Industrial Hygiene for the Non-Hygienist

Industrial Hygiene for the Non-Hygienist

Keeping workers healthy with vigilance and common sense.

For many, the term “industrial hygienist” or “occupational hygienist” conjures the image of a highly trained technical wizard—part toxicologist, part engineer, part ergonomist, part chemist, with a photoionization detector in one hand and a noise dosimeter in the other. While it’s true that trained and certified experts play an absolutely vital role in controlling occupational hazards, the fact is that non-hygienists (in other words, everyone else) can get the process started even before we arrive on the scene.

If you work in an environment where potential dangers exist, regardless of your role and authority, it is your duty to be vigilant against the risks posed by chemical and physical hazards. The good news is, this isn’t always as difficult as you might think.

What is Industrial Hygiene?

Any expert could spend an hour regaling you with lectures about the science and art of industrial hygiene, and the almost countless specializations that exist within the field. There are hygienists whose practice is centered only on noise and vibration, and others who focus on mold, asbestos or ergonomics. Put simply, and to borrow from definitions recognized by both the NIOSH and OSHA, industrial hygiene is the practice of anticipating, recognizing, evaluating and controlling environmental factors that may prove hazardous in the workplace.

Some of these hazards are plain and obvious. Everyone knows that spinning blades can be unsafe, and that precautions must be taken when handling corrosive substances. Other dangers are hidden, and more insidious. You’ll often hear industrial hygienists talking about the “dose-response relationship.” Two acetaminophen tablets are fine for knocking out a headache, but acetaminophen toxicity has become the most common cause of acute liver failure in the United States—in other words, a low dose can be safe, but a high or prolonged dose can prompt a harmful response.

In a similar vein, a loud but tolerable noise, such as the buzzing of a small motor, may not seem as dangerous as a piece of industrial equipment that is roaring at more than 100 decibels. But prolonged exposure to the lower-level noise, over days or even years, can do just as much damage, or more, than something louder that is experienced for a short period of time. Because it can be tempting to be careless with ear protection around a quieter piece of machinery, the long-term threat it poses can be even more sinister.

Hygienists are constantly on the lookout for these hazards. We guide our clients on how to prevent issues before they ever happen, how to recognize them when they occur, and how to take steps to remove or control threats that may make the workplace less safe. As I often tell my clients, “I want everyone to retire healthy.” It isn’t enough only to retire with all ten fingers intact. You and your workers also deserve a retirement that is free of injuries from repetitive stressful motion, or respiratory problems caused by dust. And while it always pays to get final signoff from an expert, there are steps you can take to maintain a safe and hygienic environment even before a certified hygienist sets foot on the site.

It Starts with Common Sense

Begin by evaluating your work environment. Take a walk, and have a look around. Don’t immediately try to assess the scene from the perspective of a trained hygienist—start by using simple common sense. There may be risks you can identify immediately, things you can see, hear, feel and smell. There are questions you can ask employees, as well as yourself:

  • It’s noisier in this corner of the building than in that corner. Why?
  • I see people lifting the same heavy bags over and over. How heavy are those bags? Do they need to be that heavy?
  • That employee is opening a tank to retrieve a sample. Are vapors being released? Does the tank actually need to be opened, or can a sampling port be used?
  • I don’t need a sound meter to tell me that this noisy machine is giving me a headache. Who is working near it? Do they really need to be working near it?
  • What’s that smell? Do we know its cause, and is it normal?
  • Is that worker using the right tool for that job, and have they been trained on its use? Is that the safest and most ergonomic way to perform that task?

Once a checklist of potential issues has been identified and prioritized, you can begin discussing remediation. NIOSH uses what is called a “hierarchy of controls” to determine how to manage potential hazards. Again, it doesn’t take an expert hygienist to decipher what they mean:

Elimination. Can the hazard be physically removed, while still enabling the work to get done?

Substitution. Can the hazard be replaced with a safer option that is still effective?

Engineering Controls. Can physical safeguards be put in place to isolate workers from hazards?

  • Administrative Controls. Can procedures be put in place so that people work more safely around hazards?
  • Protective Personal Equipment. Can workers be supplied with protective gear that reduces their risk?

As companies make their remediation plans, there is sometimes a tug-of-war between what is feasible, what is affordable and what is effective. Elimination is typically the most effective practice in the hierarchy of controls, and as you move down the list, each method is less effective than the previous.

Costs must also be managed, with an eye toward long-term benefits; engineering controls, such as putting a new ventilation system in place, are usually more costly than administrative controls, but can reduce operational expense over time. New training and operating processes leave room for human error, and it takes only one forgotten step or moment of negligence to result in a workplace accident.

It helps to remember that not every perceived hazard is a disaster waiting to happen. From time to time, a client might say, “We should take an air sample.” A good response is, “Maybe, but let’s not go through that costly process unless we’re sure it’s necessary.” Some threats can be overhyped. For years, the media and many mold removal companies have publicized the notion that black mold is highly toxic and causes lung diseases; in truth, while some people may be more sensitive to it than others, scientific evidence does not support much of the health hazard information you may find in a quick internet search. Similarly, just because you’re seeing some dust coming from your air registers doesn’t necessarily mean that all your ductwork needs to be cleaned. It’s possible that the static charge from the air flow is simply causing a normal accumulation of particles to collect at the vents. Be wary, but also be aware.

The Next Step: Bring in Expert Help

I hope that this column has given my industry colleagues some insights into how non-hygienists can play their part in controlling potential workplace hazards. But as I said before, only some dangers are visible. Many are not. Some hazardous substances have warning properties; ammonia, for example, has a strong smell that provokes an instinctive reaction: “I should handle this with care.” But natural gas is odorless, which is why pungent-smelling mercaptan is added to gas distribution systems so that leaks can be detected. A splash of phenol on your bare arm can be painful, but even more frightening is that it is absorbed by the skin and can result in a fatal poisoning just as readily as if you swallowed it.

In one client visit case with a spraying booth inspection, it became clear that technicians touched up pieces of equipment with solvents and powder coatings. These processes often involve complex two-component products, where reagents are mixed to create a chemical reaction. The technicians were unaware that out of more than 30 products they were using on a daily basis, three were far more hazardous than the others, and required completely different protocols for their handling. At the end of the day, the manager was committed to the health and safety of his colleagues, but he might never have identified the potential danger on his own.

Just as WebMD is no substitute for a licensed medical professional, a non-hygienist will only scratch the surface—especially in a complex site, such as a laboratory, manufacturing facility, or industrial complex. Nevertheless, your watchful diligence, and that of your colleagues and staff, is a crucial first step.

This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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