We live in a highly industrialised society. Even the air above our cities and towns and much of the surrounding countryside has become laced with a cocktail of hazardous chemical substances. Materials, such as nitrogen oxides, lead, soot particles, sulphur dioxide, and carbon monoxide arising from the burgeoning combustion of fossil fuels have been a source of grave concern regarding their long-term impact on climate and the earth’s biosphere. However, in the skies, these chemicals pose less of an immediate threat to human health and safety than these and other toxic substances often present in the confines of the workplace.

There have been individual attempts to protect workers from the effects of hazardous chemical substances in some of the more threatened locations, such as coal and asbestos mines. However, in most of the world’s industrialised nations, government legislation designed to ensure all employees’ health and safety whilst at work has been a relatively recent step, albeit an equally essential one.

In South Africa, the Occupational Health and Safety Act 85 of 1993 marked this change. It placed an obligation on the nation’s employers to identify and eliminate or introduce sufficiently effective measures to safeguard employees from hazardous chemical substances and any other potential dangers present in their working environment.

Hazardous Chemical Substances

Monitoring the Workplace for Hazardous Chemical Substances

It is, of course, a relatively simple matter for an employer to tour a factory floor and identify the need for safety guards on potentially dangerous machinery or handrails on access ladders to prevent workers from falling. However, many other things that might threaten staff health and safety are far less obvious and may require particular expertise and methodology to detect. This is invariably the case with hazardous chemical substances, especially as these are often colourless and odourless, and dangerous even at pretty low concentrations.

Potentially dangerous dust particles from milling operations and gases and aerosols formed during chemical reactions are typical of a factories’ airborne contaminants. The particles and aerosols can also settle on surfaces, while lead and other heavy metals can often find their way into the water supply. The responsibility for identifying, assessing, and recommending ways in which to eliminate or minimise dangers, such as hazardous chemical substances, is a task best left to a qualified occupational health and safety expert.

The 1993 Act provided for the training of appropriate specialists. Those provisions included doctors and nurses trained in the diagnosis and treatment of work-related illnesses and injuries, along with technical experts trained in the detection, evaluation, and mitigation of workplace hazards. The latter specialists provide expert services to employers, beginning with a workplace assessment.

The Assessment Process

Following consultation with management, supervisors, and other key workers to gain background, the assessor will conduct an in-depth search for potential physical and biological dangers and hazardous chemical substances, employing appropriate detection techniques and equipment as indicated. Some of the findings may require further evaluation in the laboratory. Either way, the next step will be to determine how serious a threat each of the hazards found might pose and which employees may be at risk.

Recommendations on managing those risks and protecting workers, awareness exercises with staff and employers, and follow-up inspections complete the professional, occupational health and safety assessment process.