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What is occupational hygiene?

Rarely a day goes past without a reference in the newspapers, on the television or on the internet to illnesses or disabilities caused at work. In some cases, the effects may be reversible. In many others, detrimental effects to health cannot be overcome and can even shorten life expectancy.

Occupational hygiene uses science and engineering to prevent ill health caused by the environment in which people work.  It helps employers and employees to understand the risks and improve working conditions and working practices

Workplace risks

Work has always involved hazards to health. 

  • Plumbers have been poisoned by the lead they used for pipes and joints.
  • Boys sweeping chimneys died from cancer caused by components in the soot.
  • Cutlery grinders died young from lung diseases caused by the silica in grinding wheels.

With good occupational hygiene practice, some historical risks have been eliminated and others brought under control. Yet standards are still poor in many parts of the world. Moreover, changes in technology and society constantly create new risks for us to understand and tackle, preferably before illness or disability result. 

Today's challenges and health risks

These days the range of health risks in the workplace is more varied than ever. Not only do we recognise chemical hazards but also the health hazards from noise, heat or cold, ergonomic stresses, ionising radiation, microwaves, infectious diseases and psychological stress. Occupational hygienists have to protect workers from hazards posed by advanced technologies such as semiconductor manufacture and highly potent pharmaceuticals. We have to anticipate the risks from nano, gene and other emerging technologies.  We have to consider the impact of changing demographics and patterns of employment. Occupational hygiene is a constantly challenging field and profession.

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Hygienist at Work

An occupational hygienist measures the exposure of a chemical worker.

Profiles of occupational hygienists

Occupational hygiene is the science of preventing ill health from work activities.  It's practitioners come from varied backgrounds.  They can be chemists, engineers, biologists, physicists, doctors, nurses and other professionals all of whom have chosen to apply their skills to protecting the health of workers.  Occupational hygiene is multidisciplinary so its practitioners must acquire a broad and solid foundation of knowledge across all these disciplines and more.  Common to all practitioners is a core of knowledge that can only be described as"occupational hygiene" and a strategic approach to managing heath hazards at work.

To learn more about occupational hygiene, watch this short animated video and study the Principles course.

Learn about roles and careers in occupational hygiene