Statistics often suggest that most accidents occur in the home. While this may be true, the workplace often holds many more hazards, even though these may not always be as evident as a sharp knife or a boiling kettle. Identifying those hazards is one of several related tasks that feature among the responsibilities of an occupational hygiene specialist.
These specialists are members of a relatively new profession that arose from the provisions of South Africa’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, Act 85 of 1993. The terms of the act also called for special training of doctors and nurses who would then be responsible for the diagnosis and treatment of work-related injuries and illness.
While the act also defines the responsibilities and liabilities of employers and employees regarding safety at work, they lack the skills and experience necessary to spot every potential hazard. Hence the need for trained occupational hygiene staff.
Occupational Hygiene – Types of Hazard
For most purposes, one can classify potential hazards as either physical, chemical, or biological. Exposed electrical wiring, missing guardrails on machinery, and slippery surfaces are typical examples and should be easy for workers to identify and for management to remedy. However, one of the more common physical hazards is excessive noise, and both staff and employers are often unaware of its long-term consequences. Noise-induced hearing loss is now the most common cause of deafness, and noise monitoring is often part of an occupational hygiene assessment.
Chemical and biological hazards are generally less apparent than physical dangers. Chlorine, ammonia, and hydrogen sulphide have characteristic odours even in relatively low concentrations. However, other compounds can be equally dangerous but harder to detect. Understanding the processes and activities in a workplace provides valuable insight into the chemicals that may pose a threat in sufficient concentrations. Armed with such information, occupational hygiene specialists then need to collect samples from the air, work surfaces, and other likely danger spots, and subject them to laboratory tests to confirm their presence and determine how much of a threat they may pose.
What is true of chemical hazard applies equally to biological threats. Sampling and lab tests are essential to identify dangers, such as Legionella in the water supply or air conditioning system. In the food and beverage industry, workers may also need testing to identify possible carriers.
The role of occupational hygiene extends beyond detecting hazards. The next task for the assessors is to evaluate the level of risk that each hazard might pose and identify which staff members may be affected. Physical hazards are generally simple to overcome by installing guard rails, replacing faulty wiring and similar measures. Potential chemical and biological hazards pose no risk when they fall within established acceptable levels, but steps will be necessary to protect workers where such levels are exceeded.
Where appropriate, the occupational hygiene team will propose strategies to mitigate those risks and protect the workforce. It will also ensure that staff and employers are made aware of the risks and the importance of observing the recommended countermeasures.
The Occupation Health and Safety Act places the onus on employers to ensure the health and safety of their workers. IOH Solutions is an accredited occupational hygiene specialist with the necessary skills, experience, and resources to assist them.