Occupational Hygiene

What is Occupational Hygiene?
The definition used by the International Occupational Hygiene Association is:
"Occupational Hygiene is the discipline of anticipating, recognising, evaluating and controlling health hazards in the working environment with the objective of protecting worker health and well-being and safeguarding the community at large."
Occupational Hygiene is also described as the practice of identifying chemical, physical and biological agents at the workplace that can cause illness or discomfort, of assessing the risks associated with exposure to these agents, and of risk management in order to avoid adverse health effects on the long and short run.
Occupational Hygiene uses science and engineering to prevent ill health caused by the work environment. It helps employers and employees to understand the risks and to improve working conditions and practices. Due to changes in technology and society, new health risks constantly emerge. Therefore, occupational hygiene is an exciting field and profession with varied activities.
Occupational Hygiene is one of the areas being included in the Act on well-being of workers in the performance of their work (04/08/1996) and the Royal Decree on the policy of well-being of workers at work (27/03/1998). The Internal and External servicesfor prevention and protection at work must have experts who possess different skills including occupational hygiene. Occupational hygienists collaborate multidisciplinary with other prevention workers.

What is the difference between industrial hygiene and occupational hygiene?
There is no real difference. The term Industrial Hygiene is used in the United States, while in other parts of the world "Occupational Hygiene" is being used. In some respects the term Occupational Hygiene is a better description, because it involves health risks that occur in all places where people work, such as offices, shops, hospitals and farms, and not just in places that you would define as "industrial".

Why Hygiene?
The word hygiene is derived from the name of the Greek goddess of health Hygieia. She was the daughter of Asklepius and the sister of Panacea. While her father and sister were associated with the treatment of diseases, Hygieia is associated with taking care of good health and disease prevention.

Why is Occupational Hygiene important?
Every year there are thousands of new occupational diseases in Belgium that cause large costs for health insurance, in addition to human suffering.
Good occupational hygiene working conditions result in:

  • Improved health and increased life expectancy of workers
  • Reducing the number of people who leave the labor market early due to illness
  • Reduced social costs of health care
  • Maximisation of the potential of the employees

What is an occupational hygienist?

Occupational hygienists are professionals who are involved in the health protection of people at the workplace, by applying the principles of industrial hygiene.
Occupational hygienists work in different industrial branches. They also work in public services, hospitals, public facilities and academic institutions. Mostly they are linked to an Internal or External Service for the Prevention and Protection at Work or to specialised labs or research centers.


What does an occupational hygienist do?

Occupational hygienists are keeping employers and workplaces healthy through research and consultancy services. They also advise on compliance with the workplace legislation and rules.
Occupational hygienists evaluate health risks at the workplace, take air samples to evaluate if harmful concentrations are present, measure sound levels and exposure to other physical agents, check for microbiological contamination, and give practical advice on how workers can be protected against health risks at work.


Where do occupational hygienists come from?

The practitioners have diverse backgrounds. They can be chemists, engineers, biologists, physicists, physicians or other professionals who all have chosen to apply their skills for protecting workers' health. Occupational Hygiene is multidisciplinary, so its practitioners must have a broad and solid basic knowledge. Practitioners all have in common a specialised knowledge that can only be described as "occupational hygiene" and a strategic approach towards the management of health risks at work.


How to become an occupational hygienist?

Education, continued training and experience are important aspects in the career of an occupational hygienist.
Education is obtained by means of an industrial hygiene training and by attending specialised courses. Experience can be achieved by working in the field, together with colleagues.
Additional information is available on the Occupational Hygiene Training Association website OHlearning.com.