Whether you’re working in manufacturing facilities, construction sites, or oil and gas projects, chances are your business has experienced its share of workplace-related illnesses and accidents. Unfortunately, some occupational hazards lead to employee deaths. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 5,333 fatal occupational injuries in 2019 and 2.7 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses in 2020.

How many of those incidents were preventable?

The good news is there are steps you can take to identify and minimize workplace hazards and risks. And it involves the development of a comprehensive industrial hygiene program.

Here’s a look at industrial hygiene and how it helps create a better, safer work environment.

What is industrial hygiene?

Industrial hygiene (IH) is “the science of protecting and enhancing the health and safety of people at work and in their communities.” Essentially, industrial hygiene helps businesses predict, detect, and correct hazardous conditions on the job and mitigate the risk of illnesses and injuries. 

While some hazards are obvious (e.g., fall risks or exposure to known toxic chemicals), others require the expertise of an experienced professional to uncover. People who practice industrial hygiene — industrial hygienists — are experts in anticipating and recognizing workplace risks and determining how they could adversely impact the health of workers. They can link unexplained symptoms to hazards that might have been overlooked, or detect seemingly harmless conditions that could damage worker health over time, such as repetitively lifting heavy objects or using tools that gradually cause discomfort or pain.  

A rigorous certification program is available through the American Board of Industrial Hygiene (ABIH), however, not all practicing industrial hygienists are certified. Certified Industrial Hygienists (CIHs) have proven, through examination, that they possess advanced knowledge and experience in essential IH subjects such as epidemiology, chemistry, and toxicology. So they are well equipped to get to the bottom of even the most challenging workplace health mysteries and recommend solutions.

History of industrial hygiene

The concept of industrial hygiene traces back as far as the fourth century BC with lead toxicity concerns in the mining industry. Fast forward to 1700 — Bernardo Ramazzini, the “father of industrial medicine,” published a book detailing common occupational diseases. He advocated for studying these diseases in the work environment, not hospital settings. 

Legislative acts regarding industrial safety began in the 18th century with the passing of the Chimney-Sweepers Act of 1788 by the British Parliament, driven by Percival Pott’s research on the impacts of soot exposure. In the U.S., the New York Department of Labor and the Ohio Department of Health led the charge with the creation of the first state industrial hygiene programs in 1913, and the remaining states followed suit by 1948. 

Since then, historic acts like the Metal and Nonmetallic Mines Safety Act of 1966, the Federal Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act) have made industrial hygiene a priority in the U.S.

The role of industrial hygiene in the workplace 

Industrial sites may contain a wide range of chemical, biological, and physical hazards, which, left unchecked, put workers at risk. The goal of industrial hygiene is to identify and analyze these hazardous conditions, particularly those that are hidden or harder to recognize, and introduce effective corrective measures to reduce or eliminate exposure. 

Industrial hygienists use scientific methods to observe and assess the dangers employees might encounter in their daily work and how those conditions affect their health. They can also develop an IH monitoring program to continually measure contaminant or risk exposure within a specific area or length of time, determine whether those levels are within safe limits, and evaluate ongoing exposure to those hazards. A monitoring program may uncover a need for additional safety measures, assist with compliance with legislative rules and regulations, and help protect employers from compensation claims.

Based on their research, industrial hygienists may recommend specific corrective actions and control measures. Here’s an example: 

Several workers in an office environment begin to complain of chronic coughs and headaches. The employer is unable to identify any causative agent in the workplace, but given the number of employees who are showing symptoms, they call in an industrial hygienist to investigate. 

After a thorough analysis, the industrial hygienist concludes that a plumbing leak that had seemingly been repaired caused massive, unsightly water damage within the walls. Ultimately, left unchecked, the damaged drywall and insulation became a breeding ground for black mold. 

In this sort of situation, an industrial hygienist may recommend things like: 

  • Calling in a mold remediation expert to safely remove and dispose of the affected building materials and sanitize the area, thereby eliminating the immediate hazard. 
  • Implementing regular housekeeping and maintenance schedules to help avoid any future plumbing issues. 
  • Implementing an indoor air quality monitoring program that will give the employer the tools and protocols they need to measure the level of common pollutants in the air, reduce or eliminate hazards, and safely respond to hazardous situations.  

These observations help employers design an industrial hygiene program, develop safety plans and protocols, and ensure their workers have the knowledge and training they need to successfully avoid workplace dangers.

The benefits of a strong industrial hygiene program 

Minimize workplace risks 

An industrial hygiene program effectively minimizes the risks of workplace illnesses and injuries and equips workers with protection in the face of hazardous conditions. It promotes better air quality, reduces occupational exposures to biological, chemical, and physical hazards, and prevents injuries from repetitive and strenuous physical tasks.

Reduce injury- and illness-related absences  

Industrial hygiene also benefits employers. With fewer workers absent due to illnesses and injuries, productivity and morale remain strong, and supervisors won’t be scrambling to find substitutes at short notice. Employee retention and hiring will likely improve, too — current and prospective workers will feel more comfortable working in an environment where their company is prioritizing their health and safety.

Save money 

At the end of the day, businesses with a robust industrial hygiene program are saving money.  There’s a high price to pay for not taking industrial hygiene seriously — including worker compensation, employee turnover, fines for non-compliance, indirect costs associated with accidents and injuries, and a damaged company reputation. 

If you need assistance evaluating your workplace conditions or are aiming to create a safer workplace for your employees, TriMedia can help. Our Certified Industrial Hygienists can provide a wide range of industrial hygiene services, including industrial hygiene program development, baseline industrial hygiene surveys, and risk assessments. Reach out to our experts for a free quote.