I used to think that once an employer improved working conditions to meet minimum OSHA requirements, primarily through proper material selection and engineering controls, an industrial hygienist’s job was mostly done. After all, why would an employer need an industrial hygienist if all the occupational health hazards are under control? But the fact of the matter is that what OSHA expects and what an employee expects are two distinct issues. OSHA’s expectations are mostly directed at health hazards with adverse physical and pathological impacts on employees. An employee’s expectations for a healthy work environment weigh heavily toward the psychological impact. What an employee thinks about his or her work environment is most important in whether or not you’ll hear complaints.

Not long ago I met with a group of manufacturing employees who were concerned about the amount of metalworking fluid in the air. I first looked at metalworking fluid exposure, such as oil mist, at this facility about ten years ago. Back then, I’d classify the work areas as typical: dull color on walls, floors, and machines; marginal lighting with shadows; somewhat dirty surfaces; spotty and often poorly designed exhaust ventilation at the machining operations; and so on. Oil mist was found back then to be just below OSHA’s limit of 5 mg/m3.

Fast forward to today. The manufacturing areas are brightly painted, the floor shines, work areas are well illuminated, all machines have very good local exhaust, and the amount of metalworking fluid in the air is now less than 0.1 mg/m3. The work area is neat and clean with no observable health hazards. But are the employees happy? In a word, no. Over the years they saw continual improvement in their work environment, so it’s natural they should expect and seek more improvement. But what do they want? Talking one-on-one with each of them and putting the pieces together, I believe they want what any office worker would want – a clean, odor-free, controlled temperature and humidity work area; natural lighting where possible; and it’s not too farfetched to even have pictures, flowers, and plants nearby. Why shouldn’t someone working in a manufacturing environment have not only healthy but aesthetically pleasing surroundings?

If this case was unique I wouldn’t get too excited. But it’s not. I see it happening more and more, and so do other health and safety professionals. There are many reasons for this trend, not the least of which is hiring and retaining good workers. Given the option, and all else being equal, almost every employee would choose to work in a neat and clean environment as opposed to a dirty one.

The new reality

So how does an industrial hygienist meet the rising occupational health expectations of employees in manufacturing? Here are a few thoughts: ·
  • First of all, this trend should remind health and safety professionals that OSHA standards and consensus guidelines are a beginning and not an end. Improvement is a continual process with ever-higher expectations. ·
  • Classical industrial hygienists should spend more time learning new indoor air quality sampling and improvements, such as found in offices, and apply them to manufacturing settings where practical. Sampling will have to be more sensitive because measurements for many chemicals will be near the limit of analytical detection. ·
  • A better understanding of heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems will be needed. ·
  • Odor control will need to be better understood. ·
  • Safety and health professionals will have to pay more attention to employee psychological factors. Why aren’t employees happy with the work environment? What would make them happier? Are their requests reasonable? Would the request be unreasonable if it was made by an office worker? ·
  • Selling management on workplace improvements when you don’t have the force of law behind you will require better business and negotiating skills. How much less productive is an unhappy employee? Is an unhappy employee more likely to miss work, produce bad parts, leave and create turnover problems? ·
  • A line may need to be drawn somewhere. If OSHA standards are no longer meaningful, what standards should your company adopt, if any? Limits that are one-half of OSHA’s permissible exposures? One-third? One-tenth? What about workplace standards for environmental factors that OSHA does not enforce, such as the color of walls? ·
  • Measuring employee satisfaction with working conditions may be more important than environmental measures. ·
  • Be ready to work more in gray areas regarding "acceptable" working conditions. Specific limits will have less meaning. Certainly some people will contend that minimum compliance with OSHA health standards is enough -- if an employee doesn’t like the look or "feel" of the work environment, perhaps it’s best if they find work elsewhere. Modern management and manufacturing methods, though, view the employee as a customer, and the employee’s satisfaction in all matters is important.

    More and more, employees will expect and demand pleasing work environments, not just ones free of health hazards. With all the things you’re required to do at work, I bet you never thought your job description would someday include helping to make sure that employees are happy with their work environment.