Industrial Hygiene: The What, The Why and The Future

Industrial Hygiene (IH) has been recognized as a profession since the 1940s. Since then, it has become mandatory that almost every employer in North America and most of the Western world is required to implement an Industrial Hygiene and Safety, Occupational Health, or Hazard Communication program. However, as the role is often cast under the Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) umbrella, what an IH practitioner does can be overlooked. So, what makes an Industrial Hygienist an Industrial Hygienist?

What is Industrial Hygiene?

Industrial Hygienists are practitioners that specialize in engineering, chemistry, physics, or a related biological or physical science. They are employed by organizations usually in mid- to very high-risk industries with the goal of keeping workers – and the community – healthy and safe.

Industrial Hygiene as a term is interchangeable with Occupational Hygiene. In the States, it is commonly known as the former. In Europe, the UK and many Commonwealth countries, it is known as the latter.

As described by OSHA, Industrial Hygiene (IH) is the “anticipation, recognition, evaluation, communication, and control” of hazards in the workplace that may affect not only workers, but also civilians:

“That science and art devoted to the anticipation, recognition, evaluation, and control of those environmental factors or stresses arising in or from the workplace, which may cause sickness, impaired health and well-being, or significant discomfort among workers or among the citizens of the community.” – OSHA

Here is a short but helpful video from the American Board of Industrial Hygiene (ABIH) explaining what an Industrial Hygienist does.

Hazard categories and examples

The most common categories that hazards are grouped into by Industrial Hygiene practitioners are biological, chemical, and physical, but they also might be classed as ergonomic or psychosocial. Hazards are identified whilst performing a quantitative or qualitative risk assessment.

Here are some examples of hazard types by category, from the University of British Colombia.

Physical HazardsNoise, Light, Temperature, Radiation, etc.
Biological HazardsMould, Viruses, Blood Bourne Pathogens, Animal Allergens, etc.
Chemical HazardsAcids, Bases, Organic Vapours, etc.

Not bound by the typical meaning of “hygiene”

We understand the word “hygiene” to typically refer to cleanliness, whether that be food hygiene or personal hygiene or other. However, the work of an Industrial Hygienist extends far beyond concerns of cleanliness in the workplace. The scope of hazards that an IH is involved in the control and assessment of may include;

  • Noise
  • Ergonomics
  • Hazardous substances
  • Indoor air quality
  • Radiation
  • Infectious disease exposure

Industrial Hygienists assess the nature of the hazard, potential for risk, and the appropriate methods of control which may include elimination, substitution, engineering, administration or personal protective equipment (PPE). These methods of mitigation are known together as the Hierarchy of Controls.

Hierarchy of ControlsWhy is Industrial Hygiene important?

Practicing Industrial Hygiene is essential for understanding and therefore mitigating the risks to health and wellbeing posed by commercial activities. There has been awareness of it since antiquity.

Evidence that there was a correlation between worker illness and their exposure to toxins was first presented in the early 20th century by Dr. Alice Hamilton in the US. About this same time, US federal and state agencies began investigating health conditions in the industry.

Investigations into the dangers of asbestos

More recently, Industrial Hygiene efforts helped us understand the dangers of working with substances that are now well-known to be harmful such as asbestos and lead. Asbestos was first banned in Iceland due to health concerns in 1983, soon followed by Sweden, Germany, the UK and others. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States banned most asbestos products in 1989, and although this was overturned in 1991, use of the material is severely restricted.

Emerging technologies pose new hazards

Asbestos challenges remain – especially in many Asian countries such as India and China where there is far less restriction on the use of hazardous materials – but Industrial Hygienists are simultaneously tackling an ever-changing landscape of health risks.

Occupational hygiene is a constantly changing and challenging profession, and is an integral and important aspect of modern progressive business practice.” – Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists

For example, as pharmaceuticals advance, new substances are experienced and must be examined to determine best practices for risk control; so must emerging technologies such as nanotechnology and biotechnology. In addition to risks encountered due to innovation, Industrial Hygienists must also consider the workplace risks caused by social change: higher workloads, outsourcing, temporary contracts, and demographics.

What’s the difference between Industrial Hygiene and Occupational Safety?

The two terms are often used together, and their functions are strongly connected, but they are two different sets of practices.

Industrial Hygiene is seen to use scientific methodology to identify hazards and evaluate the level of risk or exposure. More than 40% of OSHA compliance officers are Industrial Hygienists, who inspect workplaces and help to develop OSHA standards.

Occupational Safety is the policies that are then put in place to counter the hazards identified by Industrial Hygienists. This is often managed by a Certified Safety Professional (CSP); however, this person may also be a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH), who is an individual that has met the minimum requirements for education and experience in Industrial Hygiene.

Becoming “EHS Generalists”

Many interdependent occupations are being slowly rolled into one practice as market needs are changing, such as the widespread merge of Marketing and Sales. The same can be argued of Industrial Hygiene and other areas of EHS. EHS Today has reported on the evolving role of the profession, quoting statistics from the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) that almost 60% of respondents perceive the best employment opportunities to be as EHS generalists, with 46% spending close to a majority of their time on responsibilities other than industrial hygiene.

This trend towards “EHS generalists” is seen as a good thing and a bad thing, depending on who you talk to. Many IHs believe their label is becoming outdated, and prefer to position themselves as generalists to help management understand they can handle a range of EHS tasks. Others argue that this shift is eroding the core responsibilities of an Industrial Hygienist which may then fall through the cracks.

The future of Industrial Hygiene

The role of Industrial Hygienists is changing, as are the challenges that they encounter. Notwithstanding organizational and social change, there are also governmental factors to contend with that impact the profession.

Cuts to budgets in the US

Under the Trump administration, key US departments that oversee Environmental, Health and Safety standards are in line to see budget cuts in the region of 20-30% in coming years. The Department of Labor, which OSHA is a part of, will have its budget cut from $12.1BN to $9.7BN (19.8% decrease), whilst the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget will be cut by 31.4% to $5.7BN. It is difficult to argue that these cuts will not influence the state of workplace EHS and indeed the job security and perceived value of EHS and IH professionals. 2018 may be a pivotal year for regulatory, compliance and health protection.

International challenges

Outside of the US, at the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) conference in 2016, Dr. Karen J. Niven of Shell discussed the four key challenges for Occupational/Industrial Hygiene:

  1. Getting back on the policy agenda
  2. Risk perception and communication
  3. Evolution of Occupational Hygiene from process to products, output to outcome
  4. Skills gaps

More information on these challenges can be found in Niven’s presentation, The Future For Occupational Hygiene: International & UK Perspective.

As former president of the AIHA Steven Lacey, Ph.D., CIH, CSP points out, if Industrial Hygienists were to pass up leadership roles, the bottom line is that “more people will get sick or killed at work.” Internationally, two thirds of the world’s 3 billion workers are still employed in unhealth and unsafe working conditions, with 2 million deaths per year from occupational disease. The job of the Industrial Hygienist is far from complete.

Decision-Making with Power BI 

EHS professionals need to be equipped with reliable information that supports decision-making and that doesn’t only materialize after hours of data crunching and patience stretched. With Power BI, practitioners have never been so empowered.  Learn about the leading intelligence tool and how you could be utilizing it in our guide.

Read whitepaper »

Hannah Stewart manages the Digital Marketing team at Pro-Sapien, and has been with the company since graduating with a BA Hons in Communications in 2015. Hannah has a keen interest in technology advancements and enjoys engaging EHS professionals in conversations about how the profession will be affected by such changes. At Pro-Sapien, Hannah manages all things marketing and works closely with the Sales team on business development.