What Does Occupational Hygiene Involve?
At first glance, the meaning of the term “occupational hygiene” might appear self-evident, implying a reference to cleanliness in the workplace. Cleansing does form a significant aspect of this discipline. However, the measures it employs extend well beyond ensuring that employees wash their hands regularly and that floors and windows all display a dazzling shine. More accurately, its goal is to protect the health and safety of workers, and, in practice, a highly polished floor could prove hazardous to life and limb.
In this context, cleansing refers to the necessary steps for dealing with any identified hazards that might put workers at risk, and occupational hygiene refers to the applied sciences required to achieve this crucially important goal. A closely related science, also launched as part of South Africa’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, employs specially trained healthcare professionals to diagnose and treat patients with work-related illnesses or injuries. By contrast, the hygienist’s role is a preventative one. As such, its tasks can be undertaken by personnel with no medical qualification who, instead, have received training in the relevant investigative techniques and have the appropriate accreditation.
The cornerstone of occupational hygiene is a workplace assessment, consisting of a visual inspection combined with any testing procedures considered necessary by the client and the technical specialist involved. Specific input from the client can serve as an invaluable guide when planning the inspection. However, hygienists will also rely on their specialised technical training and previous field experience when executing the plan. Their goal is to answer three questions: What, if any, are the potential hazards? How severe is the threat they pose to workers’ health and safety? And what must be done to remove or minimise any risks?
The occupational hygiene specialist will look for three types of hazards during the assessment. Namely, physical, chemical, and biological. Although threats in all of these categories could occur in any given workplace, the specialist will also be guided by the specific activities of a company when conducting the inspection. For example, excessive noise is a frequent physical danger in factories and engineering works. Just 8 hours’ exposure at 80 decibels is sufficient to cause permanent hearing damage. Furthermore, the effect is cumulative. Also, workers who operate vibrating machinery are prone to tendon, muscle, and joint damage.
Sampling forms a significant portion of an occupational hygiene inspection. Air samples may be taken to check for airborne hazards, such as asbestos fibres and spores. Samples taken from the water supply may be tested for the presence of Legionella. In the food and beverage industry, the examination may well include swabbing work surfaces and machinery to detect the microorganisms commonly responsible for various forms of food poisoning. While the latter type of hazard needs to be eliminated, others may pose less concern. Nevertheless, each hazard detected needs to be carefully evaluated to determine its potential risk to health and safety.
An occupational hygiene specialist may conclude from the inspection’s findings that it is sufficient to monitor certain hazards. In other cases, a hygienist will recommend appropriate precautionary measures to eliminate or minimise the risk to employees. To ensure your workers are protected from hidden hazards, book an assessment with IOH Solutions today.