What is Occupational Hygiene?
Throughout the history of paid employment, employers have shown little or no concern for the conditions in which their employees were required to work. The risks of illness and injury were just part of the job, and it was up to the workers to accept them. The dangers to people in occupations such as mining, construction, and fishing are self-evident. However, workers in many other fields face less obvious yet equally significant threats. In simple terms, the role of occupational hygiene is to identify such threats and ensure that any workers at risk are suitably protected from them.
There was little progress towards achieving these goals, with few exceptions until the latter half of the twentieth century. It was then that the governments of many countries first began drafting legislation regarding the health and safety of employees whilst at work. In 1993, South Africa’s Occupational Health and Safety Act placed the onus on employers to institute whatever measures necessary to protect their staff from hazards in the work environment. More precisely, occupational hygiene can be defined as anticipating, recognising, evaluating, and controlling health hazards in the workplace. Its objective is to safeguard employee health and protect the community at large.
Types of Workplace Hazard
While employees may also be subject to ergonomic and psychological challenges at work, the primary areas of concern are any physical, chemical, or biological hazards that might potentially pose a threat. Anticipating what these might be requires a sound knowledge of the industry concerned and the particular site under scrutiny. An occupational hygiene specialist will typically liaise with management and employees to gain more insight into likely threats before starting the inspection phase.
Physical: A visual inspection will generally be sufficient to spot any physical dangers. The investigator will look for hazards, such as slippery floors, the absence of safety guards on machinery, lack of handrails on elevated platforms, exposed electrical wiring, and so forth. Where suspected, excessive noise and extremes of temperature will be measured and recorded. Once informed of such problems, the employer will be required to remedy them.
Chemical: When investigating chemical hazards, an occupational hygiene assessment might include sampling and analysis of air, water, working surfaces and, possibly, even clothing. Knowledge of the company’s activities, the chemicals it employs, and their possible by-products all contribute to the thoroughness of this stage. Some of the analyses may be performed on-site, while laboratory tests may be necessary for others.
Biological: Once again, widespread sampling is the first step and will be followed by laboratory testing. Airborne and waterborne pathogens such as Legionella can threaten occupational hygiene in any workplace. In contrast, organisms like salmonella, listeria, and shigella represent a severe threat in the food and beverage industry.
Not all hazards require countermeasures. There are acceptable levels for many chemical and biological agents and only when these are exceeded is action necessary. Measures could include limiting or eliminating the threat or providing workers with adequate protection. Where the danger is physical, such as excessive noise, workers may be issued with ear defenders if it is not possible to reduce noise levels adequately.