Occupational Health is a sub-specialisation of the medical sciences dedicated to the interaction between the employee and the working environment and any consequences of such interaction, which include exposure to substances, processes and circumstances that may affect the employee’s health and safety.
If not identified and managed appropriately, such exposures lead to occupational disease and will directly affect not only the health of the employee, but the socio-economic circumstances and future of his or her dependents and immediate community. It further impacts on the productivity, labour relations and efficiency of any business. You would never default on your new car’s service schedule, rendering the warranty null and void. All engineering and transport companies have maintenance schedules for machinery and equipment. Having said that, does it not make sense for a ‘maintenance schedule’ for the companies’ most valuable assets, its employees? Companies without an Occupational Health Programme and not complying with the necessary legislation, are not only at risk, but are losing money.
Occupational health is dedicated to reducing the probability of adverse events that could result in injuries, illnesses or material losses.
“Better health is central to human happiness and well-being. It also makes an important contribution to economic progress, as healthy populations live longer, are more productive, and save more. Many factors influence health status and a country’s ability to provide quality health services for its people, says the World Health Organisation
Key to the success of an Occupational Health Programme is a good understanding of the hazards in the working environment, the effect on the human physiology, the work processes and the inherent physical and psychological requirements of a particular job.
It is important to understand the following concepts:
RISK = CONSEQUENCE X PROBABILITY
RISK = CONSEQUENCE X LIKELIHOOD X EXPOSURE
A hazard is a potential source of danger, or to put it in another way, has the potential to cause injury and/or harm. In order to reduce the possible adverse effects (injuries and occupational diseases) on employees, the control of such hazards are regulated and legislated across the world, particularly in the ILO (International Labour Organisation) member countries. The ILO, with South Africa being one of the 187 member states, is the only tripartite U.N. agency bringing together governments, employers and workers, to set labour standards, develop policies and devise programmes promoting decent work for all women and men.
Hazards are categorised as being:
- Chemical (liquids, fumes, gases, vapours)
- Biological (viruses, bacteria, fungi, animals, insects, reptiles)
- Physical (noise, temperature, dust, radiation with both ionising radiation like x-rays, γ-rays, α&β emitters, as well as non-ionising radiation like bright light, UV and infrared, electromagnetic fields (EMF) and lasers)
- Ergonomic (repetitive movements, vibration, illumination, abnormal posture, material and equipment handling like lifting, pulling, pushing, carrying)
- Psychosocial (shift patterns, organisational stress, working in isolated or dangerous areas)
These hazards are regulated in South Africa by means of various regulations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, with responsibilities on both the employer and the employee. These include, but are not limited to, the Hazardous Chemical Regulations, Hazardous Biological Agents, Noise Regulations, Construction Regulations, Environmental Regulations, Lead Regulations ad Asbestos Regulations, to name a few.
In December 2019, the Ergonomic Regulations was published, which places a duty on virtually all industries, but are specifically relevant to the motor trade and more specifically the repair and maintenance aspects of the trade. Ergonomics include processes like lifting, pushing, pulling, extremes of reach, repetitive work, carrying, sitting, standing, movements requiring force, squatting, bending, awkward positions (abnormal posture), grip strength, abnormal posture.
In some instances the Chemical Regulations might also apply to certain trades like body repair shops, with the use organic solvents like electrical cleaners (benzene, xylene, toluene, styrene) as well as with spray painting.
The South African Department of Employment and Labour issued new ergonomics regulations as part of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (85 of 1993).
These regulations also apply to self-employed persons.
A very high level summary of the regulations with some of the key points are:
- (a) any employer who carries out work at a workplace, which may expose any person to ergonomic risks in that workplace; and
- (b) a designer, manufacturer, importer or supplier of machinery, plant or work systems for use at a workplace.
Information, instruction and training
- An employer must establish for all employees potentially exposed to ergonomic risks, a training programme.
Ergonomic risk assessment
- An employer must have an ergonomic risk assessment performed by a competent person.
- An employer must ensure that the exposure of a person to ergonomic risks is prevented or, where this is not reasonably practicable, adequately controlled.
- An employer must ensure that an employee is placed under medical surveillance – based on the ergonomic risk assessment.
- Keep records for 40 years, including all medical records of the medical surveillance and certification of fitness to work.
These examinations must be performed by a registered Occupational Health Nursing Practitioner (OHNP), or Occupational Medical Practitioner (OMP) as per regulation. Examinations performed by General Practitioners (Family Practitioner) will not be accepted.
It is very important, not only to comply with current legislation, but at the same time to address any possible future risk.