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Industrial Hygiene Is Not a Term of Endearment

May 12, 2020
A long-time industrial hygienist suggests "occupational health professional" is a more accurate way to describe the profession.


Given the title of this article, have I entered into the snarky world of blasphemy? OK, a little background. I have been involved with industrial hygiene (IH) and a member of the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) since 1961 (59 years). Heck, it’s unlikely many of you were born then. I have a masters and a doctorate in IH and am still a CIH and practicing so I’m one of the gang. At this point in my life, however, I have been called a sage (rarely), a dinosaur (sometimes) and an old geezer (many times). With a total lack of modesty I have written this article from the perspective of a sage. Some, I am sure, will disagree.

Why write such an article? Well, it is not the first time I have written in not-so-endearing terms about the term describing my profession. I just thought it was time to stir up the IH pot again and hope this starts a serious discourse that leads finally to a name change that better describes this profession, creates a positive brand image and sounds attractive to the best and the brightest who we need to recruit into this very important and rewarding profession.

IH has been very, very good to me and to so many others as a profession and a springboard to excellent careers. Like others, I went from being an industrial hygienist to having a much broader portfolio of responsibilities and a very rewarding career. Again, why take this blasphemous shot at a term that embraces science and engineering for the purpose of anticipating, recognizing, evaluating and controlling chemical, physical, biomechanical, radiation and biological hazards primarily in the workplace but also in the communities so impacted. Because the term “industrial hygiene” is a misnomer and it is time to get serious about a more descriptive term for what we do.

Many of you will wholeheartedly disagree with me but let me explain why I call it a misnomer. First, let’s look at the word “industrial.” The definition of industrial is relating to or characterized by industry. Now let’s define “industry”: economic activity concerned with the processing of raw materials and manufacture of goods in factories. Certainly we as industrial hygienists provide valuable service to the processing of raw materials and the manufacture of goods in factories. But we do so much more than that.

Now let’s look at the definition of the word “occupational” which is a job or profession. Ironically the source of this definition goes on to use as an example of occupation the following:hepatitis B may be an occupational disease for some healthcare workers.” How apropos. Where would “healthcare workers” fit under the term industrial? They don’t, ergo “occupational” is a much more inclusive and accurate term than “industrial.” Let’s face it, our spectrum of responsibilities has broadened to include many non-industrial institutions such as government, academia, healthcare, hospitality, entertainment, etc. “Occupation’ embraces not just industry but the ever expanding service-oriented businesses.

Now let’s examine the word “hygiene.” The word has its origin in Greek mythology, Hygeia being the goddess of health. The modern day definition of hygiene is conditions or practices conducive to maintaining health and preventing disease, especially through cleanliness. OK, this is not a bad definition of what IHs do. What about the definition of hygienist, which is a specialist in the promotion of clean conditions for the preservation of health. Does that fit what we really do?. Let’s face it, the term has an image problem that relates to the word “cleanliness.” How do you think the typical person on the street would describe what an industrial hygienist does? If he or she is kind they likely would say, “I don’t know.” If they were honest they would say, “I guess you keep the restrooms clean and the food service sanitary.” Just like Rodney Dangerfield, “We don’t get no respect.”

Despite my geriatric age, I still am professionally active. When I mention to my friends that I am going out of town they’ll typically ask, business or pleasure? If I am going to the AIHCE my response will be, “I am going to an occupational health conference.” There is no chance I will say, “I am going to an industrial hygiene conference,” because it will not be understood for what it really is and probably result in a derisive snicker or two.

Now let’s talk about branding. Having spent 28 years at one of the world’s foremost companies when it comes to marketing and branding (Procter & Gamble), I have a deep-seated respect for what strong branding can do for a product or a service. My zeal for a name change is driven by believing that a more properly descriptive term for what we do will greatly benefit the profession and establish a stronger brand image in the general public. This stronger image is essential if our profession is to be properly valued and attractive to the best and the brightest by inducing them into the practice.

The American Society of Safety Engineers recently engaged in a successful name changing process, which they describe thusly: “This entire endeavor originated in 2016, when research conducted with ASSE members, customers and stakeholders worldwide indicated that an updated brand with a clearer vision would better reflect the organization’s current membership and position it for growth.” As of June 2018 they became known as the American Society of Safety Professionals. So a name change within the safety profession is not unprecedented.

Where to from here? I would like to think this article will drive a serious effort to correct the long-standing misnomer. So, without further ado, I will offer a proposal recognizing there could be other favorable alternatives. I propose that the AIHA change its name to the Association of Occupational Health Professionals, i.e., AOHP, thereby dropping the term “American” from the title since we truly are global in our practice and calling ourselves occupational health professionals—because that’s what we are!

Dr. Richard D. Fulwiler, CIH, FAIHA is the retired global director of health & safety with consumer packaged goods manufacturer Procter & Gamble Co. He is president of Transformational Leadership Associates and holds a faculty appointment at the Harvard School of Public Health. He is also a member of EHS Today’s Editorial Advisory Board. He can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

Richard Fulwiler | President

Richard D. Fulwiler, PhD, CIH, CSHM is the president of Technology Leadership Associates and a course director and instructor at the Harvard School of Public Health. He serves as an adjunct professor of Environmental Health at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. Fulwiler was the director of health & safety worldwide for Proctor & Gamble, where he was responsible for safety, industrial hygiene, occupational medicine, OSHA and workers compensation. He is a noted speaker, lecturer and author, and has been named one of “The 50 People Who Most Influenced EHS.”

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