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An incident arising at a client facility in Singapore in early 2016 provided a tangible demonstration of the value of industrial hygiene and occupational health (IH and OH) practices in preventing disease and potential fatalities, while also ensuring that client relationship and business continuity were not adversely impacted.

A team of SGS employees working in a laboratory at a client facility were routinely tested and were found to have elevated levels of arsenic in their urine. The country manager and the managing director realized immediately that unless the situation were properly addressed, there could be serious implications for the employees affected, as well as for the client if the local authority were to order the facility to be temporarily shut down. On receiving the results of the routine testing, the client was understandably concerned and wanted to know that the procedures being followed in the laboratory were compliant with industry standards.

The SGS regional IH and OH manager conducted a full investigation to identify the root causes of arsenic exposure. A second test on employees confirmed the results of the initial screening. In addition, we undertook extensive workplace and personal exposure monitoring, involving a comprehensive assessment of existing controls, practices and general health and safety behaviors onsite. Sampling of food and water consumed by SGS employees was also conducted. Samples were analyzed for the presence of metals including arsenic. A retest of those employees found to have the highest levels of arsenic in their systems was conducted, with the samples sent to a certified laboratory to identify the type of arsenic and provide information on possible sources of exposure. Employees were also interviewed to ascertain sources of commonality in behaviors, activities and practices.

Throughout the investigation, the client was kept fully briefed on the procedures that were being followed and the outcomes of each part of the investigation. Our investigation concluded that the elevated and exceeded levels of arsenic in employees were not the result of workplace exposure in the laboratory or other onsite activities and were likely to have resulted from the consumption of locally acquired fish and squid products and the smoking of tobacco. A summary report prepared for the client concluded that the laboratory was being managed to standards recommended by the industry, and that the exposure to arsenic was not attributable to workplace activity, practices or behavior. Despite this outcome, some recommendations were made for improvements, and SGS has continued to engage with the client on improving the testing and monitoring of all onsite personnel.

This incident provides a good example of how collaboration between IH and OH and the business was able to help to alleviate a potentially difficult situation, while reinforcing our professional standing with the client through our handling of the incident. Maintaining high levels of communication, information sharing and collaboration between the client, the country manager and the regional expert on IH and OH ensured that the relationship with the client was not only preserved but enhanced, and that the facility could remain operational throughout the investigation.