Throughout the long history of paid employment, the vast majority of employers have been free to adopt a somewhat indifferent attitude to their workers’ welfare. Not only did they pay wages that were barely sufficient for subsistence living with little or no prospect of an increase, but most showed scant concern for their employees’ health and safety. Few would have welcomed a Health and Safety Risk Assessment, even if such an option had been available.
Today, we can look back on this scenario with horror, given the protection that workers in most industrialised nations now enjoy. However, the main reason for that early indifference was invariably greed rather than ignorance of the dangers to which their workers were exposed. In practice, even the ancient Greeks and Romans recognised some of the problems, such as dust inhalation by miners and even fashioned masks to filter the air they were forced to breathe. Despite this, the health and safety risk assessment did not become a generalised legal requirement in any country until well into the 20th century.
However, a series of minor acts introduced following the industrial revolution improved working conditions in selected occupations and, in time, even prescribed compensation for those injured at work. The eventual establishment of the UK’s trade union movement in 1871 marked the start of pressure on its government. That pressure would eventually provoke a worldwide demand for laws to better provide for employee’s health and safety, and perhaps risk assessments to help identify potential hazards and guide remedial action.
Health and Safety Risk Assessment – On the South African Scene
The landmark event for South Africa’s workers came in 1993. During this year, the government introduced amended legislation to finally address the need to protect workers in all occupations from any hazards found to be present in their working environment. To facilitate finding such threats, the legislation created a new profession devoted to investigating and improving occupational hygiene standards. To do so, these new professionals must conduct a health and safety risk assessment.
One has only to consider the damage done by atmospheric pollutants outdoors to understand how much greater the danger these might pose to workers in confined spaces might be. Like many other countries, South Africa has a history of pneumoconiosis, asbestosis, and other respiratory ailments among miners. In high concentrations, any particulate matter can pose similar problems even for those who work above ground.
The first objective of a health and safety risk assessment is to identify potentially hazardous physical, chemical, or biological elements using appropriate techniques and equipment. While the process may reveal several hazards, not all will pose a significant threat. Accordingly, the next step is to evaluate the level of threat posed by each. At this stage, the assessor can now examine the most effective ways to mitigate any established threats. For example, sustained exposure to excessively loud noise is known to cause permanent hearing loss. One possible solution could be noise reduction. But where this is impractical, the affected workers may need to wear suitable ear defenders.
To round off the health and safety risk assessment process, the occupational hygiene specialist will take steps to educate management and staff regarding the need for protective measures, their nature, and the possible consequences of ignoring them.