A Day in the Life of an Occupational Hygienist
Given the long history of paid employment and the conditions under which workers were expected to work, it Is surprising that it took governments so long to introduce legislation regarding health and safety in the workplace. In most countries, including South Africa, relevant laws only came into force in the latter half of the last century. One of the outcomes was the creation of a new job title – the occupational hygienist.
These specialists must undergo special training and require certification before they are free to offer their professional services. So, what are those services? In a nutshell, their task is to identify any potential hazards in the workplace, determine how serious a threat these may pose and which employees are at risk, and provide advice on eliminating such threats or minimising their impact on those at risk.
In practice, the role of an occupational hygienist is primarily technical. It should not be confused with that of an occupational health professional. The latter group consists of specially trained doctors, nurses, and other qualified healthcare professionals. Their collective role centres on diagnosing and treating employees who have already succumbed to a work-related injury or illness. Often, however, these specialists’ observations when treating their patients will expose the need for a technical investigation into the origins of their ill health.
Since the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1993, trained occupational hygienists have assisted the nation’s companies in complying with the act’s requirements. Their task generally begins with an in-depth workplace inspection. However, they may sometimes be called upon to perform specific tasks. For example, to measure ambient noise and monitor individual exposure levels to determine if anyone is at risk of developing noise-induced hearing loss. Prolonged exposure to excessively loud noise is the leading cause of permanent hearing loss and a significant source of costly industrial compensation claims.
Before starting a workplace inspection, the occupational hygienist will generally consult with management and workers to better understand how the business operates and the type of hazards most likely to be found. These fall into three categories – physical, chemical, or biological. While physical hazards such as exposed electrical wiring or missing safety guards and handrails are easily spotted, others require specialised detection methods. Dangerously high noise levels are one example. Others include ionising radiation, temperature extremes, and vibration.
A typical occupational hygienist’s day might also include collecting air and water samples to check for hazardous chemicals. Alternatively, sampling might rule out the presence of the Legionella bacillus responsible for the severe form of pneumonia known as legionnaire’s disease. The specialist will also be looking for lead, mercury, cadmium, other heavy metals, and any form of chemical toxin that might signal danger. The search process might involve collecting samples from working surfaces, walls, ceilings, and clothing. Sometimes, on-site qualitative tests are available and positive results could indicate a need to perform quantitative assays in a suitably equipped laboratory.
Having identified the hazards, the occupational hygienist must assess their risk and advise management on the most effective ways to counteract them. A healthy worker is a productive one. The best option to ensure your employees’ welfare will be to arrange for a workplace health and safety inspection with the experts at IOH Solutions.