How Can Industrial Hygienists Position Themselves for\r\nSuccess?

Many believe the profession needs to turn away from a specialist identity and embrace life as an EHS generalist.

Paul Shiroma remembers a time when companies hired industrial hygienists to focus on monitoring and controlling chemical hazards. It was a task that made a lot of sense in the early days of OSHA and workplace regulations, an age when there were seemingly unlimited chemical hazards to conquer.

"It used to be that people would say, 'I'm an industrial hygienist,'" Shiroma says of the 1970s when he was a hygienist at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and at Lockheed in California. "Industrial hygiene is what you did and what defined you."

But many industrial hygienists (IHs) agree that an emphasis on traditional duties such as air monitoring has been in decline for years for a variety of reasons, such as a perception that many chemical hazards have been conquered. As a result, IHs have been asked to expand their job tasks to include other environmental, health and safety (EHS) aspects not typically part of the hygiene field.

Shiroma is the first to admit that much of the profession is like that today. After serving in IH-specific roles early in his career, he now hires only EHS generalists as manager of health and safety at Boeing's Rocketdyne Propulsion & Power facility in Canoga Park, Calif.

His staff of 11 EHS professionals typically includes two certified IHs, one of which is Shiroma, and several with industrial hygiene degrees. None of the 11, however, has an IH title. "We don't call ourselves that," he says. "We're health and safety professionals."

A membership survey taken last year by the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) revealed that almost 46 percent of respondents are spending close to a majority of their time on responsibilities not specific to industrial hygiene (safety, 22.7 percent; environment, 11.7 percent; other, 11.4 percent). In addition, nearly 60 percent perceive the best employment opportunities to be as EHS generalists. Only 7 percent believe industrial hygiene offers the best job possibilities.

"It's very rare anymore to find someone, when you go to an industrial hygiene meeting, who is just doing industrial hygiene," says Larry Birkner, MBA, CIH, CSP, vice president and technical director of McIntyre Birkner & Associates, an EHS consulting firm in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

The shift from industrial hygiene specialists to EHS generalists who include hygiene as part of their job duties is seen mostly as a positive move. For one thing, it has enabled a profession that is not growing to remain a viable part of the EHS field, Birkner says.

"People doing industrial hygiene are picking up new responsibilities. It shows the intellectual and operational strength of industrial hygienists," he says. "Management feels they are capable of handling environmental issues and safety and health issues. From that perspective, the profession is strong."

Not everyone sees the trend toward EHS generalists as all good. Too many times, staff reductions cause industrial hygiene tasks to fall to other EHS professionals, claims James D. McGlothlin, MPH, Ph.D., CPE, an associate professor of industrial hygiene and ergonomics in Purdue University's School of Public Health Sciences.

"When a company downsizes, it's usually the industrial hygienist who is the first to go," McGlothlin says. "Those responsibilities are put on the back of the safety officer, who -- in my opinion -- a lot of times does not have the training a hygienist has."

Industrial hygienists often are the first ones eliminated in an EHS department, McGlothlin contends, because health effects they seek to eliminate or reduce are not measurable for several years. He believes that some companies have a mindset that "if it's not bleeding, it's not something worth paying attention to."

If IHs are not losing their jobs, they are being asked to perform additional duties, according to Neil Zimmerman, CIH, PE, also a professor of industrial hygiene at Purdue. "Hygienists are being pressured into doing EHS responsibilities," he says. "Ultimately, doing that will be to the detriment of workers' health."

Because there is only so much time in a workday, Zimmerman says, he is concerned that industrial hygiene responsibilities could fall through the cracks. For example, sampling issues may not be addressed appropriately or frequently enough to keep track of worker exposures, and exposure assessments may not be done properly.

"Where does that leave industrial hygiene?" he asks. "As the red-headed stepchild."

Even if most chemical hazards have been mitigated or engineered out, companies should not become lackadaisical about workplace exposures, says Hank Lick, Ph.D., CIH, CSP, president-elect of AIHA. Lick is concerned that too many employers do not see a need to have a proactive industrial hygiene program. As a result, they may falsely believe that everything is OK.

"Even if you think you've conquered all of these hazards, you have to be vigilant to keep them under control and keep your system going," says Lick, recently retired manager of occupational and environmental health science at Ford Motor Co. He has formed a consulting firm, Safety and Health Solutions.

Zimmerman also refutes the argument that chemical hazards have been solved. He points out that new chemicals, products and types of jobs are being created that have exposure hazards. Gee Joseph, an industrial hygiene specialist at DuPont Experimental Station in Wilmington, Del., has seen many new exposures in his eight years in the hygiene field. At DuPont, where he was worked for three years, his tasks go beyond chemical and noise exposure issues to hazards from high-tech equipment such as lasers.

After spending his first two years in the field as an IH with General Electric's aircraft engine division in Cincinnati, Joseph worked at Keystone Steel and Wire in Peoria, Ill. Initially, he was a plant IH, then was promoted to senior safety and health specialist. It was after the promotion, when he worked 60 percent of the time on industrial hygiene tasks and 40 percent on safety, that Joseph realized he would rather focus on hygiene.

"I think the field of industrial hygiene is more challenging and exciting," he says. "Safety, in my mind, is a lot more routine, and you do the same things over and over."

Joseph eventually sought a job that would let him focus on a variety of hygiene issues, which brought him to DuPont. "With industrial hygiene here at the R&D site, for example, I deal with different chemicals every day."

Filling a Need

Apparently, not enough college students agree with Joseph. McGlothlin says the number of students majoring in industrial hygiene is "way down" across the country. His list of possible reasons includes a field that is not attractive to the younger generation and rigorous requirements to get an industrial hygiene degree.

While espousing a traditional industrial hygiene viewpoint, McGlothlin realizes he cannot ignore academia's need to produce hygiene graduates who can fulfill industry's need for value-added EHS generalists. Because more and more hygiene graduates are going into EHS jobs, they need to have a broad-based education. For example, companies are asking him to make sure grads have an understanding of ergonomics issues.

Steven Levine, Ph.D., CIH, professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan and president of AIHA, says several schools' public health programs offer environmental science degrees in addition to industrial hygiene. Michigan's environmental health sciences program also requires every student to take a safety course.

At universities like Purdue, as long as industrial hygiene grads are willing to also consider openings apart from hygiene, they have no trouble being hired, McGlothlin says. "Many of them have jobs lined up in November and December for the following summer."

At the same time, he says, there is tremendous responsibility and pressure for universities to birth a new breed of IHs who can help make a company run more profitably and protect its workers better.

Another shift in the industrial hygiene profession has been into consulting. According to last year's AIHA survey, more than 16 percent of members work for consulting firms, up from 14 percent in a 1997 membership survey.

Because there are fewer industrial hygiene specialists in industry, many companies still see a need for expertise with specific hygiene issues or to solve problems. They often fill that need with consultants.

Consultants could be more beneficial to the profession, McGlothlin says, but many must sign confidentiality agreements and cannot share numerous situations and solutions discovered by serving a variety of clients. "Probably the richest experiences for industrial hygienists have been as consultants who got into something really hairy, came up with some brilliant solutions to knock the problem out and can't talk about it."

An EHS World

Many industrial hygienists believe too many in the profession have hung on to a label that has been outdated for years. As a result, hygienists have failed to help management fully understand that they have the education and the experience to handle a variety of EHS tasks, they say.

As a result, McGlothlin says, top management often has too narrow a perception of IHs. "Companies do themselves a huge disservice by thinking that hygiene is a bunch of pump hangers out there collecting data. There are a lot of important and intrinsic values to the industrial hygienist."

IHs bring value to their employer because they are trained to be "foot detectives" who figure out ways in which workers can protect themselves from potentially hazardous chemical and physical agents. "It's a value that a lot of times we don't summarize very well when letting management know we are really worth a lot more than they think."

IHs also have education and experience that prepares them for life in an EHS world. At Boeing's Rocketdyne division, for example, Shiroma has one staff member with an industrial hygiene background who leads the facility's lockout/tagout effort. Another with hygiene expertise focuses on fall protection, confined spaces and potentially high-hazard safety situations in test operations. Rocketdyne employees design and build advanced rocket propulsion systems, including the main engines for the Space Shuttle.

Like Shiroma, Usha Wright, CIH, CSP, looks for candidates with competence as EHS generalists. As vice president of environmental, safety and health for ITT Industries in White Plains, N.Y., Wright often hires CIHs but bypasses those seeking only traditional industrial hygiene roles.

Before Wright arrived at ITT seven years ago, there were several CIHs at the corporate level. The decision was made to decentralize EHS functions and rely more on generalists at individual facilities.

Wright, who also is associate general counsel for ITT, a worldwide engineering and manufacturing company with 42,000 employees, expects her EHS generalists to recognize when they need expert industrial hygiene assistance beyond their capabilities.

"I can say fairly comfortably that the needs are being taken care of and perhaps are being taken care of better," she says. "Now, it is not a small group of people trying to meet [IH] demands all over the world. We have this cadre of consultants available worldwide where individual units can make a phone call locally to procure their services."

Many who remain in industrial hygiene-dominated jobs often tackle nontraditional issues such as indoor air quality and ergonomics. This is because the nature of work is changing, even at workplaces such as steel mills, auto plants and chemical factories.

"Hygienists have got to operate with the safety and the environmental folks," Birkner says. "The traditional approach, as we've known it, has tended to isolate hygienists from the other safety and health functions."

Because there are limited opportunities to perform traditional industrial hygiene tasks, IHs who position themselves as EHS generalists stand the best chance at ensuring a long and prosperous career. If the industrial hygiene profession also can get past a hygiene-only identity and emphasize that its members have a breadth of experience and training, the future should be encouraging.

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