Describing her 40+ year career in industrial hygiene, Deborah Imel Nelson says, “It’s been a never-ending source of gratification, friendships, learning, knowledge, a little frustration thrown in there, but I would do it all over again.” Although Nelson recently retired from a long career in government (including stints at the Department of Agriculture, the EPA and OSHA) and just completed a one-year term as president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), she is hardly slowing down. Besides remaining active on the AIHA board, she also plans to return to school—not as a professor this time (earlier in her career she was a professor at the University of Oklahoma) but as a student, as she intends to earn a Total Worker Health certificate.
On the occasion of her completing her term as AIHA president, Nelson shared her perspective with EHS Today on current trends in health and safety, and offered some insights on what the industrial hygiene field could be and should be doing to advance the cause of workplace safety.
What was it that got you interested in a career in industrial hygiene?
Nelson: I always thought I’d be a doctor, but they weren’t really encouraging young women to go to medical school back in the 1970s. I had also read Rachel Carson’s book, The Silent Spring, and I had always wondered: What if there’s a profession that combines air pollution and environmental contamination with human health? I was so excited when learned about industrial hygiene—that there is a profession that deals with these things—that I never looked back. I’ve had some detours working in emergency management and a couple other things, but those side trips have had the unintended benefit of strengthening my skills that I could bring back to industrial hygiene.
What have been your greatest successes and greatest challenges in the past year as president of AIHA?
Nelson: We’ve tried to change the culture of the organization, and this was already in play when I came onto the board three years ago, but we’ve continued the push to involve more people on committees and boards through what we call open call. That’s kind of our shorthand for putting out a call to say we’re looking for people to be on the strategic planning committee, or our nominating committee, or our awards committee. And while we’ll have leadership from the board involved, we want to get members young and old, new members, and academia to participate. That’s going to be valuable in getting more people involved, getting more diversity, and helping us make better decisions.
One of our big successes this year is that we have spent hours and hours looking at our bylaws. Some of it was obviously outdated and needed to be changed for just housekeeping. But we also are proposing opening up membership to anybody who wants to come and play with the industrial hygienists, anyone who has an interest in industrial hygiene. We’re making it easier for students to continue to be student members. We’re opening up the process for our nominations procedure so that we have wider participation from the membership on who gets nominated to run for the board. We’ve listened to our membership.
As for the question of challenges, we have such a wide range of membership, from people who are brand new to people like me who have been a member for more than 40 years. We have people in academia, government, industry, consultants, military, and so on, so there are a lot of different opinions. To me one of the challenges is all the moving parts and the diverse opinions, the number of projects and initiatives. So we all have to go back to our magnetic north, which is worker health and safety.
I think I knew this going in, but I really learned it this past year that there’s no one person who can make all the decisions. The CEO certainly plays a role, and the president plays an influential role as well, but you can’t be an effective leader unless you inspire great people along with you.
What issues has AIHA focused on over the past year?
Nelson: I wouldn’t necessarily call them new initiatives, but we’ve focused on new ways of looking at things that were going on already. Take, for example, our international strategy. We’ve always had people going to different countries and we’ve always donated money to different charitable groups, but we now have a rich strategy that helps us focus our efforts. We’ve spent a lot of effort in China, and we’re now shifting our focus to Southeast Asia and the Asian continent. So for example, India has a growing industrial hygiene community, and they want to partner with us. So given our limitations in resources—both financial and in terms of bandwidth of our staff and members’ time—we have made this decision to shift our focus from China to India. That’s not 100% yet; it’s still a conversation that we’re having.
We’ve always had a government affairs program, but now we’re working on getting membership involved. We have a number of different committees now that our government affairs director is leading, so we have a group that is working on cannabis. We have a group that’s going to start working on the needs of contingent workers, meaning people who don’t punch a timeclock for an employer. They’re not in a standard employer/employee relationship, so they may be temporary or subcontractor workers or Uber driver types. In other words, people who don’t have somebody looking after their health and safety. So we’ve got a group that’s focusing on how do we provide health and safety benefits to those people, and the learning that they need to keep themselves protected?
One thing we’re really excited about is a one-hour program called Safety Matters [a one-hour interactive teaching module and PowerPoint presentation]. This started at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) as a semester-long program called Talking Safety that was developed mainly for middle school and high school kids who were going to be heading out for their first jobs, whether it’s in fast-food or retail or construction or whatever. There’s an unacceptable rate of injuries to these kids when they’re new on the job, so the Safety Matters program is designed for our members, many of whom don’t have a teaching certificate, to go into the schools or 4H or after-school programs and talk to kids about how to look around the workplace, see what might be hazardous, and then what to do about it, who to talk to, how to get help.
We’ve got legislation that references this program now—it doesn’t require it but it references it—in Oklahoma, Texas and a couple other states. This is an ongoing effort. It’s going to go on for a long time, but we’re hoping that not only can it help protect young workers but also have the benefit of letting young people know what a great profession industrial hygiene is. Because many of them have probably never heard of it before.
We’ve got efforts going on right now for women in IH. And our strategic plan for the next three years includes focusing on community awareness, advancement and dissemination of knowledge, integrity of practice, and advocacy. So we’re really pleased with the direction that the plan is taking.
What are the current trends that you’re seeing—not just within AIHA but within the workplace, within the country, that are related to industrial hygiene?
Nelson: I retired from the federal government a little over a year ago, so I can really only speak to the daily problems of industrial hygienists in government practice, but from talking to my colleagues I think this is pretty true across the board. So many organizations have downsized their number of health and safety professionals. You hear this everywhere you go: There’s so much more to do with fewer people to do it.
When I was working for the government at the Department of Agriculture, one of our biggest issues came up during the Bird Flu outbreak of 2014-2016. We couldn’t put down 50 million birds on our own, so there were thousands of contractors and sub-contractors and their subs and their subs. Dealing with the complexity of determining who’s responsible, who created the hazards and who controls it, and all of that, getting the attention and resources from management that are needed—and it’s not that management doesn’t think it’s important, it’s just that there are limited resources. It’s in large part a bandwidth issue. There aren’t enough people to do all the work, and not enough hours in the day.
What is the health of the organization and the profession?
Nelson: When you talk about the current regulatory environment, and my career has spanned many administrations, things are going to change from year to year, especially when you get a new administration and a new OSHA director and secretary. But I’ve always thought that the very best companies, and the really progressive people who recognize the value of safeguarding their human capital, are working to make sure that the standards they operate under within their company or in more and more cases with their suppliers, that they exceed those standards.
I’ve recently become enthused about an initiative from NIOSH called Total Worker Health [a program that integrates protection from work-related safety and health hazards with promotion of injury and illness prevention]. We spend so many hours a week at the workplace, so if we’re going to help people be physically active, a lot of that is going to have to happen at the workplace. There’s a lot of talk on things like workplace stress and the role of the employer on worker health.
There are issues beyond just how many chemicals are in the air, or how noisy it is—people are starting to think in a wider sense about the impact of work on people’s health. Companies are starting to do things like ensure there’s healthy food in the cafeteria, that there are smoking cessation programs, that people have a chance to get up and walk around at work. Those are very simple examples, but I think those are so important.
In terms of the health of the organization, we can always welcome more members or donations, but we’re holding steady. But so many people that entered the IH profession like I did back in the 1970s—call it the retirement cliff or the silver tsunami, whatever you want to call it—we’ve either already retired or we’re going to retire really soon. I don’t want to see us lose our emeritus members so we’re trying to come up with ways to continue to involve them, such as by mentoring students and early career professionals.
We’re working on what we call our brand refresh project, and this is not specifically for AIHA, but we’re working with the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) and the American Board of Industrial Hygiene (ABIH) as well. We have identified some key audiences, and we’re focusing on various groups, such as high school and college academic advisors and guidance counselors, to let them know what a terrific career industrial hygiene and safety is. We’ll focus on the C-suite to make sure we get the right messages to the right people so that they know what an EHS professional can do—not only for the health of individuals but for the whole organization.
Has the health of the worker in the workplace gotten better over the years? We’ve got all the technology and data and information, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to better health.
Nelson: One way you can track it is by the number of workplace fatalities. Starting almost from the day President Nixon signed the Williams-Steiger Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, the number of fatalities started dropping from something like 14,000 a year down to somewhere around 4,000-4,500. That doesn’t include every workplace fatality, just those that are required to report it through OSHA. But in the last couple of years, that trend has started reversing [5,190 workplace fatalities in 2017, according to OSHA]. I don’t know if it’s an aberration or if it’s an indication of a trend.
There are two very key factors involved here. One is the opioid crisis, and we know that nationwide, the counties that have the largest percentages of their employed people in manufacturing are the counties with the highest number of opioid deaths. That’s according to a recent report from MAPI [Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation]. You start to wonder: Are these people who got injured on the job? Did they start taking opioids for injuries or back pain or whatever?
The national trends in mortality indicate that the group that’s showing reductions in life expectancy are the middle-aged, unemployed people in despairing conditions. And that certainly spills over into the workplace, even though they’re unemployed. We are starting to recognize that people who have opioid addictions in the workplace may very well be a safety risk to others. I think for a lot of reasons that we don’t totally understand yet, the opioid crisis is playing a role in that.
There’s another factor, and I worked constantly on this issue when I was at the Department of Agriculture, and that is the issue of distracted driving. Forty percent of workplace fatalities are transportation-related, and how much of that is due to people texting or talking on the phone? The National Safety Council has tried to make people aware of this through awareness campaigns. People, even highly educated people, will call me from their cars and say, “Well, I’m on the phone but it’s hands-free, so I’m ok.” Well, no, you’re not because it’s your brain that’s occupied. It’s the whole business of inattentional blindness. I don’t know how we get around that because cars nowadays are being manufactured with Bluetooth connections. They’re making it easy for you to be a distracted driver. I think that’s certainly played a role in the rise in workplace fatalities.
What’s your take on self-driving vehicles?
Nelson: I know there are problems but I think in the long run—and this is just personal opinion, I don’t have any statistics to support this—self-driving vehicles are safer than people who are texting and shaving and putting on makeup and eating a hamburger while they’re trying to drive and their kids are screaming in the backseat. I’m a cyclist, and Boulder, Colo., is a pretty good place to ride your bike, but still, too many people get hit by cars here, so I’m always thinking about road safety for pedestrians and cyclists.
You bring up a good point because robot cars also aren’t going to be driving while intoxicated. And they’re not going to fall asleep behind the wheel.
Nelson: And they’re not going to be exceeding the speed limit, either. If smart highway technology can space out cars on the road, and monitor speeds, we’ll be able to avoid the traffic jams and rubbernecking we have now.
So that’s my take on safety in the workplace. In terms of health in the workplace, we have not made much progress in occupational illnesses. Some of the most reliable estimates put the number of occupational illnesses at ten times the number of safety injuries. Since many of them, such as cancers, respiratory disease, renal disease and cardiovascular disease, have long latency periods, those aren’t tied directly to the workplace so they’re not identified as occupational illnesses. We haven’t made progress in turning that around, and that’s a huge, unaddressed issue in the area of worker health and safety in this country.
We know now that workplace stress leads to heart disease, and depression leads to cardiovascular disease, and those have implications on your lifespan. When it comes to the increasing amount of stress in the workplace, it isn’t just industrial hygienists who are trying to do more with less every single day—it’s everybody. We’ve got to look at the whole picture in order to address that issue.
How has the IH practice itself changed?
Nelson: When I first started I was carrying around a single 15-pound instrument that measured carbon monoxide. None of us had computers back then, of course. We’re now looking at wearable, sensor technology—how is that going to impact how industrial hygienists take measurements and record it and manage that data over a 24-hour cycle? I’ve got two different sound-level apps on my phone, so now that people can measure sound level with their phone, is that going to make them more active participants in the workplace toward reducing noise exposures? There are a lot of different things going on that we need to be aware of.
Do you have any advice for young IH practitioners?
Nelson: My first suggestion would be to join your local section of AIHA because you’re going to get opportunities for leadership that you may not get yet at your workplace. You’ll work with other young professionals. You’ll learn from senior professionals. And you’ll learn not only from the technical presentations but also the life skills, workplace strategies, and those kinds of things.
Another piece of advice is to keep that balance of work and family life and friendships and physical activity and your spiritual life to keep a balanced approach to life because as wonderful and exciting as this profession is, it isn’t everything.