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State of the Art: Is the art of industrial hygiene dead? [The Synergist / AIHA]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
The Synergist / American Industrial Hygiene Association
October 1998

Clyde Berry was working as an industrial hygienist with the state of North Carolina in 1941, when one Saturday night he was called to the backyard of a politician’s house. The politician, his wife and about two-dozen supporters had come over for an afternoon barbecue and were now running fevers and throwing up.

Berry, now 85, figured it was food poisoning. A trained chemist and biologist, he began searching leftovers for bacteria. The culprit turned out to be un-refrigerated potato salad but Berry had to do a lot of digging in the garbage before he found the organism.

“I always had to work from the seat of my pants,” Berry says. “Today, an outbreak of food poisoning would be turned over to the county health officer. But back then I handled problems as they emerged. And because there weren’t sophisticated tests or equipment, I had to be creative and handle problems with my wits.”

Robert Harris used his wits, too. Back in 1949, one of his jobs was to gather dust samples from local foundries. He and two other industrial hygienists would fill up their cars with battery-driven pumps, huge glass jars and microscopes. And after about eight hours, when they had only about a dozen samples, the IHs piled back into their cars and headed for the lab to count dust particles.

“It was a major undertaking,” says Harris, now 73, and a professor emeritus
at University of North Carolina. “A few things have changed since then.”

In fact, dust samples are taken today by attaching a small collection jar to a worker’s lapel or belt. At the end of the day, the jars are collected and taken back to the lab where measurements are calculated with more sophisticated equipment. There is no counting particles, and there is no limit to the number of samples that can be gathered—IHs can gather as many samples as there are lapels or belts to attach the collection jars to.

“The standards are so much higher now,
as is the access to places of work,” Harris
says. “We never even used to talk to the
workers. We just went in and took samples. Today, IHs interview employees and
get their take on the situation. Everything
is so completely different today”


Different, yes. But is it better? Have all the technological advancements, OSHA regulations and specialized professional niches taken the art out of the job? Some say yes, that although technology and regulations have helped IH, the advancements have come at the expense of the art.

Others say no, that today’s IHs have to be as creative, innovative and resourceful as their professional forefathers.

But then, consider how the definition of industrial hygiene has changed in the past decade, says Lynn O’Donnell of the American Board of Industrial Hygiene.

“If you look at the official definition, there may be a clue that IH has taken a turn away from art,” she says, noting that just a few years ago, IH was defined as “that science and art devoted to the anticipation, recognition, evaluation and control of those environmental factors impairing health and well-being, or significant discomfort and inefficiency among workers or among the citizens of a community.”

Today, the definition is similar, but there has been one small change. It now reads: “IH is the science and practice devoted to the anticipation, recognition, evaluation and control . . . “

Experts agree the shift from “science and art” to “science and practice,” started around the time the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed in 1969.


Soon thereafter, IH began to lose its personal touch, says the namesake of the Edward J. Baier Technical Award. “When I first got into the field in 1955, we worked as a team with physicians and nurses and even nutritionists,” says Baier, who served as the first deputy director of NIOSH among other positions during a long and successful career. “We covered just about everything that had to do with workplace safety and employee health. The work in air pollution came from IHs. When the atom bomb came about, where did they get people who knew something about it? From the IHs.”

But that is all gone now, he says. And Baier says it worries him.

“The federal government has compartmentalized us so much. People don’t look at the profession in the same way It isn’t like the good old days are gone, because there is so much more opportunity and better technology today. Nevertheless, the most creative part of being an industrial hygienist today is trying to define the profession.”

Defining the role of an IH is also a concern of former AIHA board member William Dyson. In a February 1996 editorial in The Synergist, Dyson discussed a situation where a Fortune 25 company had reduced the salary grade for IHs because, he says, they were simply implementing requirements of the OSHA standard, not designing or creating anything new.

“My concern,” he said in the column “is that there may be a trend which would be highly undesirable—a loss of the ability to use professional judgment in the practice of IH.”

Consultant Jerry Lynch is less concerned. “Back in the early days we used to say that IHs had a calibrated eyeball because they had to rely on experience and guesswork,” says Lynch, who started as an IH in 1953 and worked for 10 years at NIOSH and another 20 years at Exxon Chemical Co. “Now, even though it is light years easier to take measurements, there is still a lot of room for IHs to make subjective and creative judgments.”

Lynch says by combining the science of measurement with the art of analysis, today’s IHs have the best of both worlds. But where does an IH go to learn the art and science of IH?


Try one of Steve Levine’s classes. He’s a professor of industrial health at the University of Michigan, and teaches his students to learn their science but be mindful of the other senses.

“It’s a funny thing,” says Levine, 53. “1 have spent a good deal of my professional life monitoring air quality, working from a quantitative point of view. But the more work I do, the more I come to believe the art of recognition is as important—if not more so—than the quantitative side.”

Levine says it isn’t hard to be creative. It just requires simple observation and analysis. “An IH could look at a situation and say, ‘Why are they doing that?’ You can use equipment and measurements to substantiate your supposition, but in many cases you can make a judgment based on simply looking at a situation.”

Suppose the problem is a poorly designed ventilation system, Levine suggests. “If there are intake vents next to outlets or ducts that aren’t working right, it doesn’t always take data to figure out the nature of the problem. It just takes some common sense.

Robert F. Herrick, a lecturer of industrial hygiene at Harvard School of Public Health, agrees common sense goes a long way. He’s spent the last 20 years doing field research at NIOSH and at 49 is sharing his wisdom with students getting their master’s degrees at Harvard.

“lHs are being squeezed to do more with less and less and that means they need to have a broad base of knowledge and expertise in many areas,” Herrick says. “An IH just can’t be a specialist anymore. He or she needs to be a multi-specialist. That means they need in-depth knowledge of several fields including safety, ergonomics and environmental issues.”

Plus, he says, IHs need to have good
people skills because IHs now need to be
able to justify their suggestions.

“Essentially the world is results oriented,” Herrick says. “People in safety and health have to validate their existence and demonstrate that they are adding to the financial bottom line.”

Herrick knows it is hard to demonstrate the value of prevention with hard data. So, he recommends his students do what IHs have done for years get creative and be persuasive.

“I tell my students they have to take their findings and translate them into a form that corporate executives can use,” he says. “Their suggestions have to be
technically sound, but IHs need to be creative, too.”

Mike Jayjock knows all about being creative. A senior research fellow at Rohm & Haas near Philadelphia, he is an expert in model exposure. And his focus is on risk assessment.

“Usually, the devil is in the details,” he says, “but in risk assessment, the devil is in the assumptions. I have to use a lot of personal judgment, and that’s tricky because science should be totally objective.”

The reality of risk assessment, though, is that IHs like Jayjock don’t have all the data they need. So, he compares estimated exposure with the regulatory exposure limits. To complicate matters, though, there aren’t always concrete limits, leaving Jayjock and his co-workers to use a “working” exposure limit.

And therein lies the art, Jayjock says.

“When you don’t have a full knowledge base or even a complete knowledge base, you have to make decisions that are subjective and fairly uncertain,” Jayjock says. “And when you don’t have a lot of data, you must be more conservative. Of course, you have to make sure you don’t underestimate the risk. So you have to be clever.”

Eventually, he says he can squeeze science enough and get it to give up its secrets. For instance, consider the risk incurred when someone paints a bedroom. How much exposure does the painter receive? How about the future tenants of the room? Without concrete data, Jayjock considers the variables: The type of paint used, the size of the wall, if windows are open, and if oil- or water-based paint is used. And then he takes an educated guess.

“The reality is the more science you have, the less art you need,” he says.” The old time IHs were the true artists of IH. For decades, there was no model and no science for them to work from. That’s what risk assessment is today, and that’s what makes it fun for me.

Eventually, we’ll be able to turn risk assessment into a quantitative science and I’ll probably want to move on to something that challenges my creativity. But for now I like risk assessment. It reminds me of the stories I’ve heard about the old days.”


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