The safest workplaces are often the cleanest. Employees who have access to unobstructed corridors, spotless floors, and well-kept equipment face relatively few environmental hazards and are less likely to sustain injuries on the clock. From an employer’s standpoint, maintaining a clean work environment and a reduced risk of employee injury can minimize missed time and workers’ compensation claims, and in the long term lead to greater profitability.
For this reason, many businesses, especially those in manufacturing, invest considerable amounts in programs associated with a public health arena called industrial hygiene. The professionals who navigate this subspecialty are responsible for ensuring employers maintain orderly spaces that facilitate safety and productivity, and comply with state and federal workplace safety regulations. Their work can benefit not only employees but also communities that may otherwise be peripherally impacted.
Individuals equipped with a (MPH) degree and looking to pursue impactful careers in public health should seriously consider exploring this little-known yet essential subspecialty.
Understanding Industrial Hygiene
What is industrial hygiene? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines the concept as “science and art devoted to the anticipation, recognition, 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.” While this definition may place industrial hygiene in a modern context, the concept has been around for much longer.
History of Industrial Hygiene
The concept of industrial hygiene dates back to the fourth century B.C.E., when Greek physician Hippocrates published research discussing the dangers of mining, according to OSHA. Roman scholar Pliny the Elder improved upon this work in the first century C.E., chronicling the adverse health effects of sulfur and zinc exposure, and developing perhaps the earliest piece of personal protection equipment: an animal-bladder face mask. Bernardo Ramazzini, an Italian doctor whom historians would later name the father of industrial medicine, in 1700 published an exhaustive guide to workplace wellness called “The Diseases of Workmen.” This work legitimized industrial hygiene on a global scale.
As the 18th century progressed, more members of the medical community embraced the burgeoning public health specialty. English surgeon Percivall Pott was among the most consequential of these industrial hygiene adopters. His research on the dangers of chimney soot led the Parliament of Great Britain to pass the Chimney Sweepers Act of 1788. This legislation catalyzed the creation and implementation of industrial protections across Europe.
The industrial hygiene phenomenon reached the U.S. in the early 20th century. One of the pioneers of this endeavor was American physician Alice Hamilton. After observing industrial conditions facing miners and factory workers, Hamilton championed worker wellness by demonstrating a correlation between exposure to toxic materials and worker illness. She also created numerous proposals designed to improve factory and mine safety. In 1911, states passed the first round of workers’ compensation laws.
Modern-Day Industrial Hygiene
Today, OSHA and its sister agencies worldwide strive to ensure employees have access to safe work environments, no matter the industry. Industrial hygiene engineers are essential to this work, leveraging industrial and public health knowledge to develop and implement policies that protect workers and keep employers out of regulatory trouble.
How exactly do these niche professionals accomplish this goal? Most start with workplace analysis, according to OSHA. This involves reviewing shop floor conditions, along with specific job duties and processes, especially those that involve potentially hazardous material or equipment. Risk identification and assessment are key aspects of industrial hygiene work. Here, an engineer pinpoints specific dangers, such as exposure or contaminant levels, and recommends corrective action to reduce the likelihood of worker injury or illness. This might include implementing new administrative, engineering, or process controls.
Grappling with Workplace Hazards
Managing and mitigating the dangers posed by workplace hazards is at the core of what industrial hygiene engineers do. OSHA lists several categories of potential hazards that can place workers at risk:
- Air Contaminants: These are typically designated as gas and vapor or particulate contaminants. OSHA classifies gases as formless fluids that can change into vapors via evaporation, and vapors as volatile forms of substances that are usually either in a liquid or in a solid state. Typical examples of particulates include fumes, mists, aerosols, dusts, and fibers.
- Chemical Contaminants: These harmful substances — which can come in solid, liquid, or gas form — can produce toxic effects via inhalation, absorption, or ingestion. These contaminants may be essential for production of various items, despite their harmful nature. A common example of this type of contaminant is ethylene oxide, a substance that’s widely used in chemical manufacturing and has been known to cause serious illness, including cancer.
- Biological Contaminants: These living organisms can cause acute and chronic infections by entering the body directly or by infiltrating the body through breaks in the skin. Examples of these contaminants are bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Workspaces involving plants, animals, and food production are common environments for these types of contaminants.
- Physical Hazards: Examples of this category include radiation, noise, temperature, vibration, and illumination. Factors such as time, distance, and shielding can be elements that can influence the type of damage potentially inflicted on an individual.
- Ergonomic Hazards: Various conditions or work processes can cause issues that contribute to long-term or permanent damage to a person’s body. Examples of these types of hazards are items that cause eyestrain, promote repetitive motion injuries, or hearing loss. In some cases, these conditions result from poor individual work habits, such as improper lifting techniques.
Modern workers, especially those in manufacturing and industrial production roles, often use dangerous equipment and perform movements that can cause musculoskeletal dysfunction. Professionals in industrial hygiene strive to reduce the risk associated with these variables through corrective workplace actions.
Importance of Industrial Hygiene
The importance of this work cannot be understated. Despite advancements in shop floor technologies and techniques, large numbers of workers continue to sustain injuries, some of them fatal. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that 4,764 U.S. workers lost their lives at work in 2020. This number represents 3.4 fatalities per 100,000 full-time employees. Millions of others incur nonfatal injuries annually. In 2020, roughly 2.7 million American employees suffered nonfatal injuries or illnesses, BLS analysts found. This number translates to nearly 3 of every 100 workers getting injured at work.
Additionally, when the regulatory fees and lost production costs associated with hazardous workplace conditions are factored in, it’s easy to understand why these public health professionals are constantly in demand. U.S. businesses can incur per-violation fines as high as $145,027, according to OSHA. This, combined with the cost of having workers out of commission — a number that Liberty Mutual estimates at nearly $58 billion for 2021 — gives firms in all industries incentive to collaborate with industrial hygiene engineers.
Career Opportunities in Industrial Hygiene
Those who learn what industrial hygiene is and find it appealing can pursue a well-paying career. The average professional in the position earns an annual salary of $74,870, according to the BLS. The BLS also projects 7% job growth between 2020 and 2030, a figure that suggests steady job opportunities in the future. Based on potential earnings and impact, the role should appeal to individuals looking to enter the public health arena and make a difference.
Entering the Industrial Hygiene Field
While an aspiring occupational health and safety specialist interested in an industrial hygiene role can gain entry into the field with as little as a certification and some vocational training, this may not be ideal for those who want to move into leadership positions. Completing a strong graduate degree program is a more effective approach.
At Regis College, we help individuals who want to carve out an impactful career in industrial hygiene gain the skills they need through our online Master of Public Health program. The online instructional track features two concentrations — epidemiology and public health policy and management — and encompasses 14 courses totaling 42 credit hours.
Are you interested in learning more about how the online MPH degree program at Regis College can help you find success in industrial hygiene? Contact us today for more information.