What is Occupational Hygiene

The Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists state that occupational hygiene “is generally defined as the art and science dedicated to the Anticipation, Recognition, Evaluation, Communication and Control of environmental stressors in, or arising from, the work place that may result in injury, illness, impairment, or affect the well being of workers and members of the community. These stressors are normally divided into the categories Biological, Chemical, Physical, Ergonomic and Psychosocial”.

So what does this really mean? Simply, occupational hygiene uses science and engineering to prevent ill health or death caused by the environment in which people work.

There has always been hazards to our health involved in working but with the development of the industrial age came an increase of work place injuries and illnesses that were caused by poor conditions and hazardous materials being used unchecked in the work environment.  Consider once how chimney sweepers would die from cancer caused by components in the soot or coal miners would contract pneumoconiosis. How painters have suffered ill effects by the use of lead based paint and workers in heavy construction industries have noise induced hearing loss and tinnitus. All of these examples have been eliminated or reduced due to occupational hygiene.

A hazard (noun) according to the Oxford dictionary is (a) a danger or risk and (b) a potential source of danger. At the time a lack of industry regulation, safety practice and knowledge lead to illness, disabilities and even death of workers. While history has provided opportunities for learning and positive changes and regulations have occurred, today’s health risks in the workplace are more diverse than ever before.

Occupational hygiene is pivotal in creating a safer work environment; by assessing, creating and enforcing legislation for the safety and benefit of workers and workplaces. It helps employers and employees understand the health risks involved and aims to continually improve working conditions and practices; keeping up to date with technology and on top of new risks found. 

Today the health risks that can occur within the work place are more diverse than ever before. In addition to chemical, biological and physical hazards we now recognise ergonomic hazards and further more we are required to consider the fundamental changes occurring within our workplaces such as time arrangements and the effect of demographic shifts.

There are four primary categories of hazards occupational hygiene  found within a work environment; physical, ergonomic, chemical and biological.

A physical hazard is an element within the environment that can harm the body without necessarily touching it. Physical hazards include but aren’t limited to temperature (cold and heat), noise, vibration, electricity and so forth. These are the most frequent and familiar hazards that occur in the workplace.

Ergonomic hazards occur when the body is harmed due to a physical cause within the environment, usually indicated as strain.  Examples of an ergonomic hazard include repetitive movements, frequent lifting, poor lighting, incorrectly positioned chairs or equipment, temperature of the environment amongst others. Ergonomics are often the most difficult to identify as the effects on your health aren’t seen immediately rather over a period of time.

Chemical hazards exist in the work environment when anyone has direct contact or is exposed to a substance or material that is classified as a chemical during preparation or use. Examples of a chemical hazard include gases, cleaning products, asbestos, lead, vapours and fumes and other flammable materials. These can result in health hazards such as respiratory problems and irritation to the skin or senses.

Biological hazards are present when working with people, animals and toxic plants, or their remains and waste. It includes material such as viruses, toxins, spores, bacteria, animal droppings, blood and other bodily fluids plus wastewater and sewerage etc.  Biological hazards are widespread and affect numerous work environments; laboratory researchers, office workers, animal trainers, health care workers and the exposure risk isn’t always apparent.

Safe Work Australia report that “Australian workers’ compensation statistics indicate that around 1300 workers are compensated each year for diseases attributed to animal, human or biological factors.” This sobering fact alone shows the importance of occupational hygiene in our work environments. It’s worthwhile to note that benefits range from improved employee health and increased life expectancy through to greater work efficiency, creating technological improvements and increased productivity.

Occupational hygiene; it’s good for business, great for people.