Managing Fear Of Unseen — But Present — Hazards

Common Areas talks with a Certified Industrial Hygienist

At Common Areas, we’ve been hearing business leaders talk about what they expect to need when they get back to the office. A big part of reentry will involve planning for cleaning and sanitation. We spoke with Elaine Everest from Harris & Lee Environmental Sciences to find out what leaders in the industrial hygiene industry are thinking about right now, and what we can do to make their lives easier. 

Harris & Lee Environmental Sciences is a certified woman-owned business and certified small business, providing a full range of Occupational Safety, Industrial Hygiene, and Safety and Health Training, and Environmental Consultation services. 

 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

CA: First of all, can you help our readers understand what a Certified Industrial Hygienist is? What do you do? 

EE: A Certified Industrial Hygienist is someone who has met the rigorous requirements established by an accrediting body (Board for Global EHS Credentialing, formerly the American Board of Industrial Hygiene) in the comprehensive practice of industrial hygiene. 

Certified Industrial Hygienists (CIHs) are trained in anticipating, recognizing, evaluating, and controlling environmental hazards that can harm a worker’s or community’s health and safety.  The profession was founded at the start of the industrial revolution of last century and has evolved to address hazards both in the workplace and the larger environment.  

CIHs draw on their science backgrounds (varying from engineering, physics, chemistry, biology, environmental sciences, toxicology, or public health) to solve the diverse set of problems that can impact health and safety.Health problems can be due to exposures from chemical, biological, radiological hazards, or physical hazards (like noise or vibration), poor indoor air quality and ergonomics, just to name a few. 

Activities that CIHs perform can include air monitoring for chemical, biological or radiological exposures, conducting training on health and safety topics, developing and implementing programs and procedures to ensure health and safety in the workplace or in public spaces, and providing recommendations on methods of controlling these exposures.

CA: That sounds like pretty important work for today’s world. How has your work changed since the COVID-19 outbreak began? 

EE: Similar to many other professions, the work conducted by CIHs has been impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak in that more of the work has to be conducted remotely.  Aside from the logistical change, our work has certainly been focusing more on assisting workplaces in identifying methods and procedures to help protect workers from exposure to the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.  These activities can include personal protective equipment (PPE) recommendations, training on proper usage of PPE, and validating proper fit of PPE (e.g., performing respirator fit-testing).  

Some of our staff are supporting public agency risk management teams to help in Emergency Response Centers (ERCs) by providing in-depth knowledge CIHs have. This puts these staff squarely in the essential worker roles helping to keep important public service work going (transport of specimens, safety in public jails and prisons, police and fire department work, and the like). 

Many CIHs that are part of the healthcare system that support hospital staff have had their daily routines become nothing but support for COVID-19 assisting with PPE (or specifying alternatives to routine PPE), helping support studies on how to effectively sanitize and re-use N95 masks. These are meant to be disposable, but due to shortages in the U.S., there has been some excellent and timely research into effective sanitization and re-use to ensure hospital staff are protected.

In short, depending on what industry the CIH works in, the day-to-day work has changed accordingly. In consulting, we see full-COVID-19 support for some staff, while others of our staff are continuing to work with our existing clients to move programs forward and take this moment of Shelter-in-Place to get work done that often takes far longer due to competing workplace challenges. The bottom line though is that CIHs remain busy during this time.

CA: Tell us about what a day in the “new normal” looks like for you and other industrial hygienists. 

EE: Most of my days are spent working from home and communicating with clients via email, phone, or videoconference.  Instead of conducting health and safety training in person to a group of people, now all the training is conducted using videoconferencing software tools over the internet.  Work that may be conducted in person is postponed due to shelter-in-place orders. These activities include exposure monitoring of employees, performing internal compliance audits, and providing on-site health and safety consulting services.

This is our new normal for now.  What it will be when we all gradually go back to work, since most of a CIH’s work is side-by-side with the workforce or community we strive to protect, remains to be seen. 

Our profession deals a lot with risk communication and managing fear to unseen but present hazards. I expect we will be managing actual and perceived risks directly related to the COVID-19 experience.  I also expect that we will be providing a good amount of education and awareness on basic personal hygiene as well as preparing, or providing input, to guidelines or policies about staying home when sick. 

I hope our collective work culture will avoid the “go to work” at all costs after this. One thing does seem clear, people can effectively work from home.  Perhaps we will be providing more resources on how to set up an ergonomically appropriate home office after COVID-19.  

CA: What can businesses do now to make your job easier? 

EE: It may be helpful for us to know what each business’ new priorities are, how are they supporting their workers (e.g., providing ergonomic solutions to their employees while they are working from home), and what their business continuity plans look like (if they have one).  

CA: What kind of future do you see for industrial businesses? What will work have to look like after all of this? 

EE:  I think this pandemic has really highlighted the need for industrial businesses to have more inventory and not rely on just-in-time inventory. In addition, this current outbreak has highlighted the need to have a diversified supply chain. It might even prompt some businesses to bring some manufacturing back to the United States to lessen the dependency on global supply chains that can become unreliable when interrupted.  Perhaps companies rely on having a subset of materials produced domestically, while outsourcing the rest to global supply chains.

On the flip side, businesses may discover that a lot of work can be performed remotely (e.g., videoconferencing) with flexible work schedules.  In the current environment with the COVID-19 outbreak, many businesses have been required to restrict/prohibit travel completely and through working through these restrictions, they may discover that many types of activities that used to necessitate a worker to travel somewhere may now be seen as less necessary in certain circumstances, as we have all figured out workarounds to get the work done without the need to travel. 

Companies may need to re-evaluate/revise their policies to encourage (or even require) employees to not go into work if they are sick.  There is a culture of presenteeism amongst US workers, whether it’s because workers feel compelled to be present and available all the time for work because they feel indispensible or because the sick day policies are inadequate in allowing workers to truly rest when they are not well.  Perhaps companies may recognize that workers can still be productive by working from home when they are sick and not have to take a “sick day” just to be able to stay home and keep potentially infectious diseases from being spread around in the workplace. 

 

Elaine Everest is a Manager at  Harris & Lee Environmental Sciences is a certified woman-owned business and certified small business, providing a full range of Occupational Safety, Industrial Hygiene, and Safety and Health Training, and Environmental Consultation services.  

In response to the changing business landscape, Common Areas has released a COVID-19 Inspection System, a new app to help businesses adapt, based on OSHA and CDC guidance. We want businesses of every shape and size to return to work as soon and safely as possible, so we’re making our inspection system free for a limited time. Learn more here.

 

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