The Heart of Industrial Hygiene


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.