Thriving industries are vital for our economic and national health. The workers in those industries – and members of the local community – deserve to have their personal health and that of their families protected. Employers who expose workers and residents to hazards resulting in illness and injury will likely face state or federal fines and litigation. Certain industries and jobs pose inherent risks, but a sound industrial hygiene program identifies and mitigates those risks as much as possible.
An Art and a Science
The National Institutes of Health refers to industrial hygiene as an “art and a science dedicated to the anticipation, recognition, evaluation, communication and control of environmental stressors,” in the workplace. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a division of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), sets the standards for all workers except public employees and the self-employed. Approximately 6,000 employees die annually from workplace injuries, according to the DOL. Another 50,000 workers succumb from illnesses related to workplace hazard exposure. It falls to industrial hygienists, also known as occupational hygienists, to analyze such hazards, offer solutions and potentially save lives. These professionals have degrees and experience in environmental science and engineering.
Industrial hygiene stressors fall into several basic categories, and the job of the industrial hygienist is to address and/or minimize employee and resident exposure. These stressors involve various hazards, including:
- Biological – organisms that may enter the body and cause illness.
- Chemical - compounds that threaten worker health via exposure.
- Ergonomic – poorly designed equipment or worksites affect workers’ bodies and capabilities.
- Physical – noise, ionizing radiation, lighting and temperature extremes are just a few examples.
- Psychosocial – mental stress, violence or fatigue at the workplace.
An industrial hygienist visits the worksite to conduct an analysis and identify problem areas. The hygienist takes note of the materials involved, the way jobs are performed and whether all standards are met. Testing for chemical and biological contamination and noise levels is conducted. Once the assessment is complete, the hygienist recommends implementation of control methods for corrective action.
Certain control methods, such as providing workers with protective gear, are relatively obvious and easy to implement. The hygienist may recommend substituting a harmful chemical or other substance with a safer alternative. If this isn’t possible, control methods may require changing workers’ schedules to minimize exposure, or installing more effective ventilation systems. The hygienist also considers problems that may occur down the line, and provide guidelines on prevention. This risk assessment predicts the likelihood of dangers such as explosions, fires and other disasters.
The industrial hygienist identifies workplace issues and recommends controls, but the long-term responsibility for implementation and supervision of these changes falls to the employer.