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

Unfortunately, as the industrial hygienist's role falls under the EHS umbrella, we often overlook 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. As a result, mid- to very high-risk industries keep workers healthy and safe by employing industrial hygienists.

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 are potentially further classed as ergonomic or psychosocial. Most importantly, quantitative and qualitative risk assessments identify hazards.

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”

We typically refer everyday cleanliness as “hygiene”. However, IH extends way beyond a clean workplace.

For instance, 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). Furthermore, the Hierarchy of Controls includes mitigation methods.

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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. Meanwhile, US federal and state agencies began investigating industry health conditions.

The dangers of asbestos

Recently, industrial hygiene efforts brought the dangers of  asbestos and lead to light. Firstly, Iceland banned asbestos in 1983. In addition, Sweden, Germany, and the UK quickly followed.

On the other hand, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned most asbestos products in 1989. This was later overturned.

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. However, they 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 roll 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.

Moreover, the “EHS generalist” trend can be good or bad. On one hand, 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

Industrial hygienists' roles and challenges change. Similarly, besides organizational and social change, we must consider the governmental factors.

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%. In the same vein, 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 influence the EHS industry: job security and the value of EHS and IH professionals.

International challenges

To clarify, 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

Most importantly, 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. Moreover, occupational disease causes 2 million deaths per year. In conclusion, the industrial hygienists' work is far from over.


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