What are the Primary Responsibilities of an Occupational Hygienist?
The promulgation of South Africa’s Occupational Health and Safety Act 85 of 1993 marked a new era in which employers became responsible for the wellbeing of their employees whilst at work. The act also laid the foundations for the birth of a new profession – the occupational hygienist.
Many occupations are inherently hazardous. For example, working in a laboratory producing live vaccines carries the risk of infection. Brewery employees are in danger of exposure to lethal carbon dioxide concentrations, and operating heavy machinery can cause serious injuries. However, the examples quoted are relatively evident to both employers and workers. In far more cases, workplace hazards are less obvious, requiring the knowledge and skills of a trained specialist to identify them and help mitigate the dangers they represent. These are just some of the tasks routinely undertaken by an occupational hygienist.
One can think of these professionals as a type of detective whose task is to detect and deactivate anything that might result in a mishap before it can occur. In practice, they have four primary responsibilities. Collectively, these are intended to ensure the health and safety of a client’s employees whilst at work and anyone else who might enter their workplace. Individually, those responsibilities are to anticipate, identify, evaluate, and control anything that might threaten that collective goal.
Through a combination of training and accumulated on-the-job experience, an occupational hygienist learns to anticipate most of the hazards common to a particular industry and how to confirm their suspicions. However, instinct alone can sometimes be insufficient. Consequently, further dialogue with management and workers is an essential starting point for these investigators before they begin their in-depth workplace inspection.
Whether anticipated or not, identifying potential workplace hazards requires a specialised skillset. An investigator must be familiar with sampling techniques and how to operate the various instruments used for this purpose. In most cases, the potential threats that an occupational hygienist must look for will be either physical, chemical, or biological. However, their role will sometimes include checking for ergonomic and emotional issues.
A visual inspection can be sufficient to spot most physical hazards, like missing safety rails or exposed electrical wiring, but some require a more technical approach. Excessive noise is now recognised as one of the greatest threats to workers’ health. Preventing noise-induced hearing loss requires the measurement of ambient noise levels and personalised monitoring of any employees who may be at risk. The unique skills of the occupational hygienist are even more essential when investigating chemical and biological threats.
Not all hazards represent a direct danger to health and safety. Evaluating the level of risk they might pose is the next step in the inspection process. For example, safety regulations define the levels of various toxic substances considered safe by health authorities, such as the WHO. Only when levels exceed these recommendations is action required.
At this stage, the role of the occupational hygienist becomes more advisory. The inspector will recommend various ways in which the employer can eliminate or, at least, minimise the dangers of any hazards identified as a threat. IOH Solutions is registered with the Department of Labour as an approved inspection authority. Please contact us for more details of our comprehensive professional services in Gauteng and the Eastern and Western Cape.