What Does an Occupational Hygienist Do?
Only the wealthiest individuals are free to enjoy a reasonably comfortable lifestyle without the income obtained from a full-time job. However, whether one works in an office, works deep underground in a gold mine, or operates heavy machinery in a factory, the workplace can be a source of innumerable dangers. Although some of those threats may be readily visible and easily eliminated, others are often less obvious. The task of an occupational hygienist is to detect, evaluate, and suggest effective countermeasures to protect workers from the ill effects of those harder-to-spot hazards.
With few exceptions, concern for worker safety in South Africa has been cursory at best before the introduction of relevant legislation in 1993. Previously, most of the focus had been on underground mine workers and the threat of respiratory disorders due to dust or fibres in the surrounding air. For almost 30 years, the Occupational Health and Safety Act has provided guidelines for the protection of all employees whilst at work and introduced training for the occupational hygienists necessary for the legislation to be as effective as possible.
While these specialists may be concerned with protecting employees’ health, their role is technical rather than medical. It is not their job to recognise or treat workers who may have been affected by their working conditions but to identify any factors contributing to illness or injury among a company’s employees. Diagnosis and treatment of workplace illnesses and injuries are for doctors and nurses trained in occupational health. Nevertheless, these specialists would have many more patients without occupational hygienists and their all-important preventative role.
The first step in their task is to conduct a workplace survey to identify any hazards that might pose a potential threat to staff members. In most cases, the survey will focus mainly on any physical, chemical, or biological factors that could prove hazardous. However, a technician may also check for any ergonomic or psychological elements that might have a negative health impact, where indicated.
Physical hazards like missing handrails or safety guards on machinery and slippery surfaces are not hard to spot. However, the occupational hygienist is trained to recognise less obvious dangers. One of the most common sources of claims for industrial compensation is workers affected by noise-induced hearing loss. Although employers and employees are generally aware of the potential danger of long-term exposure, fewer are familiar with acceptable levels and how these compare with the actual levels in their respective working environments.
Where it appears that noise levels might seem hazardous, an occupational hygienist will use monitoring devices to measure exposure levels and confirm or dismiss this possibility. Specialised equipment, laboratory tests, and the technical skills to employ them are essential for identifying chemical and biological hazards. However, the ability to evaluate the risk these pose to employees is equally crucial. Where they fall within acceptable limits, no further action may be necessary.
However, where such limits are exceeded, the previously analytical role of an occupational hygienist becomes more advisory. Let IOH Solutions conduct a professional survey to detect, evaluate, and recommend ways to mitigate any potential hazards if you are serious about protecting your valued employees from work-related illnesses and injuries.