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Industrial Hygiene – What is it?

At a recent staff meeting, our QRT & IH Specialist, Sara Evarts gave a presentation overviewing Industrial Hygiene. Here is a recap of her talk, where you can learn the basics of IH, how it’s different from EHS, and why it’s important.

Industrial hygiene is a science and art devoted to the anticipation, recognition, evaluation, and control of those environmental factors or stresses arising in or from the workplace which may cause sickness, impaired health or well-being, or significant discomfort among workers or among citizens of the community.

The goal of industrial hygiene is to look at a facility, environment, or workplace and anticipate the hazards. So, that first word is important, it’s always best if we’re looking at a facility and saying what could happen and how we can prevent it from happening, recognizing what those hazards are, and evaluating the facility and how to control the hazards. We ask questions like ‘what are those hazards,’ ‘what do they already have in place to keep people safe,’ and then evaluating and implementing additional controls.

Industrial hygiene, as a broad concept, focuses on long-term health effects. It’s there to make sure people are being safe from the little things that their work-related exposures that could really add up to and affect them over long periods of time. But, of course, anything that’s acute or immediately hazardous to employees, need to be addressed, as well.

IH work that we do, when we’re moving on from our typical client work to an actual IH project, is generally a lot more detailed. It’s broader in scale and specific to topic. Almost all industrial hygiene projects must be project-specific, data-driven, and if we’re looking for a certification on a report or some sort of assessment, it almost always must include data. We’re taking samples, we’re looking at data, and we’re not making broad statements, and then it almost always also results in a certified assessment.

IH projects can cover lots of different topics. Some of them are obvious, like chemical safety or people using solvents in the lab, and maybe other hazards such as: biologics, radiation, thermal stress. We don’t see all of these hazards a lot at our typical R&D clients such as thermal stress, but more so in manufacturing facilities. Where these hazards exist, we would do assessments to make sure people are safe from equipment that gives off heat or is noisy, as well as ergonomics, ventilation, IAQ and IEQ, which are indoor air or indoor environmental quality. A classic example is somebody is in an office, and they share, “When I come to work, I feel like I don’t feel as good as I feel when I’m home.” Maybe there’s a mold issue or a dust issue, or there’s something wrong with the ventilation, so we’ll look at the air quality of the facility, wastewater, and then other particulate assessments.

These are the general topics and hazard categories, and then we’re looking at the types of assessments. For decommissioning projects, we look at clients who are using metals, silicon, or active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs). We also evaluate vapor exposure assessments and OSHA-regulated chemical exposure such as formaldehyde and ethylene oxide. Other evaluations include mold assessments, noise exposure, oxygen deficiency, and many more.

What is an occupational exposure limit? It’s just another exposure level limit for human exposure. It’s a standard that we’re comparing our results to in order to make sure that people are safe in the workplace.

Types of samples that we assess are:

  • Surface samples are common, especially for our decommissioning projects. These include biologicals, metals, mercury, and active pharmaceutical ingredients. There’s also semi-volatiles, which are similar to volatile organic compounds, but they don’t readily volatilize in an indoor air environment. They’re not like ethanol or methanol where they quickly will evaporate. They do hang around for a while, and a lot of them are toxic, so we do sample for those. Other samples include mouse urinary protein, mold, and solvents.
  • For APIs (active pharmaceutical ingredients) this gets a little tricky. Some of our clients are working on active pharmaceutical ingredients that do not have regulatory standards. It’s not like formaldehyde where you have a number for an exposure limit comparison. But, of course, they are toxic to humans. A lot of these chemicals are chemotherapeutics, or other targets where you are trying to do some therapeutic activity to a human. However, a lot of times when they’re doing that, they’re not healthy for you and you don’t want your workers exposed to them.

Safety committee meetings are where we get a voice with the management and everyone at the company where they can see where the issues lie, and can stress the importance of them. Also, these meetings are an opportunity to help them fix the issues so that they can see that you’re there to help them and aren’t a regulatory agency. We stress that trying to make them improve, and to show them what it looks like when the issue of concern is improved.

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