Beyond what you can see and smell – the role of industrial hygienists
By Jack Burton
Industrial and occupational hygiene deals with the best practices for managing the presence and exposure of potentially harmful materials in the workplace.
Kelly Fernandes, a specialized consultant in workplace hygiene at Workplace Safety & Prevention Services, described the role of an industrial hygienist as one that aims to prevent “avoidable harm and accidental death from chemical, physical and biological hazards.”
In this role hygienists perform onsite assessments using several surveying procedures and technologies to assess the materials present in these environments and their potential exposure rates, along with determining the best responses to these findings.
The threat to workers
The importance of identifying and dealing with these hazards comes not just from the threat they OHS CANADA pose to workers, but the nature of the threat itself: the exposure levels of these materials in question are rarely obvious and can often only accurately be determined through a professional assessment.
“This is beyond what you can see or smell. It’s analytical data, based on peer reviewed methods,” said Fernandes. Notable about the hazardous nature of these materials is that the consequence of their exposure often compounds over time, rather than being immediately apparent.
Each workplace is different, not only in the materials present, but also the procedures needed to safely deal with any threat these materials may pose. Providing all-purpose guidance, no matter the workplace or its needs, is the Hierarchy of Controls, a standard set of processes for dealing with threats to occupational hygiene.
The steps to working safely
As described by Mathew MacLeod, an occupational health and safety specialist with the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, the Hierarchy of Controls consists of five steps, in order of effectiveness, that outline the recommended solutions when dealing with the removal or mitigation of exposure when it comes to hazardous materials.
At the top of this hierarchy “are the most effective measures, those which eliminate the hazardous chemical entirely from the workplace, followed by those that involve substitution of the chemical for a less hazardous one.”
In scenarios where these adjustments are not feasible, this hierarchy moves toward measures based on environmental variables and employer-driven initiatives.
“If there’s still remaining risk, then engineering control should be considered next, such as proper ventilation,” MacLeod said. “Administrative controls then also need to be implemented to complement other controls, such as WHMIS training and instruction on workplace-specific procedures for handling, storing and disposing of these chemicals safely.”
Rounding out the Hierarchy’s realignments toward increased industrial hygiene is the implementation of personal protective equipment relevant to the work environment, which provides a buffer for any risk that may escape mitigation from the other measures outlined in the previous processes.
Implementing industrial hygiene
While employers may be aware of the repercussions that the presence of these harmful materials can lead to, the hazard levels and appropriate solutions are often varied enough that moving forward on any operations or hygienic initiatives without qualified assistance may make things worse.
One example of this is noted by Gavin Oakes, manager of indoor environments at MTE Consultants, who spoke of situations in the construction industry where employers begin demolitions of buildings where asbestos was present before performing a proper assessment.
“Now, they’re going to spend tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the extent of it, where if you would have done an assessment up front and had it removed, you could’ve done it for a fraction of the cost,” said Oakes.
For employers looking to emphasize industrial hygiene, Oakes recommended prioritizing organizational transparency, in addition to staying on top of proper procedures and hazard management.
“Often employers will do testing and want to maybe control how that information gets out to the staff,” said Oakes. “A lot of times, we find that just being open and honest with your workforce is the ideal route… if they find out that there’s information out there that you’re withholding from them, that breeds mistrust.”
Also helping to build this trust is a workforce that is confident in their employer’s commitment to keeping their workplace safe, which Oakes said is achievable through regular hygienic assessments, especially as safety information and onsite ohscanada.com variables shift over time.
“The thing with health and safety plans is that they’re never finished,” said Oakes. “They’re constantly changing as new information becomes available and as conditions change within your organization, so to do something once and just kind of put it on the backburner and forget about it (isn’t enough.) You have to constantly review what you’re doing.”