What is Industrial Hygiene?

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Construction workers walk across scaffolding.

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. 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. Individuals looking to pursue impactful careers in public health should seriously consider exploring this little-known yet essential subspecialty.


Understanding 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 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Roman scholar Pliny the Elder improved upon this work in the first century A.D., chronicling the adverse health effects of sulfur and zinc exposure, and developing perhaps the earliest piece of personal protection equipment: an animal-bladder facemask. Bernardo Ramazzini, an Italian doctor who historians would later name the father of industrial medicine, published an exhaustive guide to workplace wellness called “The Diseases of Workmen” in 1700. 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 Percival Pott was among the most consequential of these industrial hygiene adopters, as 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 due, in part, to the efforts of American physician Dr. Alice Smith, who championed worker wellness and created numerous proposals designed to improve factory and mine safety. State governments across the country enacted employee compensation and safety laws throughout the early 1900s, and by 1948 all had established worker safety protections. Congress added an additional regulatory layer in 1970 with the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which created a centralized federal agency for monitoring workplace conditions in the U.S.

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 is another key part of industrial hygiene work. Here, an engineer would pinpoint specific dangers and recommend corrective action to reduce the likelihood of worker injury. This might include implementing new administrative, engineering, or process controls.


A worker uses a saw

Grappling with workplace hazards

Industrial hygiene engineers encounter hazards of all kinds, starting with air contaminants. This includes dangerous airborne gases, particles, and vapors, according to OSHA. Asbestos, beryllium, and lead are among the most consequential substances in the category. However, there are countless others capable of rendering similar respiratory damage if inhaled. Chemical hazards are also a major issue for industrial hygiene engineers, as employees across numerous sectors come into contact with compounds that are essential for production yet extremely harmful. For instance, exposure to ethylene oxide, a widely used ingredient in chemicals manufacturing, can lead to serious illness, including cancer, OSHA warned. In addition to these substance-related dangers, industrial hygiene engineers work to address ergonomic and physical hazards. Modern workers, especially those in manufacturing and industrial production roles, often make use of 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.

The importance of this work cannot be understated. Despite advancement in shop floor technologies and techniques, large numbers of workers continue to sustain injuries, some of them fatal. In 2016, the latest year for which data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is available, approximately 5,190 U.S. workers lost their lives at work. Millions of others incur nonfatal injuries annually. In 2017, for example, 2.8 million American employees suffered nonfatal injuries or illnesses, analysts for the BLS found. This state of affairs alone makes the role of the industrial hygiene engineer key.

However, when the regulatory fees and lost production costs associated are factored in, it is easy to understand why these public health professionals are constantly in demand. U.S. businesses can incur per-violation fines as high as $130,000, according to OSHA. This, combined with the cost of having workers out of commission, a number researchers for Liberty Mutual believe hovers near $60 billion for 2018 alone, gives firms in all industries incentive to collaborate with industrial hygiene engineers.

The average professional in the position earns an annual salary of $67,000 for this work, according to data from the BLS. 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 aspiring industrial hygiene professionals could 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 to do so 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.


Recommended Readings:

How to choose a career in public health after completing you MPH degree

Three types of disease prevention



Regis College

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Occupational Safety and Health Administration

Occupational Safety and Health Administration

Liberty Mutual