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Q&A: Finding Solutions to Industrial Hygiene Hazards on Your Job Site

Mar 13, 2024

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Closeup of a safety professional holding a clipboard on a construction siteCreating a safe and healthy work environment goes beyond mitigating physical hazards. Environmental hazards such as noise levels, heat stress and exposure to volatile compounds can have serious consequences on worker health.  

Stephen Paternostro, M.P.H., CSP, CIH, EH&S division manager for Leaaf Environmental LLC, joined  “The Case for Safety Podcast” and spoke with host Scott Fowler about common environmental workplace hazards and steps you can take to identify and mitigate them.  

Fowler: Let’s start with the basics. What is industrial hygiene?

Paternosto: I think the most widely referenced definition of industrial hygiene is from OSHA’s Office of Training and Education. That definition states that “industrial hygiene is the 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 and well-being or significant discomfort among workers or among the citizens of the community.”

Fowler: What are some specific environmental hazards in different working environments?

Paternostro: There are hazards associated with noise and heat stress, as well as ergonomic concerns. There is also the potential for exposure to volatile organic compounds such as hydrogen sulfide. Fabrication and welding environments produce metal dusts. Industry-specific chemicals or or, you know, site-specific chemicals, process-specific chemicals. In addition to chemical exposures, there is the potential for exposure to naturally occurring radioactive material from radiation sources associated with gauging and nondestructive testing.

Fowler: What data should industrial hygienists collect to assess their programs?

Paternostro: I encourage industrial hygienists to look at the policies and procedures at their sites and perform a gap assessment or a qualitative risk assessment. Evaluate any existing data at your facility or within your organization, consider how much of that data is still relevant to work processes and make a strategic plan for how to collect relevant data moving forward.

This can be challenging because some organizations have had systems in place for many years and they get into a routine of redoing what was previously done. It’s important to take a step back and think about the purpose of the data you’re collecting so you can make informed decisions and use resources effectively.

There are many reasons for having a robust, comprehensive and well-thought-out industrial hygiene program. There is the direct impact, which is reducing occupational illnesses and injuries. But doing so also reduces absenteeism, decreases medical costs and lowers the potential for legal consequences.  

In addition, hearing employee concerns and actually taking action increases employee satisfaction and productivity. Providing a safe work environment isn't just making sure that you're providing the right gloves. It's also ensuring that your personnel don't feel like they're breathing in something that could potentially harm them.

There are a lot of long-term exposures that aren't considered until attorneys call. One of the main things I try and instill in colleagues is to help people be more proactive about industrial hygiene. Being responsive as opposed to proactive will result in higher overall costs in the long run.

Fowler: What are some of the most common issues you encounter as an industrial hygienist?

Paternostro: One of the most common is ensuring PPE will provide an adequate level of protection. That's usually a pretty easy project where you collect data in the first few days of the process to help guide decsison-making on the effectiveness of the PPE. 

Another is when organizations want to gain an understanding of their program. That's often where I'll come in and do a gap assessment to help them make those decisions. It's very easy for people to get into the habit of just continuing to do what they've done in the past and not reconsider it.

Something I'm happy to see is that I’m getting more requests for noise exposure surveys, illumination level surveys, norm ventilation and engineering verifications. Measures like this allow organizations to identify potential problems before they become real problems. It is more proactive than responding to a threshold shift in someone’s hearing or responding to an incident associated with insufficient lighting.

Fowler: Anything else you’d like to add?  

Paternostro: I think it’s important for safety professionals — even if they aren’t interested in making a full-time change — to  pursue becoming a certified industrial hygienist or managing the industrial hygiene program. It’s important to understand industrial hygiene enough to feel comfortable deciding when to call an industrial hygienist. These are hazards that you need to address, and industrial hygienists can help.


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