What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet." OK, so I don’t quote Shakespeare so well. The point is, how important is a name? I bring this up as the industrial hygiene profession continues to wrestle with its name.

After my paternal grandmother died about a year ago I went through all her old papers. To my surprise I found three different spellings of my last name.

For some unknown reason my grandfather changed the spelling of his last name upon his immigration to the United States.

Changing names is not unusual. People do it all the time. George Burns, Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe -you can immediately visualize these well-known entertainers; but unless you’re a trivia nut you wouldn’t recognize their original names. They were changed to be more catchy with the public.

Closer to this article’s topic, after I received my Master of Science in Industrial Hygiene the Medical College of Ohio changed the name of the program to MS in Occupational Health. I was able to choose which title to put on my diploma, and you can see how my byline reads. The column you’re reading now used to be titled, "Industrial Hygiene." It was renamed to "Managing Risks" about a year ago to reflect its broader focus.

Current considerations

So what about changing the term "industrial hygiene" to describe the work that we do? It’s steeped in tradition, but does it reflect what the profession is about in 1996?

The crux of the argument centers around the word "industrial." This conjures up images of smokestack factories and heavy manufacturing -a constantly shrinking area of an industrial hygienist’s involvement.

The name debate usually extends to include the word "hygiene." This also carries historical significance, but there is more truth than humor in the often heard comment: "The public thinks we clean teeth in a factory."

The problem with the name is easier to explain than solve. The vast majority of people I know agree that the term "industrial hygiene" is out of date. It simply doesn’t reflect what the profession does today or what it will do in the future. It’s a name that is not understood by the public, and we need public support for the profession to grow. Finally, most people I know believe that a new name should be used to describe and sell our profession.

Now we get into a complicated area: What should be the new name? How do we make the transition from one name to another without some people thinking a profession has vanished?

There are many suggestions for an updated identifier. Variations of "occupational hygiene" or "occupational health" seem to be most favored. Working "environmental" into the term also has many supporters.

Easier said than done

But changing the name of a profession is a delicate assignment. There are marketing and public relations issues, also legal and administrative angles. There is a lot of emotion and fond memories attached to the old name, too.

First, would changing the name kill all the momentum for professional recognition that has been built up over many years?

What about all the effort that has gone into title protection? Would the political process have to start all over again if a new name was chosen? What about organizational names and titles of certifications? Could a new name infringe on other professions?

In each case the answer is probably "yes." And these issues might only be the tip of the iceberg.

We’re at an impasse. On one hand, many people feel the name should be changed. But others see great difficulties in doing so. We stand like deer frozen in car headlights. We see the risk of not moving, but don’t know how to respond.

So what happens? We go around in circles, studying and debating, year after year.

Assessing the impact: Let’s think about this for a minute. What really happens when you change a name? I think the impact hinges on the power of subtle perceptions.

Would my life have been any different if I spelled my last name with a "o" instead of an "ie"; or "t’ instead of a "z"?

My grandmother owned and operated her own successful dressmaking business for more than 50 years. If her last name ended in a "tz" she probably would have had different ethnic client support. A subtle change but probably important. So to some degree it has affected me.

I chose to have my graduate degree read: Master of Science in Occupational Health. What if I went with the more traditional title M.S. in Industrial Hygiene? Would I be further ahead or behind in my career?

I do perceive a difference. I have described my educational background in both terms to many people. "Occupational health" is readily accepted and respected; "industrial hygiene" is most often met with blank looks. I have to explain what it is. This is true whether I’m talking with the public, managers in my company, or employees.

In 1986, my employer sold its company name, Libbey-Owens-Ford, and adopted a new one, TRINOVA. Did it make a difference to me?

Most people I meet haven’t heard of TRINOVA, even though it’s a large worldwide corporation that has existed under a different name for about 80 years. I feel I’d be more readily accepted and respected by my peers if I worked for a company the same size as TRINOVA but with better public recognition.

It’s important to face the reality, the impact that perceptions, even subtle perceptions, can have. For this reason, I believe I would be better off over the long term by hitching my career to a term more easily understood by the public, and this includes employees. Industrial hygiene is an outdated name.

I’m loyal to the industrial hygiene profession, but it’s time to re-engineer the name.

Realistically, the resources of our professional organizations and even our collective efforts might be too limited to change the public’s preconceived image of industrial hygiene. Let’s put the energy into updating the name. It will take time to do it on a national level, but we can start making changes in our own spheres of influence‹business titles, presentation titles, and so on.

If you believe names and perceptions are important, don’t stand passively on the sidelines. Make your thoughts and suggestions known to representatives of your local and national industrial hygiene organizations.