The Heart of Industrial Hygiene

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

Well dang, I guess the art comes in when its below freezing and you have set-up several sampling trains and convince a bunch of ornery welders to wear them for a whole shift without destroying them. Or maybe the art comes in when you have to convince your wife to let you store a bag of ethylene oxide monitoring samples in the freezer for a night and that it won’t impact the frozen rock hard food since the EtO has been stabilized as bromoethanol on the media and sealed behind several layers of plastic.

Either way, I like to think of the heart of true industrial hygiene as the science part. An applied science very much based on chemistry, physics and statistical analysis.

I enjoy and respect industrial hygiene as a science, which is probably why I quietly shake my head when I read a personal monitoring report by someone from an entirely safety background. Which is were we get into the meet of my thoughts about the IH world.

Most people peripherally connected sampling, dosimetry and such, many of whom I still respect as capable specialists in their own areas do not seem to really appreciate the abstract and often challenging aspects of determining exposures. Worst yet, we have a whole class of technicians for whom IH work is just a series of special tricks they do to get paid. Push button get banana.

Those lab results you got for respirable particulates are not a cast in iron measurement of air concentrations breathed by the unlucky individuals that had to wear a cyclone for several hours, they are a “sample”. One of many theoretically possible samples, with results that are among a whole range of theoretically possible results.

One sample below the exposure limit does not a negative exposure assessment make, and one above does not necessarily prove everyone is going die.

The true art and science of industrial hygiene comes from taking your knowledge of what was going on when the sample was collected, how it was collected, what the sampling and analytical method was and what its limitations are and all the knowledge you have available about the situation and analyte you were monitoring, and then, then, taking that knowledge with all available data points and starting to make a determination about what the “actual” exposure profile of those you were monitoring really is.

If you’re fortunate enough to have been able to collect enough samples to actually perform some rudimentary statistical analysis on, well, you can actually do something meaningful. And here is where so many who wandered into the world of IH fall off.

A true industrial hygienist is seeking truth about reality by analyzing the data, judging the value of each data point and coming to a conclusion about the relationship between the different data points and what their most likely relationship is to the reality of what you are concerned with.

Like all sciences, industrial hygiene is fundamentally about determining the most likely truth by hard analysis and critical thinking.

And yes folks, that means you have to know something about what you are doing and *gasp* use math.

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Safety for wolves and rabbits

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I didn’t start out in safety. I started out doing low level environmental sampling work, then moving into industrial hygiene where I figured safety work would be a good way for me to break away from the less desirable elements of environmental testing.

At the time I found myself trying to be the voice for responsible safety in situations where low level demolition and construction workers were putting themselves at risk. My approach was to explain the “why” of some safety precaution or another and assume that a rational person would take that knowledge and act on it. I would even suggest a means or method for achieving this safety precaution with minimal cost, time or effort. All this done in accordance with hierarchy of whatever site I was working at. With the go ahead of leadership I would provide knowledge and guidance at the site of action and bring upwards to through the chain of command significant issues I believed were not being adequately addressed.

My idea at the time was that you would provide the understanding of a hazard and how to control for it, and the individual would be empowered to address it. The central theme of my thinking was that if someone was intelligent and responsible enough for the job they should be intelligent and responsible enough to take actions or avoid actions where necessary to protect themselves from harm. Occasionally leadership decision might come into conflict with this and I would try to resolve these issues with leadership.

Always I would place the power of decision making was in the hands of those who should be making the decisions. If someone decided to take on a risk with full knowledge of the risk, the best strategy for mitigating the risk and without duress from others, then that person was free to make that choice so long as their decision wasn’t coming into conflicts with the organization they were part of or others on the project.

Apparently I had safety all wrong.

It was my moral outlook that was to blame. I saw each individual as fully in control of their own destiny so long as they weren’t being directed or coerced into actions that would negatively effect them. I would provide my insight and understanding and they would be free to make the best choices for themselves as long as they didn’t negatively impact others. This outlook is not how I have witnessed safety work being done.

What I see among those of the safety profession that differs from my world view is two parts.

  1. Appeals for safety are based more on influencing someone at an emotional level to take precautions. The “You don’t want your family to be without you approach”.
  2. Leadership should take full ownership of the safety of each individual taking away any decision making at the individual level.

I have to admit that this approach is probably more effective.

The problem was that I was approaching the various organizations and individuals I was working with as if they were wolves. Intelligent creatures working within a hierarchy that could be trusted to make decisions for the benefit of themselves and the group. The harsh reality seems to be that most low level workers are more like rabbits that often cannot be trusted to make the best decision for themselves let alone the group and need someone acting as a care giver to protect the individual from harm. Leadership is more often than not nothing like the alpha wolf showing concern for the well being of the pack, but instead a custodian who realizes that low level workers are freely available and weighs the cost of risking one against the cost of not getting the most out of the group.

The average worker is not a motivated intelligent wolf aware of their surroundings and making decisions, but instead more like a rabbit that will go about their daily business only jumping when something really exciting happens and still less motivated when one of their own is at risk.

When performing industrial hygiene work I was used to the hazards I was explaining as being somewhat mysterious to the laymen and that mysterious nature motivated at an emotional level their sense of possible danger from the unseen. In safety where the danger is often more clearly understood, the visual image of everything going normally will work against sound warnings about the potential hazards presented. The fact that the danger is more easily understood makes the average worker less concerned than if the danger is poorly understood.

A metaphor of wolves and sheep would probably have worked better. However numerous articles I’ve read and discussions I’ve had about the social and political natures of people being akin to that of rabbits and wolves struck me when looking at how I believed safety should be approached.

We should be competent capable people working together towards a common goal with each individual a valuable member of the group, but instead many people take the short sighted approach and fail to plan ahead for themselves or the group.

I wanted to have providing my technical expertise in my area of specialty as my niche in supporting my organization’s objectives, instead I find myself trying to keep a bunch of rabbits from wandering into a snakes den in broad daylight my job.

Both the average worker and the organizations they work for leave me wondering about my whole outlook on society.

From Consulting to Corporate

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Well its been a while since I last posted and a lot has changed.

I finally did it, I finally broke out of the consulting world and became a corporate environment, health and safety (EHS) worker.

I’ve been working with the current company for several months now. A higher end manufacturing facility with strong concerns for maintaining environmental conditions in the production areas and maintaining regulatory compliance. Sounds like a perfect place for some one working in EHS.

My reactions are mixed.

While I’m glad to not be counting how I spend every minute of every day, and I’m glad I’m not practically living at the airport, having a the same job with the same group of people at the same place every day brings up its own challenges.

A huge challenge has been the politics. Every department has its own goals and its own history with my group. Normally I would find out where my supervisor stands on the issues and work within that framework to accomplish the goals of my group, but where my supervisor stands and what are the priorities of my group are constantly moving targets often influenced by unseen politics behind the scenes. I can hardly believe I am the first person to deal with a situation like this only to feel exhausted by the process of trying to do what I believe my job is while navigating often sensitive situations.

The other big challenge is eye opening to what kind of person I am.

In consulting I had to be sociable and sensitive to my clients, but those interactions were generally bite sized and within the framework of a limited scope of work. My current work environment is much more focused on building relationships with people where there are numerous areas of contention to work around and through.

I always knew I enjoyed the technical aspects of my work more, but I never realized how truly draining it could be to have to play the social game constantly.

It seems that on the surface that while my technical competency is still valued, a much greater emphasis is placed on my ability to be “friends” with everyone. This is hard for me because I value sincerity in that I only really become friends with people I actually like and only after a substantial period of interaction where we can really understand where the other one is coming from. Having to be buddies with everyone instead of maintaining mutual professional dialogues is not something natural to me.

This is not to say that I am some how anti-social. It just feels false to me to act like everyone I work with is someone I would spend my time with outside of work.

I can remember numerous situations in my past work experience where I would have to place my life and well being in the hands of someone else and they in mine while we as people had only a minimal personal relationship. We were both professionals in what we did and took it to heart that our jobs were not to be buddies but to take responsibility for our work and those impacted by it. There was a basic understanding there, an understanding that I felt was more honest. At least more honest than pretending we were less concerned with our work than chit chatting about what we do for fun.

While I’m still glad for the change and am still feeling it out, I do wonder if maybe I’m too private of a person and respecting of professional distance to be the best fit for this new environment.

The Ride Never Ends

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“Just a little bit farther”  “Just over the next hill”

Statements like that seem to characterize so much of my experience in life.

When I was child, my parents divorced and my mother who up until then had been a housewife was suddenly forced to provide for all her children.  It was not an easy life and times always seemed hard.  Heck, I remember not celebrating my birthday for several years simply because we were insanely poor and always stressed out about getting through “this” time.  I don’t blame my mother, she made unbelievable sacrifices, not once but day after day just to keep us safe, sheltered and fed.  It was simply that life was hard.  While there was always hope for a better future, the mantra was always “just a little bit farther, just make it past this” as we struggled with one catastrophe after another.  At one point my mother cashed out her retirement just to keep us going.  That was the mind set, we just had to make it a little farther.

Now that the kids are grown up and able to support themselves, thanks in no small parts to my mother’s sacrifices, I find myself looking with a weary eye towards the day when the children will have to work together to take care of my mother when she’s no longer able to work.

I know we will be there and do all that needs to be done, yet I also find myself still stuck in the same cycle of just trying to make it a little bit farther.

It’s tough enough when its you facing real life challenges that just have to be met with the frail hope that things will someday be better.  It’s worse when these situations are put on you by someone else who just wants to get more out of you and thinly veils it in a promise that it’s only temporary (which it never is).

I can no longer count on one hand how many times I have a boss tell me that he just needed us to put in some more hours and make some extra effort to just through a rough spot only to have that new level of time and effort become the new standard.  Do this enough times and you find yourself living at work.

I don’t mind seeing the job get done and following it through to the end.  I’ve put in my share of work weeks over sixty hours and even a few approaching eighty hours.  But I’ve never had an employer, at least not a consulting company, tell me it was time to dial back and regain some of your sanity.

For industrial hygiene consulting companies, there is always a crisis.  Things are never going smoothly or calmly.  There will always be some emergency that requires the extra effort, the sacrificed weekend, and while it’s only to get through that emergency, there is always another even worse emergency around the corner that requires the same or more effort.  Even if there is no obvious crisis, the ever present crisis of somehow falling behind is always available.

I cannot remember the last time I had a forty hour work week unless you count some time when there’s a major holiday.

The ride never ends when you work in consulting, and they don’t want it to.  The very nature of the business is that they make money when you’re busier than ever before.

Sure people will, and they may hire new one’s with promises of good working conditions and a decent work life balance.  But then comes the inevitable call to “temporarily put in some extra time to get past this rough patch”.  It’s never temporary.  The light at the end of the tunnel is always moving just a little farther ahead.

The obvious question is why not just leave consulting?  Well, that’s easier said than done when you’ve already established a career in this side of the industry.  I regularly get phone calls from consulting companies wanting me to come on board with them, always promising something better, but by now I would say that pretty much all medium to large size consulting companies are the same when it comes to questions of work life balance.  If you’re salaried, they’re going to run you until you die or quit.

As for positions with more traditional companies, they are incredibly hard to get unless you’re already working for one.  I look at the people whom I graduated with that also became EHS type folks.  Those who found there way into working for one company as an EHS type role end up just moving from one large company to another large company with an ease that is astounding to me.

One of the saddest moments I remember is when I was taking a prep class for the CIH exam and the teacher asked the students why they were going for the CIH.  Students with normal stable jobs simply expressed a desire to further develop themselves as professions.  Students working in consulting seemed to hope the CIH would some how be their magic ticket to getting out of consulting.  It’s almost as bad as asbestos consultants who all have secret plans for how their going to get out of the asbestos racket, yet you see the same damn faces doing the same damn thing a year later.  Some roles and occupations are just impossible to escape.  It’s a shame, because a lot of the people I know in consulting and even in asbestos work are smart hard working people with a lot of great knowledge and background who just can’t seem to get their lucky break.

I started writing largely to just give me a sense of hope for the future.  I genuinely enjoy it and like creating stories, which I try to keep as the primary reason for me doing it since I know the possibility of ever getting published are small let alone having a career as a writer.  But I know I keep at it despite occasional frustrations because I need something else in my life that might theoretically someday provide me another means of livelihood.

Oh well.  The ride never ends, not for me, not today.  Just a little bit farther, I just need to make it over this next hill.

EHS as I understand it.

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To give a little more background to the EHS as I understand it I feel explaining the general fields and how my field of Industrial Hygiene seems to be broken up.

Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) as I know it can generally be described as having four main parts.

The first, Environmental, seems pretty self explanatory.  People in this area can be doing work anywhere from performing Phase I and II site assessments usually as part of a real estate transaction, to monitoring ground water quality to counting desert turtles in the middle of nowhere.  Oddly enough, these folks seem the least disgruntled about their work and feign the most ignorance about other areas of the EHS world despite many areas of overlap.

Secondly there is Public Health.  Oh Public Health.  I was so put off from Industrial Hygiene and consulting after my internship that I decided I was going to go Public Health after graduating.  After several seemingly positive interviews and no offerings I decided to kick it up a notch and go for the Registered Environmental Health Specialist/ Registered Sanitarian (REHS/RS) certification, the flag ship cert for Public Health people.  For three weeks, six days a week, ten hours a day I studied the REHS/RS study guide handbook, the communicable disease handbook and several other source materials for the exam.  None of the people I talked to thought I could do it in such a short time, but to my surprise I passed and to this day can put the letters REHS/RS after my name to make me look more official.  Despite this achievement I never did make it to a second interview for a public health department no matter how positive the first interview seemed to go.  It probably would have helped if I was a young attractive woman, but more on that in a later blog.

What can I say about public health work and workers?  Well for one, I probably dodged a bullet for never getting a public health gig.  While the work itself might seem moderately interesting for a year or so, it seems to get real boring real quick.  Most public health folks I know seemed burnt out on shear boredom.  The majority of work tends to revolve around performing health inspections of restaurants that will never fully comply and the occasional testing of public swimming pools.  The few lucky ones can branch out into setting mosquito traps to monitor for West Nile virus and what not, and some get to perform inspections of septic system installations.  Exciting.  The jobs seem to be mainly low stress like a lot of government work, but the inability to rise through the ranks without clawing your way on top of a pile of coworkers probably doesn’t help the mood.  In the end I get the impression that most public health workers are just bored and feel trapped by their careers.  Yeah, probably good I didn’t end up there.  But hey, at least then I might have time to do the things I actually want to do.  None of this 80 hour work week bullshit.  Also, public health people don’t feign ignorance about the other EHS fields, they seem generally unaware that anything outside their mind bending tedium actually can exist and are blown away with excitement about the prospect of collecting a lead-based paint chip sample.

Thirdly there are safety folks.  You know, the guy who always reminds you to wear safety glasses, maybe forces you to an early morning meeting to talk about what you already know you’re going to be doing.  It looks to me safety can generally go one or two ways.  You end up in a cool company without interesting processes and a good safety culture where you actually try to implement meaningful programs, or you end up in a shit company that pretends they care about safety but really just want “get er dun!”  The latter usually falls into you either being a safety cheerleader who puts up silly signs about how to pick up things safely, or you just spend your time filling out accident reports when someone does something stupid and the management blames you for someone doing something stupid that you’ve warned him against a million times before.  Ah, fun times.

While there are a decent number of safety consultants out there, working in safety, specifically manufacturing (heaven forbid you end up doing safety work in construction) can offer the possibility of working for a normal company that to some degree respects the concept of not working you to death to get every cent of value out of you.  This isn’t a given, but if you work for a good company, doing safety work can lead to you having some semblance of a normal life.

Lastly, there is Industrial Hygiene (IH).  What the hell is Industrial Hygiene?  No.  No, it has nothing to do with dental hygiene and we utterly hate the comparison, and no, it has nothing to do with supplying mops to factories.  We hate that last comparison slightly less than the dental hygiene one.

According to the American Board of Industrial Hygiene (yes that really exists, I didn’t make it up) Industrial Hygiene is: Industrial hygiene is the science of protecting and enhancing the health and safety of people at work and in their communities. Their words not mine.

So what does that mean?  Well think of it this way.  Safety folks are like those guys that took management courses in college teaching the finer arts of power point use.  Industrial Hygienists are those guys that took three or more years of chemistry along with an array of other science courses.  Naturally the art of keeping track of a few numbers and making fun power point presentations wins out over hard science and Safety folks will often get paid more only be second to getting laid off after the Industrial Hygienist cause shit, we can outsource that (more on that later).

IH is like the sciency technical side of safety.  Where a safety guy is worried about knuckleheads falling off a latter they balanced on a wobbly table, an industrial hygienist is worried about the potentially toxic fumes coming from the vat of toxic methyl ethyl death next to the guy trying to balance the latter on a wobbly table.  This concern is usually manifested with the industrial hygienist ceremonally placing a bulky vibrating air pump on the belt of the worker with a tube going to the workers shoulder where some other object is connected for the purpose of collecting a “sample” of what that worker breaths in during the day.  You know, so we can know will kill him after he spent a day breathing it in.

I’m only being half serious here.  IH involves more than just sucking air through a tube, though many days that seems like all it is.  It involves recognizing hazards before hand, finding ways to mitigate the hazard and goes beyond just respirable hazards into noise, ergonomics and whatever else is hot in the last issue of the Synergist.

So there you have it, the four main areas as I seem them of the EHS world.

What about my little corner of the domain of delight and joy you ask?  Well…

While very technical companies and bloated government institutions may have their own industrial hygienist, the work is simply too niche to require a full time industrial hygienist on staff for most companies.  That means we get the worst evil the business world has ever spawned since boy bands, yes, consulting companies.

Now personally I actually disagree with much of Marx’s description of the capitalist system, I think it a bit over simplified and tilted towards seeing anyone successful in business as greedy and evil.  But, if there is one part of our modern market economy that best models the father of communism’s predictions about the greedy capitalists enslaving the downtrodden worker, it would be consulting companies.

Consulting companies literally function on a direct correlation between profit and your misery.  The more overworked you are, the more time of you limited life span you sacrifice to them, the more you put your marriage at risk, the more likely the company is to make money off of you.  Oh they’ll tell you you’re wonderful, pretty and unique like a little snowflake, but once you step inside that door the lock turns and a whip snaps.  And worse, once you go consulting, normal companies look at you like you’re some kind of non-committal rough rider going from job to job and they’re be more reluctant than ever to take you on board.  Consulting is a highway or miserly with plenty of on-ramps and almost no off-ramps.

IH consulting companies basically prostitute out once fine respectable industrial hygienists to various companies and government institutions to turn a few quick IH tricks.  Usually this is in some specific niche area they don’t have in house capabilities for, or its just work their normal employees don’t want to do.  They have a consultant come in and either figure out their problem and send them a bill, or have them come in a do some of their dirty work and then send them a bill.  Billing clients is the one core ethos that all consulting companies adhere to no matter what.

The problem is that consulting companies make their money in one of two ways.  Time and materials projects where the more hours you work the more money they make, so there’s no justification to you cutting back your hours.  The other is incredibly low balling a fixed fee contract so you will never have enough time to do a good job unless you come in on your own time to make sure it gets done right.  It also doesn’t help that most of your clientele have no freaking clue what you do other than they’re being forced to have you do it, so they think anything higher than free is an unreasonable price.

I’m sure you can gather that I’ve spent most of working career as a consultant.  Yes, I’m ashamed of it, and yes, I wish there was a way out, but that’s a story for another time.

Getting Started

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Like 99% of people who end up working in environment, health and safety (EHS) I just kinda fell into the field.  I have yet to meet the guy or girl who spent much of their youth dreaming about becoming an EHS professional.  If I were to meet such a person, I would probably just stare at them blankly and say “why?”

My area of specialty in EHS is Industrial Hygiene (IH).  Someday I’ll write in more detail what an industrial hygienist or IH does, but to put it simply, I generally will generally collect samples or take measurements, often using people as mobile sampling platforms, and then write reports based on the results.

I can’t say its all bad.  I’ve gotten to see a lot of really interesting stuff in my time.  Vegetable canning facilities to dirty old industrial sites to nuclear reactors to more dirty old industrial sites and a ton of other places and things.  I’ve traveled around and gotten to see the inner workings of more companies than I would ever care to.  In general I believe its given me more perspective on the world and a little bit of first hand experience of different environments and human institutions.

However, the industry can be a hard one.  For some who work in more traditional roles in a single company, they need to work in an environment where many question the justification for their role, and whenever things go wrong it is inevitably their fault for letting it happen.  For others in consulting they have to live in a world of constant crisis where there will never be a calm normal pace to work and the very organization they work for benefits when they are being worked to death.  Then there’s government where as a prerequisite for getting hired you must be committed to the idea of being absolutely miserable and/or jaded every day of your life.

I stumbled my into the most hated category, consulting.

But when life gave me parasite infected lemons, I made non-FDA approved instant lemonade mix.  I committed myself to being a “professional” in my field and did everything I could not to get swallowed up by the dreaded death of true IH careers, the asbestos industry.  I also became a certified industrial hygienist (CIH) with the American Board of Industrial Hygiene.  That usually doesn’t mean anything to normal folks, but for an IH, you’ve finally arrived once you’ve made it through the CIH process.

However, getting as far as I have and being more than just an expendable field technician, I’ve found myself feeling empty.

Okay, let’s be honest, I friggin hate my job and find that trying to leave IH consulting altogether is about as hard as escaping Earth’s gravity by jumping.

So I returned to something I actually did dream about when I was young, writing.  I just started writing stories and even attempted a few novels.  Pretty much everything I write sucks, or so far it does.  I’ve seen a lot of improvement since I’ve started, and while it may come to nothing in the end, at least its a hobby that doesn’t cost money.

And in truth, this late in the game, I just need hope.

So I’ll try my hand at blogging a bit in addition to my writing projects, and probably spend a decent amount of blog space complaining about traveling and sharing my insights into a world that most people never get to see or even know exists.