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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 abso- lutely vital role in controlling occupational hazards, the fact is that non-hygienists (in other words, every- one 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 hy- giene, and the almost countless specializations that exist within the field. There are hygienists whose prac- tice is centered only on noise and vibration, and oth- ers 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. Ev- eryone knows that spinning blades can be unsafe, and that precautions must be taken when handling corro- sive substances. Other dangers are hidden, and more insidious. You’ll often hear industrial hygienists talking about the “dose-response relationship.” Two acetamin- ophen 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 pro- longed 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 danger- ous as a piece of industrial equipment that is roaring at more than 100 decibels. However, prolonged expo- sure 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 pro- tection 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
30 Occupational Health & Safety | MAY 2020
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 of- ten 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. While it always pays to get final signoff from an expert, there are steps you can take to maintain a safe environment even be- fore 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:
■ That employee is opening a tank to retrieve a sample. Are vapors being released? Does the tank actu- ally 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 work- ing near it? Do they really need to be working near it?
■ What’s that smell? Do we know its cause?
■ 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 iden- tified and prioritized, you can begin discussing re- mediation. 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 re- moved, 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.

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