Risk Communication and Education of OHS Professionals

Future industrial hygienists need to learn more than the basics of the profession.

The academic preparation for an industrial hygienist of tomorrow, as today, should include a strong foundation of college-level mathematics and basic sciences. Industrial hygiene academic programs also will need to ensure that students' preparations include advanced and applied study in math and science, as well as management, international affairs, communications and the like to address domestic and global needs.

In relation, the scope of practice will continue to expand to be more inclusive of small businesses and nonmanufacturing settings. "Integrative practice" of environmental and occupational health and safety will be even more common and necessary.

The above statements summarize my view and that of the person who wrote them: Dr. Michael Bisesi, professor and chairman of the Department of Public Health at the Medical College of Ohio and chairman of the American Academy of Industrial Hygiene's Academic Accreditation Committee.

There are more views to consider. Jonathan Rosen, director of occupational health and safety (OHS) for the New York Public Employees Federation, makes three points:

  • There is too much emphasis on pushing students enrolled in master's-level programs and above to devote their careers to basic research as opposed to safety and health practice.
  • Programs need to adjust curriculum to address changes in employment, and injury and illness trends.
  • Programs need to teach OHS professionals the organizational skills needed to bring about change in the workplace.

"Programs should provide students with a basic understanding of safety, ergonomics, industrial hygiene, toxicology, epidemiology, hazard identification and control, regulation, laws and the role of government agencies," Rosen says. "Additionally, hazards not typically taught should be addressed, such as workplace violence prevention and establishment of ergonomics programs."

On the issue of research, Rosen says: "There needs to be a greater attempt to train practitioners who can implement safety and health prevention programs in hazardous industries. The focus on research is understandable, given a professor's need to 'publish or perish.'

"Students are a steady source of new research. However, if this situation persists, we are likely to have more researchers than practitioners, an intolerable imbalance."

I agree with him.

Students will be well-rounded, Rosen says, if they learn how to work successfully in an organization. "In addition to training health and safety professionals to be experts, it is critically important to teach them how to advocate for change within the political structure of an organization. A greater emphasis should be placed on communication skills, organizational behavior, teaching and facilitating skills."

Bisesi and Rosen are focused on the issues of educational needs for industrial hygiene degree programs. In my opinion, the issues of integrative practice and communication (Bisesi) and communication skills (Rosen) can best be dealt with by teaching an approach developed by Dr. Peter Sandman.

As Sandman points out, "There is an extraordinarily low correlation between the technical seriousness of a risk (mortality, morbidity, ecosystem damage, etc.) and the likely concern of various publics about that risk." He distinguishes the technical side of risk, which he calls "hazard," from such nontechnical factors as control, trust and dread, which he calls, collectively, "outrage."

"This gives rise to two risk communication tasks that routinely confront industrial hygienists: convincing insufficiently concerned stakeholders to take serious risks more seriously and convincing excessively concerned stakeholders to take minor risks less seriously," he says. "To the extent that emotional and financial resources are limited, the two tasks are connected: Worry and money devoted unnecessarily to small risks are not available for big ones."

Furthermore, Sandman says: "My sense is that the former task is one for which industrial hygienists are generally given some preparation, though perhaps not as much as they could use. The latter task, on the other hand, is bewildering to many in the field who mistakenly think they can 'educate' outraged stakeholders into a calmer state of mind. It is commonplace today for an industrial hygienist to be called upon to reassure employees or neighbors about some high-outrage, low-hazard concern. It is rare for that industrial hygienist to feel properly prepared to do the job."

In some of my classes, I teach a module on Sandman's risk communication theory and methods. After graduating, one of my students, Angelo Chinni, went to work in a large industrial plant in which management and labor had been at odds for years. The plant had many hazards, but the hostility between management and labor was one of the impediments to progress. Chinni told me that his training in risk communication was one of the most important things he learned while in our master's degree program. It was key to his success.

"People in our profession often come to the realization that effective communication cannot take place until feelings are acknowledged and dealt with respectfully," he says. "This core principle is often understood and appreciated after quite unpleasant, but meaningful, experiences such as facing an outraged community or struggling through a confrontational union grievance meeting. The risk communication training was the foundation for a deeper understanding after having one or two unpleasant experiences. I learned to avoid repeating an ineffective pattern."

Bisesi, Rosen, Chinni and Sandman have given us good guidance on the issue of educational needs for industrial hygienists. I believe that one step in the right direction will be to incorporate the Sandman approach to risk communication into the curriculum requirements for our industrial hygiene degree programs.

Contributing editor Steven P. Levine, Ph.D., CIH2, is president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. He is a professor of environmental health sciences and co-director of the University of Michigan WHO Collaborating Center for Occupational Health.

This column represents my personal opinion and not necessarily that of AIHA nor its board of directors.

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