Every day, millions of people work in environments with hazards that can cause illness or, even worse, death. Many of these hazards—which can include a range of issues like chemical vapors, extreme temperatures, and poor ergonomic design–might not cause immediate adverse health effects but can cause life-altering problems over time. Furthermore, many workers are not educated about potential hazards and might not fully grasp the magnitude of the issues around them. A simple, yet recurring exposure to a hazard could lead to something as serious as silicosis or a permanent hearing impairment. That’s why understanding what chemicals, stressors and adverse conditions are present in the workplace and how to mitigate those hazards are pivotal tools in reducing many workplace injuries and illnesses.
This is where Industrial Hygiene (IH) comes in to play. The definition of IH itself describes its importance. According to the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), IH is “the science and art devoted to the anticipation, recognition, evaluation, prevention, 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 citizens of the community.” In order to anticipate, recognize, evaluate, prevent, and control environmental factors or stresses in the workplace, it’s important to create a worksite analysis. This initial step is crucial in determining what jobs and work stations are potential sources of problems for the employee and environment. During the analysis, the industrial hygienist will measure and identify exposures, problem areas/tasks, and risks associated.
In your own organization, think of the importance of understanding all aspects of the workplace, including who works where and for how long. Does a specific job task in your organization require a worker to spend a continuous amount of time dealing with dusts, chemicals or even excess noise? Do certain workers perform more of these potentially hazardous tasks than do others? The more information you have about your own organization and workforce the better the insight into how to reduce hazards to an acceptable level.
Maintaining records is also essential for industrial hygiene. Think about this scenario: “After 15 years of work, an employee has developed silicosis. During their time of employment, how often have they been exposed to silica? Has it been regular exposure or intermittent? Have controls been in place the whole time?” Questions like these can be answered by a simple, yet effective record-keeping system. In addition, it’s beneficial to be able to recall previous assessments that have been conducted throughout the facility. Having the ability to look at the historical records of IH sampling for a specific job task or area aids the organization in:
- Following certain regulations where required,
- Assessing whether the job tasks/area has improved or declined in hazards present,
- Increasing program effectiveness, and
- Mitigating legal threats that may arise.
Additionally, industrial hygiene management systems have the ability to assist organizations in ways such as:
- Simplifying tracking and record-keeping,
- Managing qualitative and quantitative exposures,
- Managing IH equipment with calibration data, and
- Integrating EHS processes with other departments.
Hazards are present in all organizations, so understanding best practices to minimize hazards and reduce them to acceptable levels is crucial for every workplace. Having and utilizing a proper IH management system will set your organization apart and will empower you to keep your employees safe. Ultimately, as Health and Safety professionals, we should have one foremost goal: to keep workers, their families, and the community healthy and safe.