Since its inception in the 1940s, Industrial Hygiene has become mandatory. All North American - and the majority of Western - employers must implement an Industrial Hygiene and Safety, Occupational Health, or Hazard Communication program. However, as the Industrial Hygienist's role falls under the EHS umbrella, their unique responsibilities are overlooked. So, what makes an Industrial Hygienist an Industrial Hygienist?
What is Industrial Hygiene?
Industrial Hygienists are practitioners specialising in engineering, chemistry, physics, or a related biological or physical science. They are employed by mid- to very high-risk industries to keep workers – and the community – healthy and safe. (Side note: Industrial Hygiene is interchangeable with Occupational Hygiene. In the States, it is the former. In Europe and the UK, it is the latter.)
According to OSHA, Industrial Hygiene (IH) is the “anticipation, recognition, evaluation, communication, and control” of workplace hazards affecting workers and 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 the American Board of Industrial Hygiene (ABIH) explaining the Industrial Hygienist role.
Hazard categories and examples
Hazards are grouped into biological, chemical, or physical. They may be classed as ergonomic or psychosocial. Hazards are identified by quantitative or qualitative risk assessment.
Here are some examples:
|Physical Hazards||Noise, Light, Temperature, Radiation, etc.|
|Biological Hazards||Mould, Viruses, Blood Bourne Pathogens, Animal Allergens, etc.|
|Chemical Hazards||Acids, Bases, Organic Vapours, etc.|
Not your typical “hygiene”
“Hygiene” typically refers to everyday cleanliness. However, IH extends way beyond a clean workplace.
Hazards an IH comes across includes:
- Hazardous substances
- Indoor air quality
- Infectious disease exposure
They 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.
Why is Industrial Hygiene important?
Industrial Hygiene is essential for understanding and mitigating commercial activities' risks.
In the early 20th century by 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 helped us understand the dangers of asbestos and lead. Asbestos was first banned in Iceland 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. It was overturned in 1991, but is still severely restricted.
Emerging technologies pose new hazards
“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. In addition, 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?
They are strongly connected, but are two different sets of practices.
Industrial Hygiene uses scientific methodology to identify hazards and evaluate risk or exposure. More than 40% of OSHA compliance officers are Industrial Hygienists inspecting workplaces and developing OSHA standards.
Occupational Safety is the policies countering these hazards. Often managed by a Certified Safety Professional (CSP); or a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH), who has met the minimum requirements for education and experience in Industrial Hygiene.
Becoming “EHS Generalists”
Market needs are changing, such as the widespread merge of Marketing and Sales, meaning different occupations are rolling into one practice. American Industrial Hygiene Association statistics found that almost 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. Others argue that the shift is letting 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.
At the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) conference in 2016, Dr. Karen J. Niven of Shell discussed four key challenge:
- Getting back on the policy agenda
- Risk perception and communication
- Evolution of Occupational Hygiene from process to products, output to outcome
- Skills gaps
More information can be found on The Future For Occupational Hygiene: International & UK Perspective.
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.
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