Industrial Hygiene: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow

Industrial Hygiene: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow

A lot has changed in industrial hygiene, but one thing is constant: the need for worker health and safety.

Every workplace has hazards that affect all employees and potentially put their lives at risk. When employees are exposed to these hazards without the right protection, it can lead to injury, illness or death. So how do employers identify these hazards and mitigate the potential for injury? That’s where an industrial hygienist can help.

In a detailed explanation, OSHA states “industrial hygienists use environmental monitoring and analytical methods to detect the extent of worker exposure and employ engineering, work practice controls, and other methods to control potential health hazards.” The role of an industrial hygienist is to identify hazards and provide suggestions to mitigate the risks. They play an essential role in helping employers reduce the number of injuries and illnesses on the worksite.

This coverage for our 90th anniversary will focus on the history of industrial hygiene, including where it is now and where some see it going.

The Past

The history of industrial hygiene dates back to the fourth century BC when Hippocrates, a Greek physician, was one of the earliest people to mention worksite hazards. He cited “lead toxicity in the mining industry.”

As centuries continued, others would identify and discuss various hazards in mining settings. In the second century AD, acid mists in copper mines were identified as a hazard by Galen, another Greek physician. In 1556, Agricola published a book, “De Re Metallica,” on miner occupational diseases. His book outlined suggestions to keep workers safe, such ventilation and protection. In 1743, Ulrich Ellenborg published a document on gold miners. The pamphlet addressed occupational diseases for these miners, including the potential toxicity of certain materials, including lead.

In 1700, Bernardo Ramazzini published “De Morbis Artificum Diatriba” (The Diseases of Workmen) that addressed multiple occupations, not just one. According to OSHA, “Ramazzini greatly affected the future of industrial hygiene because he asserted that occupational diseases should be studied in the work environment rather than in hospital wards.”

In the 20th century in the United States, Dr. Alice Hamilton told many professionals about “evidence that there was a correlation between worker illness and exposure to toxins” and “presented definitive proposals for eliminating unhealthful working conditions.”

Two important factors in the history of industrial hygiene are programs and regulations. Compensation for workplace accidents wasn’t law until 1788 in England and 1908 in the U.S. The first industrial hygiene programs weren’t established until 1913 in the U.S., and only in two states. Other states adopted similar programs by 1948. Additional laws applicable to workplace health and safety were passed in the U.S. in the 20th century, including the famous Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.

What is Industrial Hygiene?

The history of IH offers a great look at topics relating to IH. Industrial hygiene is the “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,” according to OSHA.

Industrial hygienists perform a variety of tasks as part of their job in mitigating risks. According to Tulane University, industrial hygienists:

  • Use applied scientific principles to identify hazards
  • Compile and analyze data about workplace risks
  • Interpret toxicology reports
  • Develop controls and remediation programs to address hazards and risks
  • Work with organizational managers to communicate and integrate these programs effectively
  • Manage and monitor these programs to improve health in the workplace

Industrial hygienists analyze worksites to identify what hazards workers are exposed to. There are five categories many hazards fall under: air contaminants, biological, chemical, ergonomic and physical.

Hazards in these categories can affect employees in numerous ways. For example, if a warehouse worker must move in repetitive motions without protection, they may be exposed to physical hazards such as musculoskeletal diseases, or MSDs. Industrial hygienists can suggest solutions to prevent workers from greater risk for MSDs. In another example, if workers must use toxic products, they can be at risk for chemical hazards such as poisoning. In this case, an industrial hygienist may offer suggestions on storing the chemicals.

When these hazards are identified and addressed, the risk to employees can be mitigated. Industrial hygienists play an essential role by helping employers reduce worksite hazards. This benefits not only the worker but the company as well.

The Present

Industrial hygienists have been playing a vital role in worker health and safety for thousands of years. Today, it’s still a growing industry with importance to everyone. Industrial hygienist jobs are expected to increase by seven percent from 2020 to 2030.

In 2014, there were nearly 15,000 industrial hygienists in the U.S. alone, the “largest and most active” of any other country. And according to OSHA, more than 40 percent of their compliance officers are industrial hygienists. 

Unlike the name, industrial hygienists work in more than just an industry setting. They work for colleges, governments, firms, unions and many other organizations. Self-employed or consulting IH is the “fastest-growing segment,” the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) notes.

As times change so do the demands of worksites. To stay current with the times, industrial hygienists may use new approaches or practices. In 2003, Total Worker Health was started by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). This approach is the “policies, programs, and practices that integrate protection from work-related safety and health hazards with promotion of injury and illness-prevention efforts to advance worker well-being.”

Total Worker Health focuses on the concept that “work is a social determinant of health.” A worker’s well-being is impacted by more than just hazards. It involves factors like pay, coworker interactions, paid time off and more, NIOSH says.12 Industrial hygienists can look at many areas that affect a worker’s health or safety in and out of work.

The role of the industrial hygienist has also changed recently since the start of COVID-19. The pandemic changed a lot overnight, including worker health and safety. For many employers, there was an immediate need for additional measures, like PPE or ventilation, to keep workers safe.

Organizations called for new safety measures during the pandemic. AIHA, alongside other organizations, recommended OSHA and the CDC publish COVID-19 guidelines for workers. AIHA also published an updated document called “The Role of the Industrial Hygienist in a Pandemic” in 2022. Originally published in 2006, the document covers information from three pandemics: H5N1 avian flu, the H1N1 swine flu and COVID-19.

As the pandemic continues, the focus on infectious disease prevention will remain essential. Industrial hygienists can play a vital role in helping companies keep workers safe as COVID-19 and other infectious diseases continue in the workplace.

The Future

The role of industrial hygiene is always changing. The future of industrial hygiene may include a lot of change. At AIHce EXP 2020, an AIHA professional development conference and exposition, Bernard Fontaine gave a speech on industrial hygiene. In his speech, he discussed where he thinks industrial hygiene will be in the future. His ideas included Big Data, online options like healthcare solutions or trainings, “sports and recreation” and new technologies. “My vision is that the profession will become more integrated with other disciplines,” he said.

Fontaine also suggests that industrial hygiene may eventually focus more on diversity, equity and inclusion. A workplace with employees from many backgrounds can offer a multitude of ideas and thought patterns, the article about his speech noted. He also suggested industrial hygienists may work more with media to tell the story of industrial hygiene. This can help employers know more about the value of industrial hygiene and the role it can play in health and safety.

Paul Zoubek, CSP, CIH, CESCP, president of Zoubek Consulting, also has ideas on the future of industrial hygiene. In an interview with the American Society of Safety Professionals, Zoubek suggested the focus of industrial hygiene will change. “In the future, I believe there will be less emphasis on industrial workplaces. They won’t go away, of course, but I believe as a profession we will be more focused on health issues in non-industrial environments. We have lots of learning to do,” Zoubek said in the article.

A lot has changed in the world and will continue to change, including industrial hygiene. As history shows, the one thing that will stay the same is the need for worker health and safety.

This article originally appeared in the September 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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