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Why You Should Hire an Industrial Hygienist

By Jonathan Sharp
Published: January 10, 2022
Key Takeaways

Occupational health hazards don't always get the attention they deserve. Working wtih an industrial hygienist can make sure they are identified, handled, and mitigated.

Caption: Assessing conditions in an industrial facility Source: dusanpetkovic / iStock

Every health and safety professional faces an important challenge: ensuring that workers are as safe as they possibly can be while on the job. However, we frequently focus on reducing injuries while overlooking the significance of safeguarding workers against occupational illness. While these illnesses can result in minor health problems, many can result in chronic, debilitating, or fatal conditions.

Moreover, many serious occupational illnesses, such as cancers and severe lung conditions, have a long latency period between exposure and progression. It could take years before the health consequences of working conditions become apparent.

Unfortunately, this is a prevalent issue. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), more than two million people worldwide die from work-related accidents and illnesses each year.

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And while occupational illness rates in the United States are decreasing, the new and emerging technologies that make work easier and more efficient can also pose serious health risks to workers. Understanding these technologies and the risks associated with them is crucial for companies to be better prepared to handle, eliminate, or mitigate those risks.

That's why working with an industrial hygienist is invaluable.

What Does an Industrial Hygienist Do?

The fundamentals of industrial hygiene are concerned with identifying and assessing potential stresses and risks in the workplace. Industrial hygienists then work to find a solution to address those risks and implement hazard controls in order to reduce the possibility of injuries or illnesses in the workplace. On a broader scale, industrial hygienists contribute to the larger effort to promote public health.

Industrial hygienists ensure that industrial workplaces are safe for both employees and the surrounding community. They may concentrate on addressing specific risks that already exist in the workplace, inspect jobsites, and use scientific data and testing to identify potential health and safety risks.

This may involve:

  • Measuring noise levels in the work environment
  • Testing for mold
  • Detecting the presence of hazardous chemicals and gases
  • Conducting walkthroughs to look for physical hazards
  • Interpreting safety data sheets for the chemical products used or stored on the jobsite
  • Reviewing safety protocols to identify any gaps or flaws

Following this assessment, industrial hygienists make recommendations to correct or mitigate any identified problems. This could include:

  • Replacing a hazardous chemical with a less harmful one
  • Eliminating exposure to biological hazards (by undertaking mold remediation measures, for instance)
  • Recommending technological solutions (such as improved ventilation systems to ameliorate air quality)
  • Drafting stricter safety gear requirement to ensure that workers have gloves, goggles, hearing protection, safety harnesses, and other PPE that is adequate for the risks they face

Industrial hygienists may also provide advice on work practices, assist in the design of engineering controls, and aid in the development of a more robust health and safety program.

(Learn more in A Primer on Engineering Controls)

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What Kind of Hazards Do Industrial Hygienists Deal With?

The hazards that industrial hygienists help organizations tackle can be broken down into five categories: environmental, chemical, biological, physical, and ergonomic.

1. Environmental Hazards

Environmental toxic exposure is an issue that is present in numerous settings. Unlike many other workplace risks, however, environmental hazards can affect not only the workers but also the communities living near an industrial site. This is why it's exteremely important to identify and mitigate these issues from the jump.

Environmental contaminants can take many forms, including:

  • Airborne fibers like absestos, acrylic, and rayon that can be inhaled by workers who don't have adequate respiratory protection
  • Fumes that are formed when a solid is volatilized (by burning, for instance) and the volatilized particles condense in the air
  • Mists (finely separated liquids that float suspended in the air) that result from foaming, splashing, or when substances condense from a vapor back into a liquid suspension
  • Gases like carbon monoxide and those related to welding (acetylene, nitrogen, helium, and argon)
  • Vapors - cleaning agents, paints, and solvents are particularly prone to vaporization, especially when under pressure or at high temperatures

2. Chemical Hazards

Hazardous chemical compounds can be accidentally ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin.

To aid in the control of chemical hazards, facilities should keep a safety data sheet for every chemical they have on hand. These are provided directly from the manufacturer or supplier and contain critical health and toxicological information.

Each chemical should also have clear and standardized labelling to quickly convey the critical information found on the safety data sheet.

3. Biological Hazards

Bacteria, viruses, and fungi present on the jobsite all have the potential to cause illness.

Any industry in which employees may come into contact with human or animal bodily fluids has an elevated biological contamination risk. Because of this, biological hazards are especially common in laboratories, hospitals, and agricultural and food-processing operations.

Proper personal hygiene, including hand-washing procedures and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), is critical in helping to control biological hazards. Adequate ventilation, waste disposal systems, and isolation protocols are also essential for preventing the spread of infectious diseases.

4. Physical Hazards

While all hazards are physical to some extent, this category specifically includes those that result from an excessive level of physical disruption, such as:

  • Radiant heat exposure
  • Noise
  • Radiation
  • Vibration

5. Ergonomic Hazards

Ergonomic hazards are those associated with poor posture and movements that can cause pain or damage to muscle tissue. Improper lifting is a common ergonomic hazard, but even holding, pushing, reaching, or walking can be enough to cause an ergonomic injury.

Working on high-speed assembly lines, performing repetitive motions, and being subjected to vibrations all place a worker at greater ergonomic risk.

(For related reading, see Lean Ergonomics and Why It Matters)

Why You Need an Industrial Hygienist on Your Team

Occupational diseases continue to be a serious issue. Between 1968 and 2002, silicosis killed approximately 74 million people in the United States. Even today, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that 2.3 million workers in manufacturing, mining, construction, and other industries are exposed to respirable crystalline silica, as well as other carcinogens.

Their financial impact is also enormous. One study estimates that the economic burden of occupational injuries and illnesses in the United States sits at around $250 billion per year. Not to mention the potential liability for companies, especially those in high-risk industries.

This is precisely where industrial hygiene is most urgent and important.

An employer's ability to reduce occupational diseases can be improved by being able to better anticipate, recognize, evaluate, prevent, and control hazards in the workplace. This is an incredibly challenging endeavor with a vast number of variables to consider, including the introduction of new machinery, new chemicals, and new crops of inexperienced employees.

By prioritizing industrial hygiene, industries can reduce the number of workers forced to leave their jobs due to accidents or disease. Employee absences may halt output and necessitate the allocation of additional resources to hiring, training, and monitoring substitutes.

Good industrial hygiene can also help workers focus on their job tasks. Aside from physical discomfort, health issues can come with a slew of additional distractions, such as stress, exhaustion, inattention, and worry - all of which impede productivity.

Implementing strict safety standards will also result in improved employee training in occupational hazards. Employees with this level of confidence will be able to identify and report hazards in the workplace, preventing future injuries. Participating in overall workplace hygiene is a productive way to ensure that harmful situations do not go unnoticed or fall through the cracks.

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Written by Jonathan Sharp

Profile Picture of Jonathan Sharp

Jonathan Sharp is the CFO of Environmental Litigation Group, P.C., a law firm based in Birmingham, Alabama, focused on helping workers and communities who have been unknowingly exposed to life threatening hazards.

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