With employees focused on health and safety more intensely than before, the workplace environment and safety performance are new areas of competition among employers to attract and retain the best and brightest employees.
In fact, according to a 2017 survey of 1,011 U.S. adults who work at small businesses, the safety of the work environment was among the top criteria that employees consider when evaluating a new job offer.
To address workplace safety, it is imperative to understand the potential hazards, what actions will have the greatest positive impact, and how to reassure workers that their safety is the highest priority.
Not only does worker safety need to be addressed, but also the safety of customers, guests, patients and other consumers who may base their visit to a location on whether appropriate safety measures are in place.
Your ally in this endeavor is the relatively unknown profession of Industrial Hygienist
Industrial hygiene (IH) is a mature discipline with its roots in engineering, public health, occupational safety and other related disciplines. It deals with factors in the workplace that may cause sickness, impair health and wellbeing, or cause significant discomfort among workers or community members.
The field of IH addresses problems that typically show up in the form of staff complaining about:
- difficulty breathing,
- too much noise or vibration, or
- other workplace situations that correlate to negative health impacts.
In addition to the negative health impacts, these can adversely affect employee morale and respect for the workplace, distracting focus on the work and leading to absenteeism.
Understanding the problem is key to solving it
Whether dealing with an existing problem or taking proactive action to address workplace safety, the first step is to consider contacting a team of IH professionals, whether in-house or via a third party, to investigate. Upon being called in to analyze a workplace situation, an industrial hygienist’s first goal is to ask questions.
If workers are complaining of tiredness and lethargy at work, the investigation may discover that the carbon dioxide levels in the air are too high. If workers are experiencing allergic reactions and musty odors, the investigation may uncover mold issues.
In such cases, the IH professional will work to determine the source of the issue. In these examples, the first step would be to consider if the difficulty lies in the heating-ventilation-air-conditioning (HVAC) system.
Often, problems are triggered by a change. For example, if a company has recently hired more staff, the premises may now be holding more people than the building’s design occupancy load. Buildings and office spaces are designed and constructed with a set amount of interaction and occupancy space and going above that capacity may trigger poor air quality. Sometimes, IH professionals uncover that temperature and humidity issues are caused by a new industrial machine that produces heat, which can affect overall humidity.
A recent case, involving office space, found employees complaining of headaches, tiredness and respiratory tract irritation. Upon investigation, it was discovered that the most affected employee was seated next to the photocopier’s exhaust. It is well-known among IH professionals that copiers can off-gas ozone, which can produce upper respiratory tract irritation. Simple relocation of the photocopier within the office space solved the problem.
Sometimes, the responsible factors can be detected through a building’s operational data, but in many cases, IH professionals need to look further and conduct staff interviews. Perhaps someone is having trouble breathing and it turns out that this person works in the operation’s painting facility so may be exposed to paint fumes, solvents and dust without having proper personal respiratory protection equipment or ventilation.
Other times the trouble is not tied to the building’s environment. For example, it could be that someone’s co-worker is a particularly avid user of perfume or cologne, or it could be that someone habitually arrives at work exhausted – but investigation finds that it’s not the workplace, it’s that they bought a new car and the upholstery has been outgassing during the person’s hour-long drive to work.
Numerical data helps drive good decisions
In addition to direct interviews and on-site investigations, IH is very much a data-driven profession. IH professionals make recommendations based on best practices and years of research.
Well-respected institutions, such as the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH®), have dedicated more than 80 years to collecting data about what levels of exposure to various chemicals workers can be exposed to during a work shift without presenting adverse health effects.
This includes long-accumulated findings about the effects of exposure, expressed in “dose over time” – meaning the intensity of exposure the person experienced – and over what period. There are levels of exposure that are considered safe, and the objective is to stay below those levels, rather than expose workers to levels that may cause acute or chronic medical issues, or even death.
Another trend that has helped IH professionals deliver robust, verifiable findings has been the spectacular growth in available data from Building Automation Systems (BASs). Many BASs were set up with the main goals of reducing energy costs, the building’s carbon footprint and its water consumption. But the rising importance of worker safety is causing growing interest in how “smart” buildings can also be “safe” buildings.
In addition to producing vast streams of data, “smart” buildings have a BAS that allows for the fine tuning of the indoor environment. The BAS data provided includes factors like airflow in all parts of the building, whether automated blinds were drawn down on the sun-facing side of the building, humidity inside and outside, and more.
Data-driven IH professionals use this data stream to identify potential sources of problems – and point to the potential solutions.
Finding solutions that work for both the employees and the organization
If a person’s exposure to an adverse factor exceeds the allowable limits during the workday, an IH professional will make recommendations on how to reduce that exposure. Here, the data from a building’s BAS can help drive better decisions.
Investigations may reveal that the number of air changes in someone’s work area is below the minimum required, and that increasing airflow may solve the issue. If noise is the issue, the IH professional may recommend noise shielding. If vibration is the issue, the IH professional may advise on dampening solutions.
IH professionals work hard at staying current with many fields. For example, new trends such as office “hoteling” can mean higher traffic in and out of a building, while there are also new products on the market that are anti-microbial. Science is frequently uncovering new information about the risks of products and components used in manufacturing environments.
Whether dealing with creating a safe environment during a quarantine, or addressing a series of employee complaints about headaches, organizations are learning the value of industrial hygiene. These professionals are, many times, at the forefront of the efforts to create a safe environment for workers and can support organizations in their efforts to design and maintain a safe place to work.
About the Author
Adelmarie Bones, senior industrial hygienist, is responsible for the oversight of occupational health, safety and industrial hygiene services and supports other colleagues in these and related fields across the U.S., North America and globally. She has more than 15 years of experience providing industrial hygiene, occupational safety and environmental health consulting to various industrial, governmental, commercial and institutional clients.