Many people criticize doctors for doing a poor job of explaining the treatment process. Doctors who do a good job are said to have good bedside manners. In general, the medical profession is working to improve doctors' communication skills with their patients.

Now let's look at safety and health professionals. We must communicate many issues to employees. One often overlooked or given little attention is explaining exposure monitoring. OSHA's chemical substance-specific standards, such as benzene and lead, require that employees be provided with an opportunity to "observe" exposure monitoring. This means more than just letting employees look at monitoring procedures. It implies that employees should be provided with a full explanation of the chemical collection and analysis methods being used.

While OSHA's requirement is limited to chemical substance-specific standards and the standard on occupational noise exposure, there's value in explaining exposure monitoring whenever it's conducted. Not only should employees receive this explanation, but also anyone else who is directly affected by the monitoring.

Why? Here's one reason: Studies have found that approximately 97 percent of the adult U.S. population is scientifically illiterate. Taken another way, it's probably generous to say that three percent or less of all employees understand how chemicals are truly detected and measured.

Most people have a "black box" mentality when it comes to detecting and measuring chemicals. Just throw some sophisticated electronics inside a box and you can instantly detect and accurately measure any chemical that may be present, they believe.

How can we blame most people for thinking this way? When the public hears about chemical analysis it comes across in simple terms, without information on its limitations.

Take for example the Galileo space probe. A man-made object travels more than a million miles from earth and sends back data on the chemical composition of Jupiter's atmosphere. Sure that's what it did. But did it measure all the chemicals in Jupiter's atmosphere? No. Were the measurements highly accurate? Not really; there is a lot of room for error.

But I don't believe the pubic thinks about Galileo's limitations in conducting chemical analysis. To an employee, if an old space probe can measure the atmosphere of a distant planet, what's the big deal about measuring the air around where he or she works?

The reality of detecting and accurately measuring chemicals may be best illustrated in a 1995 Associated Press photo of Japan's investigation of the Aum Shinri Kyo's compound. Aum Shinri was the doomsday cult that used poison gas in an attack in a Tokyo subway. It was believed that more poisons would be found at the Aum Shinri Kyo compound. Surely Japan, a leader in the development of sophisticated electronics, would use its best chemical detecting and analysis tools when investigating the Aum Shinri compound. A Japanese official was suited up in a respirator and other chemical protective gear. In his outstretched arm was the poison gas detector. If my life was in danger from unknown poisons, I too would have chosen this detector above all others. My only regret is that I would not like to watch the canary die.

Yes, the poison gas detector was a canary locked in a cage. This poison gas detection method, the same one used by miners more than 200 years ago, still finds use today. Although there have been great advances over the years in detecting and measuring chemicals, there are still major limitations that must be overcome. Employees and others must be informed so that they understand this fact.

It seems simple

Years ago, people who conducted exposure monitoring were thought to possess a unique skill. In many people's minds, this skill does not seem that unique today. Do you want to conduct exposure monitoring for solvent exposure? Clip a passive organic vapor monitor onto an employee's shirt collar, take it off at the end of the monitoring period, and send it to a lab for analysis, right? Did you know that Europe is experimenting now with a passive monitor for asbestos exposure? Just clip it to an employee's shirt collar. When this comes to the U.S., asbestos monitoring will really be easy, right?

Just about everyone is measuring for carbon dioxide when testing indoor air quality -they even did it in the Apollo 13 movie. You can measure carbon dioxide with a calorimetric detector tube or a meter. A meter seems easy to use, basically you just turn it on and read the gauge. But what difference would it make if the sensor in the meter was a mass spectrometer, or potentiometric electrochemical, or nondispersive infrared, or amperometric electrochemical? Is it really this simple to use?

I'll be the first to admit that I used to take shortcuts when explaining exposure monitoring to employees. How short were my explanations? I'd abbreviate it down to "dust gets stopped by this filter" and "the chemical in the air sticks to the stuff inside this glass tube." Then I'd tell the employee that all I did was ship the sample to a lab and they'd do the measuring.

Just as bad as taking the shortcuts, if an employee asked a lot of questions, I'd sometimes get real technical with my answer. I'd lose most of them real quick. Years ago I didn't feel it was all that important if employees truly understood all aspects of exposure monitoring. It was my job -not their concern. If I was a doctor, you could say I had a very poor bedside manner. I'm proud to say that I haven't employed those bad practices for a long time. Exposure monitoring is indeed a partnership between the person performing the monitoring and the person being monitored. I now explain to all employees, and on their level, each major step in the exposure monitoring process.

What's more, employees bring up some very good questions from which we both learn.

I believe that there are many rewards when you "teach" employees how to better "observe" exposure monitoring. Key among them is trust. One of the greatest rewards comes, however, when an employee asks, "How can my son or daughter get a job like yours?" Surprisingly, this question comes up quite often. If this practice helps employees better appreciate your job, just think of the benefits if your boss is taught how to better observe exposure monitoring.