Q&A: How to Prepare for the Future of Industrial Hygiene

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Industrial hygiene professional woman wearing PPE and working in a lab with a pipette and purple gloves

The evolution of industrial hygiene has come with high expectations for professionals. Not only have industrial hygienists faced uniquely catastrophic health and environmental issues this year, such as those brought by COVID-19 and climate change, but rapid technological advancement and shifting workforce demographics also challenge their ability to keep up.

It’s no coincidence that as the practice of industrial hygiene has become more complex, practitioners have embraced a more holistic and cross-functional approach. Paul Zoubek, CSP, CIH, CESCP, president of Zoubek Consulting, is an expert at using NIOSH’s Total Worker Health framework to guide and improve industrial hygiene programs. Here’s what he says the future of the profession might hold — and how you can get ready.

ASSP: What would you like people to know about what you do every day?

Paul: Worker safety and health is my focus. Part of that is understanding how the issues we face on the job often cross over into our homes and vice versa. COVID-19 is a good example of that. We've been dealing with this pandemic for the past eight months or so in our lives and in our workplaces because of how we can be exposed.

As an industrial hygienist, I work to identify and address the exposures we face every day. There are dust issues. There are air pollution issues. With changing weather patterns and so forth, we face potential exposure to combustion from wildfires. Flood, humidity and mold are other examples.

ASSP: What is Total Worker Health, and why does it matter?

Paul: Total Worker Health is defined by NIOSH as actions or policies that integrate workplace safety and health hazard protection with efforts to advance worker well-being. So, what does that look like in practice?

We have work-related risk factors for obesity. We have work-related risk factors for sleep and cardiovascular disorders that could be exacerbated by exposures at home, depression or other health issues. As workers, every aspect of our lives is connected, and Total Worker Health recognizes that. It prompts us to ask questions about high quotas that may be interfering with sleep or work schedules that may not provide enough time for exercise, for example.

Total Worker Health is especially important right now, given the changing demographics of our workforce. People are working longer. As we age, our risk for certain diseases increases. Even things like hearing loss — a 60-year-old person’s hearing has likely diminished more than that of a 30-year-old person because of presbycusis. Industrial hygienists must be able to adapt and address the needs of older workers.

ASSP: How are industrial hygienists incorporating Total Worker Health into their practice? Has it been widely adopted at this point?

Paul: I've been doing safety for 30 years, and the concept of Total Worker Health has come to the forefront within the past 10 or 11. But really, I and many others have always held these principles because they gave us a framework and shared language to use. We were acting on these concepts before we had a name for them.

Industrial hygienists are used to collaborating with people in different roles to get the information we need to protect workers — occupational safety and health professionals, human resources — so in a sense, Total Worker Health is second nature to us. Professionals in these different roles consult each other regularly about issues such as a worker’s physical ability to wear a respirator or lift a certain weight.

ASSP: Some people associate the name Total Worker Health with wellness programs and human resources. What would you say to someone who has trouble seeing the connection between Total Worker Health and OSH?

Paul: Occupational safety and health and human resources overlap — or should overlap — more than people might think. A wellness initiative, such as a smoking cessation program, may start with HR, but if it’s successful the organization will empower workers to avoid synergistic exposure that comes from smoking cigarettes and engaging in high-risk activities on the job.

All OSH professionals need to build relationships with HR. That’s true across the board, but especially if you’re working to implement the Total Worker Health framework at your organization. It doesn’t work if everyone operates in silos.

ASSP: How would industrial hygiene education have to change to more fully incorporate the Total Worker Health framework?

Paul: I would like to see more safety and industrial hygiene degree programs at the bachelor’s or associate’s level. It would be nice if students could learn about and access these programs before graduate school and start building foundational knowledge early. Right now, the typical person who pursues a graduate degree in OSH or industrial hygiene has an undergraduate degree in another area of science, whether it be chemistry or biology or some type of engineering.

ASSP: When industrial hygiene first become a profession, what were the responsibilities of people in that role and where were they working?

Paul: People have recognized and attempted to manage potential exposures that affect worker health for a long time, even going back to around 370 B.C. when Hippocrates identified lead poisoning in mines. In that way, industrial hygiene has been a profession forever. We just haven’t always called it industrial hygiene. Some people still don’t. Many prefer to call it occupational hygiene because the profession doesn’t just address issues in industrial environments. People in this profession also work in office, research and development or educational environments, for example.

The responsibilities of industrial — or occupational — hygienists have always had to do with assessing and managing exposures, but the exposures and environments change.

ASSP: How has that developed over the years? What does the profession look like today?

Paul: The main development is that the profession is way more technologically advanced than it was even 10 years ago. It’s definitely more technologically advanced than it was when I was in college more than 30 years ago. Back then, I had a direct reading instrument with a needle on it, which is the tech equivalent of a radio with a dial.

New technology enhances our professional capabilities and makes it easier to evaluate workplace hazards. It also changes environmental considerations for those aiming to protect workers. People move and live differently in relationship with technology, and that is changing all the time.

ASSP: Do you see industrial hygiene as an emerging profession? If so, why?

Paul: Yes, I do believe it’s an emerging profession, but I also believe the future of our profession needs to be nurtured. We must foster activities that promote the evolution of industrial hygiene and the ability of industrial hygienists to anticipate, recognize, evaluate and control workplace hazards. That means focusing on prevention through design, safety management system implementation and using the latest technology.

It also means supporting young people with an interest in keeping people safe and healthy. I first became interested in industrial hygiene because of my dad, who was a blue-collar worker in print manufacturing. I would go to the family nights at his workplace and look around. That’s where you sit, Dad? That’s where you sit all day and do the same thing? I thought about his experience traveling two hours each way to work and the impact that must have had on his life. The younger generation is now recognizing those types of issues in their families and communities as well, and I know they’ll help make the workplace better.

ASSP: What do you think industrial hygienists will be doing in 30 years?

Paul: Hopefully, we’ll be keeping up with technology and the changing world of work. In the future, I believe there will be less emphasis on industrial workplaces. They won’t go away, of course, but I believe as a profession we will be more focused on health issues in non-industrial environments. We have lots of learning to do.


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