Why Industrial Hygiene Professionals are Important to Society

When many socially conscious individuals hear the word “industrial,” they tend to think of businesses that do more harm than good, manufacturing that hurts the environment and takes advantage of workers. Fortunately, such preconceptions are far from accurate — and much of the reason why owes to industrial hygiene professionals.

Economists worth their salt can describe at length how various kinds of industries contribute value to society, enriching nations while bettering workers’ bottom lines. Worker advocates can explain how the kinds of industrial processes and chemicals involved can permanently impact employees lives, hurting their health outcomes and placing them at risk. That’s where industrial hygiene professionals come into play.

“Hygiene” conjures up images of everyday tasks such as brushing teeth, washing hair, shaving, and the like. Industrial hygiene professionals work in a similar manner, only the results of their efforts prove far more impactful. Instead of insuring that someone makes a good impression, they safeguard the environment as a whole, the businesses of stakeholders, and the very lives of employees working in industrial settings. How do they do that? Read on to learn more.

Technologist in protective white suit with hairnet and mask

What is Industrial Hygiene (IH)?

The American Industrial Hygiene Association defines industrial hygiene as “the science and art devoted to the anticipation, recognition, evaluation, and control of environmental factors or stresses arising in or from the workplace which may cause sickness, impaired health and well-being, or significant discomfort and inefficiency among workers or among citizens in the community.” That’s a broad definition and almost poetic in its verbiage. However, it only begins to capture the scope and purpose of industrial hygiene.

For one thing, industrial hygiene is a compassionate field, a discipline that is every bit as concerned with the downtrodden as more trendy specialties. The people who work in industrial settings typically find themselves at a greater risk for chronic illness, acute illness, and debilitating injury. The proper application of industrial hygiene can do much to mitigate that risk. Tasks that exposed workers to great potential harm can become safe and commonplace when best industrial-hygiene practices get properly applied.

Similarly, industrial processes that seemingly pose a great risk to the broader environment find their impact lessened thanks to industrial hygiene. Businesses don’t want to run afoul of regulatory compliance, especially given the harsh penalties laid down by state and federal agencies. As we’ve stated elsewhere, “Workplace illness and injury costs are high in employee health, livelihoods, and lives. If businesses are negligent in protecting their employees, they can be hit with high fines, compensation for affected workers, and a loss of reputation. It is the job of the Industrial Hygiene Professional to work as safety inspectors, protecting the employees, work environment, and the business from neglect or accidental safety hazards in the workplace.” Such inspections translate into a healthier environment.

That finally brings us to the businesses themselves and their stakeholders, the people who ensure that they keep running. By anticipating potential trouble spots and addressing issues when they arise, industrial hygienists ensure a company’s ongoing profitability. That not only equals increased revenues, but it ensures that employees continue to have a place to work.

How Industrial Hygienists Benefits Society

Asking how industrial hygienists benefit society is almost the wrong question. A better one is this: “How do they not benefit all of us?” Just consider the ways in which the work conducted by industrial hygiene professionals ripples out through society at large. For instance, an Industrial Hygienist worksite analysis:

  • Improves indoor air quality. Sampling what’s in the air through charcoal tubes, sorbent tubes, direct reading instruments, and the like help Industrial Hygiene professionals ensure that the atmosphere inside a building won’t negatively impact workers. This has a whole host of benefits, including increased productivity, decreased sick time, fewer health claims, and improved employee happiness.
  • Determines environmental lead exposure. Negative externalities can impact areas for generations — and sometimes permanently. Every environmental science student soon learns about Minamata disease, a fatal ailment that ravaged an entire region of Japan for 50 years during the 20th century. The local populace began suffering from paralysis and comas, a condition brought on by industrial mercury poisoning. The “disease” proved so injurious that it even impacted family pets, and the effect on felines came to be known as “dancing cat fever.” Thanks to industrial hygiene, the tragedy of Minamata need never happen again.
  • Alleviate known hazards such as asbestos and radon. Some environmental hazards such as radon occur naturally. Asbestos and other similar substances result from long-abandoned construction measure, but still need the attention of industrial hygiene consultants and related professionals. How deadly can these substances be? Consider how over 10,000 people in and around New York were diagnosed with cancer less than two decades after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, cancers directly related to the uncontrolled spread of building materials sent into the atmosphere after the World Trade Center buildings collapsed.
  • Detecting seemingly less deleterious hazards such as noise and light pollution. IT journalist Michael Kassner wrote for TechRepublic about the very real health issues caused by noise pollution, saying, “Tinnitus or ‘ringing in the ears’ is my constant companion due to spending long hours in shipboard engine rooms during my six years of military service. A friend also has tinnitus, but his diagnosis is very different from mine. An ear, nose, and throat doctor told my friend (who has been a contract network engineer for 25 years) that spending long hours in data centers could very well be the reason for his tinnitus.” Industrial Hygiene professionals and workplace hazard controls help ensure that others don’t have to suffer the same way that Kassner has.
  • Minimize the prevalence of repetitive stress injuries. If you’ve ever suffered from carpal-tunnel syndrome, you know exactly what the numb, tingling pain feels like — and chances are you may very well have experienced it. Radiopaedia states that roughly three to six percent of Americans at any given time will suffer from it, and an estimated 10 to 15 percent will deal with its symptoms at least once during their lives. Safety and health training conducted by Industrial Hygiene professionals can help drive that incidence down.

Industries Where Industrial Hygiene Is Essential

It’s one thing to throw around the word “industrial” and another thing altogether to actually discuss the specific kinds of businesses in which industrial hygiene services play an essential role. The list of fields runs the gamut and includes?

  • Construction
  • Mining
  • Oil Fields
  • Trucking
  • Chemical Refining
  • Healthcare Facilities
  • Hospitality
  • Warehousing
  • Machining
  • Nuclear Power
  • Demolition

Note that the above list is far from comprehensive. Additionally, some industries don’t need industrial hygienists on staff, but they still might use industrial hygiene services for specific tasks.

Why is that? Consider the many areas which Industrial Hygiene intersects. Temperature hazards, noise hazards, vibration hazards, mold hazards, ergonomic hazards, chemical hazards, airborne hazards — all of these require input from an industrial hygiene professional. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a field in which hazard prevention involving these types of risks doesn’t crop up from time to time.

As we have stated in our educational materials, “Many processes require toxic substances in the workplace. Industrial cleaning fluids, testing chemicals, industrial processes, and other substances and situations pose a potential public health problem for people and the environment. The IHP line of work is to make sure that all processes are safe and all systems are working properly. They make sure employees have the appropriate safety equipment and that all equipment is working as it should. They may also be responsible for training employees in health and safety procedures.”

In short, many kinds of companies need the workplace hazards measurements and remediation services provided by Industrial Hygienists.

Key Areas an Industrial Hygienist Has to Consider

The first area that an industrial hygienist must consider is education and certification. Industrial hygiene isn’t a field that someone can just jump right into without proper training. Fortunately, the National Registry of Environmental Professionals® offers multiple certifications in the field of industrial hygiene. The programs provided by NREPSM will ensure that you’re equipped for any and every eventuality.

Additionally, Industrial Hygiene professionals must leverage their unique training, honed observational skills, and knowledge of the specific sectors in which they function in order to identify potential risks and address them. Few risks are universal, and what distinguishes a novice Industrial Hygiene practitioner from an expert is that combination of understanding industry-specific dangers and applying best practices to alleviate them.

Keeping abreast of governmental regulation is an essential part of the industrial-hygiene process. Violating OSHA and other related regulatory guidelines can not only ring up large fines for businesses, it can subject workers to undue harm. It’s the job of industrial hygienists to comprehend the broader regulatory framework, discern the corners that apply to an individual company, and make sure their employers remain in compliance.

Finally, industrial hygienists must understand the business mindset and how to leverage it to ensure that stakeholders follow best Industrial Hygiene practices. The EPA highlights the importance of such an approach in its publication about productivity practices such as Six Sigma and Lean Manufacturing. “It is important for environmental professionals to understand how to talk to Lean and Six Sigma practitioners in a way that maximizes the likelihood of successful partnerships,” it explains. “Attempts to shift Lean and Six Sigma efforts away from their competitiveness drivers are likely to be less effective than efforts to integrate environmental considerations into the Lean and Six Sigma methodologies.” Speaking the same “language” as decision makers helps ensure the compliance necessary to safeguard lives and land.

Industrial hygiene is a rewarding field, one that bolsters businesses, workers, and the environment. Interesting in improving society as an industrial hygienist? Check out our certifications page to learn more.