Health and safety in hazardous South African working environments could be significantly improved following the development of a sophisticated system that harnesses standard information and communications technology (ICT) to monitor and analyse a host of environmental and physiological risk factors being experienced by individual workers - all in realtime.
It can then instantly raise the alarm when pre-determined parameters are exceeded, or use the information to identify high-risk areas and practices and institute changes.
Called DOHEMS (digital occupational hygiene exposure monitoring system), its inventors - Inus Dreckmeyr, MD of South African electronic research and development house Netshield SA and Ricus Ellis - are in the process of patenting the cost-effective, reliable and easily maintainable system.
According to Dreckmeyr, occupational health, hygiene and safety are core drivers in the chemical, refinery, manufacturing, mining and other hazardous industries.
At present, many companies rely on regular sample measurements and inspections being carried out using relatively bulky, dedicated test equipment in order to identify the personal and environmental risks facing workers in hazardous industries every day.
Inevitably, only one 'risk factor' can be monitored during a working shift. However, the presence of a single risk factor might not be a concern, while the presence of a combination of factors could indicate extreme danger.
"In addition, current technology is unable to integrate and collate monitoring data into a single view or provide a visual recording of specific environmental conditions. Other shortcomings include an inability to pin-point excessive exposures in correlation with workplace conditions; limited personal alarm and warning system; and an inability to accurately measure the sum of accumulated exposures that contribute to fatigue.
"DOHEMS overcomes all these problems," he says.
It is a personal automated and integrated personal data acquisition and processing system that can measure various exposures simultaneously - including personal and environmental exposure measurements - and has a built-in personal alarm and warning system.
"For example, DOHEMS provides a method to relate the sum and duration of all exposures impacting on fatigue including dust, vapour, humidity, noise, vibration, gas levels and heat. It is a proven fact that fatigue can adversely impact a worker's performance resulting in anything from minor productivity loss to a fatal accident," he says.
The compact, light-weight, fire-resistant and rugged DOHEMS can simultaneously measure all these exposures as well as the individual's core body temperature and heart rate which give an immediate indication of the level of stress being experienced.
A miniature video camera provides a visual record of the environment allowing for the correlation of stress indication measurements with the physical environment.
DOHEMS can also provide an historical perspective of the stress factors to which each individual worker is exposed on a shift, weekly and monthly basis. Using algorithms, this information is then used to evaluate the risk profile of each worker and thus allow for preventative measures to be taken such as redeploying the individual to another job function or modifying his shift work; or even providing additional training in functions that are seen to cause unusual stress levels.
From a risk management perspective, it could provide for realtime data capturing with visual footage that will result in accelerated risk warning measures and controls. And it could provide data for post-incident analysis and also assist with more informed decisions for future design and planning.
"The intention of the invention is to provide consolidated and consistent monitoring of all the necessary physiological and environmental information that will support a healthier and safer working environment," Dreckmeyr concludes.