To understand where the industrial hygiene industry is, you have to understand how very far it has come in just the past few years. We’ve moved from a fairly limited “industrial” exposure to an enormous and diversified exposure set. As new processes, products and chemicals have been developed, IH has grown right along with it. A recent example is “nanotechnology,” which was non-existent just a few years ago but has now moved to the industry forefront. As industry and technology continue this rapid growth, the industrial hygiene professional must continue to advance as well.

Industrial growth is not the only area where the industrial hygiene field is being stretched. A whole industrial hygiene world exists in biologicals, molds, radon, particulate matter, and the list goes on. All of these areas have seen exponential growth in recent years. Consequently, the face of the industrial hygiene professional has changed substantially.

No longer can the industrial hygienist be proficient in every area of IH work.

In recent years, the American Board of Industrial Hygiene (ABIH), which certifies industrial hygienists (CIH), has placed more and more emphasis on management skills. This is an obvious requirement in today’s industry because, in many cases, the industrial hygienist is no longer the technician but, rather, the manager of technicians who are highly specialized in very specific niches of the overall and compressive industrial hygiene industry. The gamut of IH is so broad that even the ABIH Code of Ethics states that the CIH cannot perform services outside areas of their competency.

Beyond the basics

Industrial hygiene has far surpassed the arena of a few chemical exposures and particulate monitoring. OSHA has just finalized the workplace exposure standard for Hexavalent Chromium (i.e., chromium VI or Cr+6), 29 CFR 1910.1026. This is just one more example of how the industry is in an exponential mode of expansion. As an industrial hygiene professional, should you now become an expert in Hexavalent Chromium? I believe not. It does give rise to the question, “What should today’s industrial hygiene professional be an expert in?” That question is easier asked than answered, but the most apparent answer is, “Not everything!”

Today’s industrial hygienist must indeed have a wide array of general knowledge of everything from total dust exposure to specifics such as Hexavalent Chromium. But even more important, he or she must know when to call in specialized help for areas in which they are not experts. Additionally, they must possess the management skills to obtain the very detailed information that these experts can provide. Obviously, an IH professional may have several, if not multiple, areas of expertise where they feel comfortable and confident in obtaining the needed information on their own. IH pros should exercise caution to ensure that they do not overstep their current and accurate knowledge base on any given exposure.

Getting a handle

So given the enormous amount of information to absorb and expertise required, how does the IH professional tackle the monster? Here are some key points that will help you get a handle on the whole industrial hygiene arena.
  • Start by doing a comprehensive survey of your IH issues. Even this may take the help of an expert. Make sure your survey is comprehensive and not limited by preconceived exposures (or lack thereof) and that all exposures are included whether actual exposures are known or not.
  • Next, take the exposures where you know or suspect that you have issues and develop a comprehensive exposure baseline. In most cases, this will take some level of specific knowledge and expertise. Call in an expert in those fields if need be.
  • Formalize a written plan for these exposures so that everyone knows the plan for managing them.
  • Follow the plan, stay on schedule and keep training up-to-date.

Once known exposures are prioritized, have a baseline and a written exposure plan. Attach all other exposures. This is where many IH programs break down. They do a good job tackling the obvious, but fall neglectfully behind on — or fail to even consider — dangerous exposures that haven’t been addressed before or aren’t in the expertise area of the major exposures.

Remember, as technology changes so must our industrial hygiene programs. Don’t try to be an expert in every area of IH. Focus on those you know best and call in experts from outside to help keep your IH program in tip-top shape.

Sidebar: Stay on guard

Here are some points that may make identifying “smaller” exposures a little easier before they catch you off guard:
  • Review your MSDS sheets for every chemical in the process.
  • Review every job task for IH hazards.
  • Watch out for chemicals that interact with other chemicals that you use.
  • Pay particular attention to processes that change the state of a material. For example, when material is abraded, polished, coated, etc.
  • In light of the new hex chrome standard, note any cutting or welding on galvanized material.
  • Keep good records of employee illnesses.
  • Watch for patterns in complaints and symptoms in your workforce.