The various potential dangers to which many workers are exposed on a daily basis have, in some cases, been known for centuries. However, despite the efforts made, over the ages, by a few concerned employers to protect their staff, within the limitations of the knowledge and technology of the times, it is only in relatively recent years that any legislation relating to occupational health and hygiene has been introduced.
Today, it is a science in its own right, and can best be described as the quest to identify and then evaluate any potential hazards, within the working environment, that might threaten the health or safety of employees, and to institute the necessary control measures to counter them. Keeping one’s employees safe and in good health is obviously important at a personal level. However, observing the recommendations prescribed locally and internationally with regard to occupational health and hygiene is equally essential if businesses are to achieve the levels of productivity required to sustain employment and the economy.
Some sectors, such as construction, mining, and agriculture, are regarded as posing a higher risk than others, and are subject to individual acts that impose on them a legislative obligation to implement protective measures. Nevertheless, even those sectors generally considered to be low risk are required to implement, at least, some basic form of programme. The requirement has seen the establishment of a new profession that combines elements of three different disciplines. These are occupational medicine or health, safety at work, and industrial hygiene. Those involved in this science range from doctors, nurses, and public health specialists to engineers, scientists, and technologists, and the demand for them is growing.
Irrespective of any vocational qualifications they may hold, all personnel responsible for dispensing this service must have gained a recognised qualification in this specialised field and hold some form of national accreditation. Because of these requirements, much of the responsibility for ensuring the health and safety of employees is now undertaken by third parties with the necessary expertise and certification. Some of these service providers focus more directly on personal health by offering medicals and diagnostic services. Others, however, address occupational health and hygiene needs by identifying any on-site potential hazards that might pose a risk to an employee’s health and advising their clients on ways in which they can eliminate or, at least, reduce them to acceptable levels.
Among the more obvious hazards are irritants, bacteria, and toxic substances present in the workplace atmosphere, as these could lead to workers experiencing respiratory problems. Perhaps obvious, but certainly no less damaging, is the risk posed by excessively loud noise, which is now cited as the most common cause of permanent hearing loss yet totally avoidable when implementing the recommendations of occupational health and hygiene specialists.
Like air quality, water quality is also important, as old or damaged pipes could provide a breeding ground for harmful microorganisms, such as Legionella. Excessive heat or cold, vibration, and inadequate illumination all pose health problems of their own, and only by a thorough inspection of the workplace conducted by experts in the field of occupational health and hygiene can expose all such possible hazards, evaluate their risk, and then provide effective protection for a company’s most valuable resource – its labour force.