When an industrial hygienist is called in to help, it's likely a hint that a problem is brewing – one that has the potential to harm those in the workplace and broader community.
While on a job site, working on a project or working in a factory, school or hospital, employees of these businesses and industries are exposed to myriad environmental factors that have the potential to cause illness. The role of an industrial hygienist is to identify these factors and develop a plan to mitigate them.
Matt Beckman is an American Board of Industrial Hygiene (ABIH), Certified Industrial Hygienist dedicated to preserving the health, safety and longevity of workers everywhere. We recently sat down with Matt to discuss what his role entails, how his efforts benefit and keep the companies and communities he serves safe, advice for clients seeking to reduce workplace hazards, how he optimizes his work in a primarily remote environment and much more.
The field of industrial hygiene is unique, as it’s made up of a mix of scientific and engineering disciplines combined to protect worker and community health. Industrial hygiene is the science and engineering behind anticipating, evaluating and mitigating exposure to the harmful agents that are used and/or generated in the occupational environment. “Exposure science” is a good term to help explain what we do in this field. More simply stated, my job is to keep people safe.
In an industrial facility, employees may be exposed to a wide array of fumes and gases or use solvents to clean and maintain equipment. Most of the time, the concentration of airborne contaminants meet regulatory standards. But, sometimes an employee may notice “something’s off” – whether being generated by a chemical or a process – and they then contact their supervisor.
This is when I get a call similar to, “We’ve got a concern and potentially a problem.” Most often, I’ll visit the facility, conduct an assessment, evaluate materials used, collect samples and determine if there is an issue that could be hazardous to workers. If the answer is yes, I’ll develop a mitigation plan and help them implement recommendations.
Industrial hygiene is one piece of the engineering puzzle. It’s often the tip of the iceberg to conduct an assessment by evaluating processes, collecting analytical results, then presenting options for mitigation.
Oftentimes, the options for mitigation will require mechanical and electrical engineers’ work to design a system or troubleshoot on-site, and modify an existing design. Air quality engineering can play a critical role in helping to ensure proper permitting and compliance takes place.
I would provide insight into the health effects related to the usage of different chemicals and materials in their facility along with associated occupational health and safety requirements. Some hazardous chemicals have specific regulatory requirements that need to be adhered to in order to be in compliance from an employee exposure perspective. The same chemicals often have characteristics that affect environmental licensing and permitting requirements that also need to be considered.
The number one priority and most important benefit are that workers remain safe and healthy. To do this, we give clients critical data as part of the assessment process to make better and more informed make decisions.
Second, businesses need to stay operational; downtime is money. Problems can be solved quickly when an industrial hygienist gets involved early in a potentially hazardous situation. This means less risk of production downtime.
Third, clients benefit from managing risk. When a Certified Industrial Hygienist provides services, it can typically lower the risk of operations – this can be favorable to insurance underwriting and help by reducing liabilities.
Nothing replaces being on-site to observe the elements around you or a process in the works, and the ability to collect samples. Fortunately, we have safety protocols clearly defined that allow us to physically visit facilities and buildings in order to help identify workplace environmental challenges.
That being said, we’ve adapted quite well to the virtual environment. At the initial onset of a potential situation, we can often view photos and videos to determine if there’s an issue. We review safety data sheets and process information to help uncover potentially hazardous situations. We’ve been able to identify problems and provide options for mitigation without being on-site.
When a client and their employees are able to get a better understanding of potential health effects resulting from operations within their workplace and are able to address any concerns that may impact employee well-being.
In 2007, the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota collapsed into the Mississippi River. As part of the bridge replacement effort, I worked on the SEH team that addressed any environmental issues associated with the project. During that time, I was monitored in order to evaluate if there was an overexposure to contaminants by an industrial hygienist. I appreciated the exposure monitoring, but I began to wonder – if my exposure in an outdoor environment is a concern, what would exposure be like inside of an existing industrial facility?
Following the above project, I pursued and earned a Master’s Degree in Occupational and Environmental Health and certification as an industrial hygienist.
The field has been around for years. However, it is expanding. We have more information, guidelines and regulations in place to keep employees and our communities safe. Industrial hygienists do just that. I’d also like to mention that industrial hygiene projects often involve other engineering, medical and scientific disciplines. Some of the project teams I’ve been a part of have included occupational nurses and physicians, chemists, engineers and toxicologists.
It’s a fairly challenging process, but it is very much worth it. Specific degrees and coursework are required along with references and the required amount of professional experience. There are roughly 7,000 ABIH, Certified Industrial Hygienists working for organizations located around the world.
The ABIH credentialing process is also recognized by the International Occupational Hygiene Association. I’ll do my best to maintain it through the required continuing education.
A few years ago, I was able to work with a client and their internal team in order to evaluate the indoor air quality and potential health impacts stemming from several maintenance and repair, welding and thermal cutting processes located in a large fabrication and maintenance shop. Our team consisted of technicians, foremen, operations management and engineering.
We evaluated exposure to hazardous materials throughout the facility based on characteristics such as toxicity and flammability. We worked with suppliers to make several product substitutions in order to eliminate exposures, and utilized engineering resources to control several others. Over the course of several months of data collection and evaluation, we were able to modify several processes and procedures all for the betterment of employee health.
I was part of the environmental engineers and scientists practice at SEH beginning in 2007. I moved on to get in-house experience at different types of industrial facilities. Once I received my certification, I felt there was an opportunity to grow my career.
I maintained my working relationships at SEH from the time I left; in fact, I hired SEH engineers for some of my own projects while employed in the private sector. In July 2019, SEH offered me the opportunity to grow our industrial hygiene services throughout the company. I had a positive experience during my previous tenure and welcomed the opportunity to return!
Industrial hygiene is an interesting and rewarding line of work to be in. It can be complicated but very interesting to evaluate exposure to hazardous materials or processes, and how they may impact employee and community health. Being part of the team that provides a solution to these challenges is the rewarding part.
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