The Nature of Industrial Hygiene

Even in an industrial context, the word hygiene infers that it is important to keep the working environment clean. However, the term actually encompasses far more than just basic cleanliness. That said, in an area of a factory where oil spills are common, failure to clean them up with a suitable detergent could certainly lead to falls and possibly fractured limbs. Although recognising aspects of workplace safety such as this might be fairly simple, other hazards can be far less obvious to the untrained eye. To ensure that workers are kept safe from such hazards, assessments and appropriate interventions by qualified health and safety specialists are invaluable.

While workers’ welfare may have been a long-term concern, the industrial hygiene specialist is a relative newcomer to the workplace. It was only in 1994, with the introduction of South Africa’s  Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) and the added responsibilities it placed upon the nation’s employers, that a more formal approach to workplace-safety inspections created the need to train specialised inspectors.

The act made it clear that employers were obliged to do whatever might prove necessary to ensure the health and safety of their employees whilst at work. To identify the potential hazards within a given working environment, to evaluate the level of risk these might pose, and to recommend appropriate remedial measures. These are the core objectives of an industrial hygiene expert. In parallel, a new qualification was introduced for medical personnel.

Doctors, nurses, and lab technicians were invited to undertake additional training that would make them more conversant with the nature of work-related illnesses, their diagnosis, treatment, and ongoing monitoring. In effect, the role of the inspectors is to identify and eliminate the hazards that are the root causes of illness or, at least, to minimise the risk of such maladies. The role of the medical team is to confirm that the measures recommended by the industrial hygiene inspectors are implemented by the employer and to ensure that they are effective.

Why It’s Important

These hazards can take many forms and one of the most common has been responsible for compromising the health of workers since the dawn of the industrial revolution. There has been a great deal of publicity regarding the dangers of asbestos, lead, and coal dust yet surprisingly little mention of what has now become the reason behind the majority of industrial compensation claims. Industrial hygiene inspectors routinely monitor sound levels in the workplace as NIHL or noise-induced hearing loss can occur in any individual exposed to 85 decibels for at least 8 hours. Furthermore, with each successive exposure, this irreversible form of deafness intensifies and, the louder the noise, the less time noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) takes to manifest.

This, however, is just one example of a potential workplace hazard, and one whose effects are now well known. While it may not be unusual for a worker to develop flu-like symptoms and easy to assume that any sick co-workers affected were infected by the original victim, the reality might be quite different. An industrial hygiene expert will check the premises for risks posed by microorganisms that are endemic in the workplace. One of the most common suspects is Legionella pneumophila. Responsible for Legionnaires’ disease, the bacillus often lurks in poorly maintained water pipes and ventilation systems.