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There might have once been a time when the only hazardous chemical substances that could pose a threat to our health were those present in the smoke from wood fires. However, with the advent of mining, things have changed dramatically. It was during Roman times that a correlation between mining activities and the health of those who laboured in the mines was first suspected. Thus, the impact of dangerous substances in the workplace has been of concern for thousands of years.

Since then, industrialisation on a global scale has led to a far greater number of hazardous chemical substances from which workers need protection. Quite apart from the coal dust and other airborne particles associated with mining, far more of today’s workers now risk exposure to hundreds of potentially harmful chemicals, as well several equally dangerous biological agents.

The growing frequency of work-related illness and the associated claims for industrial compensation have led to the release of legislation governing the health and safety of employees whilst at work. The resulting new government guidelines have also created the need for specialists trained in the theory and practice of industrial hygiene. Their role is to assist the nation’s employers with the effective implementation of those aspects of the new legislation relevant to their industry.

The Merits of Industrial Hygiene

The industrial-hygiene specialist will begin by identifying any hazardous chemical substances and other features of the working environment that might put workers at risk of illness or injury. The list of substances that might pose a health risk is extensive and includes gases, volatile organics, heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium, petroleum products, pesticides, and common acids and alkalis. Prolonged exposure could lead to anything from burns and skin rashes to liver, kidney, and lung damage. It could also lead to mental disorders and birth defects.

Because these specialists have extensive knowledge of a wide range of industries, they will have a good idea of which hazardous chemical substances they will need to look for and where to look for them. Once they have identified a possible hazard, they must then quantify the risk it might pose and determine which personnel are at risk. Armed with this information, the next step for an industrial hygienist will be to consider how best to eliminate or, at least, minimise any of those risks that they have classified as serious and as in need of immediate attention.

There are basically two ways in which to counter the effects of hazardous chemical substances in the workplace. The first is to institute whatever measures might serve to prevent or reduce their propagation in the first place. Where this alone may be insufficient, the second line of defence will be to issue those at risk with suitable protective clothing such as masks and gloves.

As well as making the necessary recommendations, industrial hygiene specialists will also conduct periodic follow-ups to check on the progress and effectiveness of the suggested remedial actions. In addition, those services will often extend to include the education of employees regarding the dangers of any hazardous chemical substances to which they might be exposed and the importance of observing the recommended countermeasures.