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Occupational Hygiene And Why It’s Important to South Africa’s Employees

For many years, workers on South Africa’s mines, in other heavy industries, and on factory floors had no option but to work in conditions that were a threat to their health and, in some cases, to their lives. Over time, regulations designed to protect workers from such risks were introduced, mainly in the mining industry and certain other occupations, but no guidelines regarding occupational hygiene measures for workers in general were considered at that time. However, this changed with the publication of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 85 of 1993.

Occupational Hygiene

As well as providing for the health and safety of those at work, the act is also intended to protect members of the public from any hazards that might arise due to the activities of those in the workplace. To assist with its implementation and to advise the minister regarding policy matters and information relevant to occupational hygiene standards, one of the first requirements of the act was to form a 20-member advisory committee. It is required to be representative of both employer and employee interests and must include experts in workmen’s compensation, workplace safety, occupational medicine, and other relevant areas.

Reporting apart, the committee’s main role is to formulate and publish guidance in the form of specifications and standards necessary to assist employers and employees to attain and maintain the required levels of health and safety in the workplace. To assist further, the committee introduced special training programmes aimed at developing a body of occupational hygiene experts who would then have the knowledge and experience to support companies in their efforts to comply with the new health and safety requirements.

Over the years, tens of thousands of South Africa’s workers have suffered injuries and illnesses as a direct consequence of their jobs. As a result, lost or damaged limbs and diseases such as pneumoconiosis, berylliosis, asbestosis, and lead poisoning, all of which are preventable, have not only taken their toll on workers and their families, but have also cost billions of rand in lost production and industrial compensation claims. However, strict adherence to the government’s occupational hygiene guidelines offers the nation’s employers the potential to avoid the vast majority of such losses in the future. The best way to achieve this goal will be to recruit the services of an expert in the field.

Having first gained a thorough insight into the nature of the business through consultation with employers and workers, the expert will be better positioned to track down and identify any potential hazards. These might be physical, like ionising radiation or excessively loud noise; chemical, such as chlorine gas or asbestos fibres; or biological, such as Legionella in the water supply. To detect them, the occupational hygiene specialist will combine visual observations with specialised monitoring technology to identify all potential hazards before proceeding to grade them in terms of the severity of the threat they pose to those workers who may be exposed to them.

Where action is indicated, the expert will make recommendations regarding how and when. These might include preventative or protective measures, or both. Either way, an effective occupational hygiene strategy is not optional. It is vital to ensure a safe, healthy, and productive workforce.