Special Topics in Safety Management

Industrial Hygiene 101

Just what do industrial hygienists actually do, and why is it important to your safety program? This week, our Safety Training Tips editor focuses on this important and highly specialized profession.

What is industrial hygiene? Industrial hygiene has been defined (by NASA) as “the science of anticipating, recognizing, evaluating, and controlling workplace conditions that may cause workers’ injury or illness.” 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 risks.

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Which aspects of workplace safety does it cover? Industrial hygiene focuses primarily on health hazards such as:

  • Chemical hazards—gases, vapors, dusts, fumes, mists, and smoke
  • Physical hazards—nonionizing and ionizing radiation, noise, vibration, extreme temperatures and pressures
  • Ergonomic hazards—workstation design, repetitive motion, improper lifting/reaching, poor visual conditions
  • Biological hazards—insects, mold, yeast, fungi, bacteria, and viruses

How does industrial hygiene affect OSHA regulations and enforcement? OSHA uses industrial hygiene expertise in a number of ways.

The agency relies on industrial hygienists to evaluate jobs for potential health hazards and to help develop standards to control those hazards. In fact, more than 40 percent of OSHA compliance officers who inspect America’s workplaces are industrial hygienists.

Industrial hygienists also provide technical assistance and support to OSHA’s national and regional offices. In addition, industrial hygienists assist in setting up field enforcement procedures and issuing technical interpretations of OSHA regulations. Other organizations that study and promote industrial hygiene and the establishment of rules governing allowable workplace exposures include the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

What controls do industrial hygienists recommend to prevent harmful exposures? To control workplace health hazards, industrial hygienists have established a “hierarchy of control.” The hierarchy consists of:

•     Engineering controls
•     Work practice controls
•     Administrative controls
•     Personal protective equipment (PPE)

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In other words, if engineering controls alone cannot prevent harmful exposures, then work and or administrative controls should be added. If exposure levels are still too high, then employees also need to wear appropriate PPE.

How can you get more information? You can find information about industrial hygiene on the websites of OSHA, NIOSH, and ACGIH. The American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), which is one of the largest international associations serving the needs of occupational and environmental health professionals, also provides information about this important workplace topic. Founded in 1939, AIHA is a nonprofit group with 12,000 members. It works in conjunction with the American Board of Industrial Hygiene (ABIH) to promote certification of industrial hygienists. AIHA also runs comprehensive education programs and laboratory accreditation programs. For more information about the activities and programs of AIHA, go to http://www.aiha.org

Why It Matters…

•     Workplace hazards of concern to industrial hygienists are among the most dangerous hazards employees may face, and also are those that cause some of the highest rates of injuries, illness, and lost workdays.
•     In some cases, exposures to these hazards can disable or kill employees.
•     You need to be familiar with industrial hygiene hazards in your facility, the permissible exposure limits (PELs), and the controls necessary to prevent harmful exposures.