All in a days work of an occupational hygienist

 Early Morning start! I set off early to get to the site – today was the start of the three-month asbestos roof sheeting removal project and there was a long distance to drive. The plan had been submitted 14 days before and all was good for Go’. Here in the Western Cape, the 14-day notification period to the Department of Labour (DoL) is strictly upheld. Don’t dare start a day earlier! As it should be …

I got to the said site and it appears that I was late! But it was only eight in the morning! How could I be late? The agreed time to do the pre-site inspection was 08h00. Over a 1 000 m2 of asbestos roof sheeting had already been removed. Maybe I was at the wrong site. I had not worked with this particular Registered Asbestos Contractor (RAC) before but I recognised his bakkie from our meetings and knew I was at the right place.

Then I saw the rest. The labourers were high up on the roof working like cowboys! Not a pleasant site for an Approved Inspection Authority for Asbestos (AAIA). The supervisor/owner came running over (I immediately nick-named him Clint Eastwood in my mind).

“Hi Clint, you must have got here real early this morning to have removed that asbestos roof sheeting,” I said. “Oh no,” said Clint “ we started a week ago.” “Really?” I said, dumb founded. “But we agreed to the plan that work starts today and that we would do a pre-site inspection to ensure that all is in order before we start. This is in accordance with the asbestos plan that you agreed to and signed. This plan was also submitted to the DoL.” “Oh no,” said Clint. “That is just a guideline”. “Eh really?” Now I am very concerned – what have I been doing for the past 30 years? “But Clint, it is a legal binding document that we have to stick to.” “No, not really Mam! It is just there to guide us.” “Really Clint, after 30 years in this field, I was unaware that the asbestos plan is only a guideline?” “Yes, Mam.” “Clint, call your labourers down from the roof!”.

Like trapeze artists, they swung down. I reckon they trained with the circus. This gave me a whole new perspective to a fall protection plan. “Let’s go through the information in your health and safety file,” I said. “Sure thing, Mam.” “Clint, these medicals don’t state that they are asbestos medicals.” “Mam, as long as a Doctor has checked them over, you’re good to go.” “Eh?” was all that I could splutter.

“Let’s look at your asbestos training certificates then. I see that the training was carried out by ‘All Inclusive Company’, who are they?” “They are a really good one-stop-shop,” said Clint. “Can you show me the contents for this training course?” I asked Clint. “Sure thing, Mam,” he responded, pulling out another document. “Clint, your training was provided by ‘All Inclusive Company,’ but your training course contents come from a company called ‘Let’s do this’. How does this fit?” “Oh, potatoes or potartoes, what’s the difference?,” responded Clint. “Eh?” was all I could manage again. Now Clint and the trapeze artists were staring at me as though I should be far more on top of this than what I seemed to be. I could even picture them saying “What does this chick know? She needs to up her game,” in their minds.

It turned into an eyeball stand-off between the trapeze artists and myself. They gawked at me in disbelief and I, in turn, looked at them in numb astonishment. I knew that the work could not continue under these circumstances with so many dangerous gaps. “Clint, the work cannot go on and, what’s more, what you have done so far has been illegal and in contravention of the asbestos plan and DoL requirements”, I said. “Illegal, what do you mean?” asked Clint, horrified. “Clint,” I said, “number one, you started the work earlier that the given date on the plan. Two, your medicals are not what are considered asbestos medicals. Three, the training provided to your workers does not comply. And four, the 16(1) is also the 16(2) appointment.”

Clint turned pale – I thought he was going to draw his gun!

Over the years, our company has learned that we are going to come across RACs who really think that they are doing a proper job. Perhaps they have been misled through incorrect training. Yes, we do have to stop the work at times. In the past, we would want to walk away and not be associated with them at all, due to wasting our time and difficulty in convincing an upset RAC that he was wrong. However, if we inform and uplift them with relevant and appropriate training, we can only improve the situation for the asbestos workers, the client and the community.

A reluctant Clint and the trapeze artists bundled into their bakkie and drove off into the west. A few days later they contacted us again as the AAIA. They had the correct medicals and the correct asbestos training in place. We set a new date for the start of the project and, this time, they started on the date stated in the approved plan of work. Clint and his trapeze artists’ approach to the safety, health and handling of asbestos-containing material had improved tremendously. We were now proud to be associated with them and have enjoyed working with them since then. Sometimes, as AIAs, we can change a situation with a little more patience and by providing better guidance. It is a good feeling, knowing that you might have prevented someone from getting a fatal occupational disease.

 

Cecilia Keet

Occupational Hygiene Monitoring Services (Pty) Ltd

Melkbosstrand, Cape Town

e-mail: celia@ohmservices.co.za

 

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