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The Importance of Industrial Hygiene in the Workplace

Industrial hygiene examines the effect of the work environment on the health and well-being of those in the workplace. Awareness of the work environment’s impact on worker health dates back to fourth century BC when Hippocrates recognized the effects of lead toxicity in mining. Zinc and sulfur hazards were recognized in the first century AD along with lead poisoning and copper mining hazards in the second century AD.

In 1556 German scholar Agricola published De Re Metallica describing the diseases of miners such as silicosis and as importantly what to do about it. He had suggestions for mine ventilation and worker preventive measures. In 1743 Ulrich Ellenborg wrote about the toxicity of carbon monoxide, mercury, lead, and nitric acid.

Continued discoveries over the centuries eventually led to legislation to protect workers. Today, OSHA enforces standards for toxic chemicals, biological hazards, and harmful physical agents. Other reference standards provide additional guidance on occupational health emphasizing the importance of industrial hygiene in the workplace.

What is Industrial Hygiene?

The American Board of Industrial Hygiene (ABIH) administers certification programs for industrial hygienists and environmental practitioners. It defines industrial hygiene as “the science of protecting and enhancing the health and safety of people at work and in their communities.”

Industrial hygiene is defined as, “that science and art devoted to the anticipation, recognition, evaluation, control, and confirmation of protection from 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 the citizens of the community.”

In short, industrial hygiene identifies, evaluates, and controls workplace environmental hazards that can impact workers and the community. Industrial hygienists use rigorous scientific methods to identify hazards and then work to control or eliminate the hazards.

Key Categories of Industrial Hygiene Hazards in the Workplace

Health and safety hazards that are addressed through industrial hygiene cover an extremely broad range. Here are the key categories.

  • Chemical Exposure. Harmful chemicals in various forms can contribute to significant health issues. Eliminating the chemical or substituting to a less harmful chemical, isolation of the process, local exhaust ventilation, work practice controls, and PPE can minimize or eliminate exposure.
  • Ergonomics. The goal is to design a work task to fit the capabilities of workers and reduce stress and prevent injuries from bad posture, excessive force, repetition, and other stressors that affect work performance. Musculoskeletal disorders such as tendonitis, lower back injury, sprains & strains, and carpal tunnel syndrome are common injuries that can result. In addition, human error can be introduced due to ergonomic stressors.
  • Noise. Long-term noise exposure can lead to hearing damage and loss. There are many ways of reducing noise exposure including hearing protection, limiting the amount of time spent in a noisy environment, and reducing machine noise in the first place.
  • Indoor Air Quality. Work processes can generate air contaminants that expose workers to inhalation hazards. Well-designed and maintained local exhaust ventilation systems are an effective means of air contaminant control.
  • Radiation. This includes ultraviolet radiation from the sun that can be addressed by limiting exposure or wearing sun-shielding garments. It also includes ionizing radiation from radioactive materials. Certain lasers generate radiation that can be harmful to the eyes. Prevention requires proper shielding for workers.
  • Biological Hazards. Molds, bacteria, and viruses can cause significant health issues. Proper building HVAC system design and maintenance can enhance building air quality. Following standard precautions including engineering controls, personal hygiene, and PPE prevent exposure to infectious agents.
  • Temperature. High temperatures can bring on heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Low temperatures can lead to hypothermia or frostbite.

Eliminating or Controlling Industrial Hygiene Hazards

The systematic process of identifying and eliminating or minimizing the hazards noted above is at the heart of industrial hygiene. That approach attempts to design the hazard out of the industrial operation. If that can’t happen, it focuses on minimizing the hazard through environmental factors such as ventilation and personal protective equipment as well as developing proper work practices.

The typical process followed by industrial hygiene consultants consists of risk assessment followed by risk management.

  • Risk Assessment. This aspect addresses three key areas.
    • Initial Hazard Assessment. This gathers workplace information on processes, materials, and work performed to identify potential sources of exposure, routes of exposure, and possible health effects. It considers work practices, proximity to the hazard, duration and frequency of exposure, those potentially impacted, and existing safeguards.
    • Exposure Assessment. This step determines what exposures will be acceptable, unacceptable, or uncertain. It will often include air sampling and environmental monitoring to further quantity exposures.
    • Risk Characterization. This merges the data of the initial hazard and exposure assessments to clarify the type, magnitude, and probability of exposure.
  • Risk Management. Once the full risk assessment is completed, this step confirms management commitment, establishes a hierarchy of controls, and confirms compliance on a regular basis.

Health and Cost Impact

As you can imagine from the list of key categories above, there are multiple hazards that can impact employee health. Respiratory illnesses, chemical sensitization, skin disorders, infectious disease, and physical stressors can be the result of adverse exposure to health hazards.

That’s the impact on employees, the people you work with side-by-side, day-in and day-out. It’s terrible to see them with these significant illnesses, injuries and enduring challenges.

There’s also an impact on the bottom line. That includes lost productivity due to absences and reduced ability to do their job while at work. It can also result in reduced employee morale and lost productivity. That further leads to disengagement and even burnout. Taken together these can further increase injuries and illness.

As one benchmark, it’s estimated that absenteeism costs an additional $2,660 per shift worker per year. With 50 shift workers that’s $133,000 per year for the organization. Those costs don’t include management’s challenges in dealing with the full impact of absent employees.

In summary, industrial hygiene is critical to your employees’ health and to your organization’s financial health.

Learn More About Environmental and Industrial Hygiene

Interested in learning more about the importance of industrial hygiene in the workplace and how to avoid and minimize hazards? Attend our upcoming free webinar titled Industrial Hygiene: How it Fits Into Your Safety Culture. We’ll review MNOSHA health standards and explain the role of industrial hygiene in maintaining workplace health. We’ll also provide a practical review of environmental laws RCRA, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Superfund (CERCLA) and the obligation to monitor and properly manage environmental hazards. 

Our speakers have decades of experience in workplace safety including certification in industrial hygiene. Learn more and sign up for the webinar.

OECS Can Help With All Your Workplace Safety Issues

Connect with us to learn more about the importance of industrial hygiene in the workplace and our services. Speak with a safety consultant who can help you achieve your safety goals. Call 763-417-9599 for a free phone consultation or complete our contact form and we’ll be in touch.