SA occupational health functions reviewed in 2012
The Construction Regulations amendment, due for either a second round of public comment, or promulgation in 2012, may initiate stricter requirements for appointment of occupational health, hygiene and occupational medical practitioners, as well as stricter definitions of their roles and responsibilities.
These occupational health, hygiene and medical appointment and procedures are expected to be backed up by the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act review next year.
The Mine Health and Safety Act is also under review in 2012. Some of its OHS requirements are expected to be adjusted in line with OHS Act provisions, despite the two Acts involving different ministries and inspectorates.
Among the MHS Act review provisions, negotiated with OH professional bodies, is a proposed definition change, that ‘Occupational health Practitioner’ would mean ‘Occupational Medical Practitioner’.
OH risk management process
Mining employers may have to appoint a part time or full time qualified occupational hygienist to measure, analyse, interpret and report health exposures to a mining employer. A broad outline of the occupational health management process involves these functions:
• Site and job risk assessments by OHS risk specialists and engineers, including identification and ranking of health and hygiene exposures.
• Occupational hygiene surveys to measure current or likely exposures, levels and times. The status and tasks of hygienists could be resolved in 2012.
• Drafting of job specifications, to be agreed by OH practitioner, employer, and workers.
• Pre-employment medical examinations, including assessment of job history, previous exposures, and health, as well as issuing of occupational medical certificate of fitness, by an occupational medical practitioner. Occupational disease has to be reported to either the Department of Labour or the Department of Mineral Resources within three days of diagnosis.
• Medical surveillance on a regular basis, with frequencies depending on jobs, conditions, and medical conditions.
• Occupational disease has to be reported to either the Department of Labour or the Department of Mineral Resources. A relevant regulator or insurer may also have to be informed.
• Job exit medical examination, and record-keeping for a set number of years.
SA mining health and medical provisions
The SA Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) is reviewing the Mine Health and Safety (MHS) Act in 2012. Consultation and public comment would follow by mid year. Sections relevant to occupational health, hygiene and medicine are listed and discussed below.
SA MHS Act section 12 (1) “The employer must engage a person qualified in occupational hygiene techniques to measure levels of exposure to hazards.”
This section may change to enforce appointment of a registered professional, with specific skills and qualifications, and may require specific functions like OH measurements, analysis, interpretation and reporting.
Since no OH resources are currently explicitly required, the review may provide for resources to perform OH functions, that typically require specialised and expensive instruments and facilities, like laboratory calibrated instruments for measuring dust, gases, fumes, noise and other exposures, and equipment to measure lung functions, hearing loss, eyesight, and other physical fitness elements.
SA MHS Act Section 13 (3) “Every employer who establishes or maintains a system of medical surveillance must (a) engage a part-time or full-time basis the services of (i) an Occupational Medical Practitioner.”
This provision seems to require only one OH professional, while an occupational health practitioner and/or occupational hygienist and/or occupational nurse may be required. The 2012 review may resolve this ambiguity.
Years of uncertainty over which appointee must issue medical certificates of fitness may be resolved in the 2012 review, by a provision that occupational medical practitioners must conduct medical examinations, and issue medical certificates of fitness for work, while employers are prohibited from engaging workers in jobs that carry health risks in the absence of such a certificate.
SA MHS Act Section 20 (4) provides for OM reporting to the mining medical inspector, one of the specialist inspectors in the DMR, and provides for appeal by workers who fail medical exams against a job specification.
The section may be reviewed to clarify rights of workers to certain information, reporting processes, and appeal processes.
The basis of OHS Act and MHS Act occupational health management requirements, is in site and job risk assessments, against reasonable acceptability, requiring reasonable prevention measures like physical planning, design, access control, plant engineering, as well as regular awareness, training, supervision and leadership programmes.
Occupational diseases like silicosis and noise induced hearing loss, are hard to manage since most workers, in line with general workplace culture, view themselves as competent and resilient, while ignoring warnings that OH impacts are gradual and slow, yet most are irreversible.
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