Industrial Hygiene - The What, The Why and The Future

Since its inception in the 1940s, industrial hygiene has become mandatory. All North American and the majority of Western employers implement an industrial hygiene - or occupational health, if you're in Europe - program.

Unfortunately, as the industrial hygienist's role falls under the EHS umbrella, we often overlook their their unique responsibilities. So, what makes an industrial hygienist an industrial hygienist?

What is Industrial Hygiene?

Industrial hygienists specialize in engineering, chemistry, physics, or related science. Mid- to very high-risk industries employ industrial hygienists to keep workers healthy and safe.

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According to OSHA, industrial hygiene (IH) is:

“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


Hazard categories and examples

Hazards group into biological, chemical, or physical, and potentially further classed as ergonomic or psychosocial. Quantitative and qualitative risk assessments identify hazards, for example:

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

Not your typical “hygiene”

“Hygiene” typically refers to everyday cleanliness. However, IH extends way beyond a clean workplace.

IH hazards include:

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

Industrial hygienists assess the hazard's nature, risk potential, and the appropriate methods of control:  elimination, substitution, engineering, administration or personal protective equipment (PPE). Mitigation methods are called the Hierarchy of Controls.

Hierarchy of ControlsWhy is Industrial Hygiene important?

Above all, industrial Hygiene is essential for understanding and mitigating commercial activities' risks.

In the early 20th century, Dr. Alice Hamilton evidenced the correlation between worker illness and toxin exposure. Around this time, US federal and state agencies began investigating industry health conditions.

Investigations into the dangers of asbestos

More recently, industrial hygiene efforts brought the dangers of  asbestos and lead to light. Firstly, Iceland banned asbestos in 1983. Sweden, Germany, and the UK quickly followed. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned most asbestos products in 1989, and was later overturned - with severe restrictions.

Emerging technologies pose new hazards

Asbestos challenges remain, especially in countries with less restriction. Certainly, industrial hygienists tackle an ever-changing landscape.

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 must be examined to determine risk control.  Additionally, industrial hygienists must consider workplace risks caused by social change: higher workloads, outsourcing, temporary contracts, and demographics.

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

These two different sets of practices are strongly connected, but have their differences.

Industrial Hygiene identifies hazards and evaluates risk with scientific methodology.  Furthermore, more than 40% of OSHA compliance officers are industrial hygienists inspecting workplaces and developing OSHA standards.

Occupational Safety counters these hazards with Certified Safety Professionals (CSP) or a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH).

Becoming “EHS Generalists”

Nowadays, various health and safety roles are rolling into one. To clarify, American Industrial Hygiene Association statistics found 60% of respondents perceive EHS generalists with the best employment opportunities. 46% of respondents spend the majority of time on responsibilities outside their job spec.

The “EHS generalist” trend can be good or bad. Many IHs believe their title is outdated, as they handle a range of EHS tasks. On the other hand, this shift may let core IH responsibilities fall through the cracks.

The future of Industrial Hygiene

The Industrial Hygienist role is changing, alongside their challenges. Besides organizational and social change, there are governmental factors to contend with.

Cuts to budgets in the US

Under the Trump administration, key US departments overseeing Environmental, Health and Safety standards will see budget cuts in the region of 20-30%. The Department of Labor will have its budget cut from $12.1BN to $9.7BN. EPA’s budget will be cut by 31.4%. These cuts will influence the EHS industry: job security and the value of EHS and IH professionals.

International challenges

At the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) conference in 2016, Dr. Karen J. Niven of Shell discussed four key challenge:

  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

The former president of the AIHA points out that if Industrial Hygienists pass up on leadership roles, “more people will get sick or killed at work.” Internationally, two thirds of workers are still employed in unhealthy and unsafe working conditions. There are 2 million deaths per year from occupational disease, therefore the job of the Industrial Hygienist is far from complete.

Keep reading: What is the Heinrich Pyramid in Safety Management?

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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.