Occupational hygiene is one of the lesser-known areas of occupational health, which is often mistakenly thought of as having a purely medical focus.
A robust occupational hygiene provision is often considered the prerequisite to an effective and cost-efficient occupational health programme. But what is it exactly and who needs it?
Put simply, occupational hygiene is the anticipation, recognition, evaluation, control and prevention of health risks in the workplace. Any business with operations that involve potential exposure of the workforce to physical, chemical, ergonomic or biological hazards would benefit from the support of an occupational hygiene provider.
An occupational hygiene provider helps clients manage and control risks to ensure the health of workers is protected and the likelihood of occupational illness is minimised.
It will work closely with employers to ensure workplace environments meet the statutory requirements and keep staff free from harm.
Good occupational hygiene can lead to improved worker health and increased life expectancy, a reduction in absenteeism as a result of illness or injury, and increased productivity.
So how can occupational hygiene providers help industry achieve these results? Effective communication is essential. A good provider will always seek to educate and increase awareness of health risks among the workforce, either through targeted training or while completing routine on-site surveys.
Perhaps the best starting point for a company wishing to gain a better understanding of health risks and compliance requirements within its operations are health risk assessments. These are an effective tool for providing an overview of the key health risks to a workforce and identifying areas where more in-depth investigations may be required.
There are a number of common health risks in the workplace.
As the North Sea enters its decommissioning phase, asbestos is becoming a more common challenge for offshore operators. Once a highly regarded construction material due to its flexibility and resistance to heat, this naturally occurring mineral substance is the number one cause of occupational cancer in the world.
Hazardous substances are another risk to consider thanks to the array of chemical substances used in workplaces. Exposure to hazardous substances usually occurs through inhalation, skin contact or ingestion and can have a wide range of health implications, from headaches or nausea to long-term problems such as asthma, nerve damage or cancer.
There are many health and environmental risks associated with air pollution, with the more serious ones including cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, cancer and birth defects, and increased death rates. Long-term health issues such as occupational asthma or pulmonary fibrosis are associated with contaminated air and can have a debilitating effect on a workforce.
Loud noise and excessive exposure to vibration can have serious implications for the health of a workforce, resulting in noise-induced hearing loss and neurological, vascular and musculoskeletal problems, such as nerve damage and hand-arm
vibration syndrome – all of which are preventable but have potential to cause irreversible damage.
Factors affecting water hygiene can also have health, safety and environmental implications. One major issue associated with water hygiene is Legionella bacteria, which can lead to a number of serious problems including Legionnaire’s disease, a potentially fatal pneumonia.
A good occupational hygiene provider can offer a comprehensive survey, management and support service for the exposure risks above and support employers with innovative, effective solutions. Understanding – and where possible removing or reducing – risks to health in business can go a long way to ensuring a happier, healthier and more productive workforce in addition to ensuring legislative compliance.
Karen Little-West is operations manager, SOHER at Iqarus