The world of work is changing, and for those at the frontline of occupational health today, there are significant challenges to managing worker health.
Occupational Hygienists, with expertise in early workplace risk identification and management, jointly navigate workplace health challenges that arise from a variety of sources, for example chemicals, fumes, noise, vibration, manual handling and more.
Proactively armed with scientific evidence, the advice and awareness we provide, supports future health protection and disease prevention. In other words, we can reduce illness and injuries before long-lasting detrimental health effects take hold.
In this article I examine the role of occupational hygienists, the workplace risks we must consider, and how we can work collaboratively to empower employers and those in occupational health, together creating complementary, informed, and effective multi-disciplinary teams.
What is the role of an occupational hygienist?
An Occupational Hygienist is a science professional at the centre of exposure risk management. Our work aims to protect and enhance worker health by identifying potential hazards in the form of chemical, biological, physical, or ergonomic. We then identify and advise on what controls are required to minimise any risk to employees. This not only helps to protect employees, improve and enhance workplace conditions, but also ensures employers are legally compliant.
Their responsibilities are divided into three categories:
- To anticipate and identify hazards
– Often unaware of employees’ risk exposure, an employer may not realise that it is taking place or the levels to which it is.
Through a workplace risk assessment, we will determine what roles and work areas present a problem in terms of the potential health risk.
We will look at risks which include but are not limited to; chemicals under Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH); noise; hand-arm vibration; whole-body vibration; heat; asbestos; mould; legionella; and airborne contaminants such as dust and respirable crystalline silica.
Exposure to these even for a short period, if not controlled, can result in serious and in some cases, possibly fatal health consequences for the individual concerned.
- Quantify and evaluate the risks from identifiable hazards
– Once identified, expert measuring of risk takes place using a range of in-person and technological methods to determine the requirement of intervention. This ranges from personal exposure sampling and monitoring such as wearable technologies, Local Exhaust Ventilation (LEV) testing, air quality sensors measuring Carbon Monoxide, humidity, CO², gases and temperature, blood or urine sampling and analysis, and background sensors.
- Control the risk
– Using the hierarchy of hazard control, we advise and provide practical and cost-effective solutions to help eliminate, substitute and reduce exposure to the hazard. For example replacing isocyanate based paint sprays with alternative, non-isocyanate versions to reduce the risk of skin irritation and occupational asthma.
If elimination or substitution cannot take place, then the next step is technical or engineering controls such as modifying equipment or introducing ventilation. Adding or modifying LEV’s is a simple way to reduce airborne exposure. In one case we found that attaching an on-tool extraction system had a dramatic impact on the level of work related dust exposure. We were able to quanitify this with measurements.
Alongside this, we look at administrative controls in terms of changing the duration, frequency, and intensity of a task. Finally, we ensure the correct and consistent use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE); Face Fit Testing respirators if required and managing PPE/RPE use.
How can occupational hygienists empower those in occupational health?
Both Occupational Hygienists and Occupational Health Practitioners (OHP’s) have the same goals which are to improve worker health, make employees’ lives better and support employers in meeting their moral and legislative responsibilities; yet with visibility of different parts of the workforce’s health journey we often work independently.
If we were to work together, this greater collaboration and a timelier sharing of knowledge would lead to proactive, rather than reactive, decisions around cause and effect, with long-term benefits.
For example, we could improve the health screening process by ensuring the OHP has advance knowledge of an individual’s potential exposure levels prior to a consultation. In turn OHP feedback on health outcomes would help to improve workplace controls.
In revisiting today’s public health challenges and the continued high statistics as noted by HSE in their 2020/21 key figures around worker ill-health, occupational health and hygiene specialists must strengthen their partnership. By realising their shared purpose people and organisations everywhere will benefit from the improved management of worker health.
Ross Clark is Head of The Institute of Occupational Medicine’s (IOM) Workplace Protection team, which uses a mix of Ventilation and Occupational Hygiene services to protect hospital patients and workplace employees’ health. A veteran Occupational Hygienist, Ross Clark has been practising for over 20 years with an in-depth working knowledge of industry issues and has led from the front during COVID-19.
Alongside IOM, more information on Occupational Hygiene can be found at the British Occupational Hygiene Society https://www.bohs.org/