to perform occupational hygiene inspections and liaise with employers regarding their findings.
In practice, a comprehensive inspection is likely to reveal one or two possible hazards in almost any workplace. However, the degree of risk these could present to a staff member or visitor will determine whether or not remedial measures might prove necessary. It is common practice to classify workplace hazards as either physical, chemical, biological, ergonomic, or psychological. However, more emphasis is frequently placed upon the first three classifications when conducting a typical occupational hygiene inspection.
Physical hazards tend to be the most evident and will often be spotted by a worker or supervisor. A handrail missing from a ladder or elevated platform, a machine without a protective guard, or a constantly slippery surface is as easy to rectify as it is to identify. However, a trained eye will often notice things that someone less experienced might consistently overlook. Furthermore, when checking for chemical or biological hazards, the knowledge and experience gained from specialised training are indispensable to those performing the occupational hygiene survey.
Before beginning an inspection, it is essential to obtain a detailed account of the various workplace activities and the equipment and materials involved in each. The combined input from workers and management can provide the inspector with a better idea of where to look and what to expect. Chemical hazards can occur in the air or on surfaces. Locating them will often require the use of specialised sampling equipment followed by appropriate laboratory analysis. When checking for biological hazards, sampling will sometimes need to extend beyond the environment. Swabs of worker’s hands, hair, and clothing could all form part of a comprehensive occupational hygiene project.
In practice, detecting potential hazards is only the first step in the process. Next, it will be necessary for the inspector to evaluate the extent of any risk these may pose to workers, anyone who may visit the workplace, and the general environment. In many cases, safety authorities will have established acceptable limits for criteria, such as the permitted concentration of chlorine in the air or ambient noise levels. Where these are exceeded, the specialist will suggest effective countermeasures.