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Occupational Hygiene and Its Importance in the Workplace

It has taken centuries for man to recognise that there may be a link between certain types of ill health and the working environments of those commonly affected by these conditions. For years, during the course of their jobs, men and women have been exposed daily to the dangers posed by toxic substances, such as lead and mercury. Others have been permitted to inhale damaging particles such as asbestos fibres, beryllium, and coal dust. Even once these suspected associations were finally confirmed, it was still some time before the appearance of government legislation in South Africa to protect employees from these workplace hazards and, with it, the recognition of the specialised field now known as occupational hygiene.

Finally, the ’90s saw the implementation of two significant acts. Between them, the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1992 and the Mine Health and Safety Act, which followed three years later, served to define the responsibilities of employers to the wellbeing of staff employed in general industry and the mining sector, whilst on duty. Undertaking those responsibilities, however, entails extensive specialised knowledge that few employers are likely to possess and thus the provision of the appropriate services is invariably a task that is allocated to a third-party consultancy.

The first task of the consultant will be to carry out an in-depth inspection of the workplace with a view to identifying all of the possible health and safety hazards. Armed with this information, the occupational hygiene consultant will then perform a risk assessment. This is to determine whether the safety precautions currently in place are adequate to protect staff from each of the hazards that they have identified, or that more may need to be done.

It is important that this type of inspection is repeated at least every two years, as conditions in the work environment are apt to vary, for instance, because machinery may tend to become less efficient over time. Since both the assessment and effective management of risks are legal requirements, quite apart from being faced with loss of production and increased insurance premiums, employers may be required to pay compensation to the victims when avoidable accidents and work-related illnesses occur.

While hazardous substances, such as lead and asbestos, continue to be a cause for concern and require careful monitoring and management, the overall scope of occupational hygiene is far more comprehensive. It also includes the investigation of physical factors such as noise, thermal stress, and ambient lighting. It is worth noting, for instance, that repeated, prolonged exposure to loud noise is now recognised as the predominant cause of permanent deafness. Known as noise-induce hearing loss, or NIHL, the condition is totally preventable by wearing one of the protective devices available.

On the local scene, the Hartbeespoort-based company IOH Solutions is an approved inspection authority accredited by both the Department of Labour and the South African National Accreditation System (SANAS). The company’s consultants supply professional services to some of the nation’s largest and most prestigious businesses. The service provider focusses on providing a one-stop source of innovative yet comprehensive and cost-effective occupational hygiene solutions.