Occupational Hygienist | Safe Working Environments

The Crucial Role of the Occupational Hygienist In Employee Health and Safety


The main task of an occupational hygienist is to identify, evaluate and manage factors that threaten health and safety at work. Not surprisingly, their role involves cleaning up the workplace. However, one should not be misled by the reference to hygiene in their professional title. Theirs is not a simple bucket and mop task but an in-depth scientific exercise that requires intensive training, specialised skills, experience, and formal certification by an appropriate authority, such as the Department of Labour and the South African Institute for Occupational Hygiene.


The prospective perils in industries like mining, construction, petrochemicals and the oil and gas sector are well-known, and effective countermeasures have long been in place to protect their workers. However, almost all occupations have inherent hazards that could impact staff health and safety, but they are often more subtle and detecting them can be challenging. Nevertheless, although such potential threats may be less obvious, they can, and frequently do, lead to work-related illnesses and injuries.


One might think that those in sedentary occupations like clerical workers experience little that might threaten their well-being during an average working day. However, they could be at risk of pain and debilitating illness due to poorly designed furnishings or tasks and maladjusted work surfaces.


One could think of the occupational hygienist as a combination of a detective and forensic scientist. Their task is to scour the workplace for clues in the form of hazards, analyse them to see if they threaten the health or safety of employees, and suggest ways to minimise or eliminate them.


The Occupational Hygienist at Work


The fundamental role of industrial hygiene begins with a detailed inspection of a company’s workplace to spot anything that might prove harmful to employees, visitors or the surrounding environment. Like any detective investigation, the first step is talking with the witnesses.


Often, the only sign of a potential workplace hazard is increased absenteeism. Learning where the sick or injured individuals worked provides an occupational hygienist with the first clue. Perhaps some of them have developed asthma, have been diagnosed with severe pneumonia or are displaying signs of acute hearing loss. These conditions are commonly the result of allergens or irritants in indoor air, Legionella bacilli in the water supply or repeated, prolonged exposure to excessive ambient noise levels, respectively.


Accidental injuries are often due to physical hazards, like missing guardrails on machinery, exposed electrical wiring, slippery surfaces, and flammable or explosive materials. Whether physical, chemical or biological in origin, these industrial hygiene gurus must be competent in the use of a wide range of specialised equipment and techniques. These include:

occupational hygienist

  • Collecting swabs of surfaces, clothing and personnel and the use of appropriate aseptic techniques to maintain their integrity
  • Sampling indoor air quality for evidence of gaseous or particulate contaminants such as asbestos fibres and fungal spores
  • Monitoring ambient noise and personal exposure levels
  • Assessment of heat stress based on temperature and length of exposure
  • Monitoring ionising radiation


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