Geeks Rule

Occupational Hazards' Chief Geek spotlights the important contributions of computer enthusiasts to industrial hygiene practice.

In the beginning, computers were mystical machines created to meet the special needs of government, researchers and large corporations. These were "mainframe" computers. Huge and expensive, only the rich and powerful could afford them. While weak by today's standards, they helped win wars and build competitive advantage.

Mainframe computers begat minicomputers. Minicomputers begat microcomputers. And microcomputers were called "personal" computers because they were inexpensive enough for individuals to own to meet personal computing needs. But, hey, this was the 1970s! Personal computers were not mass market consumer items. Who the heck had personal computing needs?


Pioneering personal computer users were hobbyists enamored with technology who enjoyed exploring its application to daily life. There was no Internet and few computer magazines to help aspiring computer geeks achieve their potential. So they banded together, forming clubs where members could share their knowledge, ideas and use of personal computers.

Industrial hygiene geeks were no different, except they applied personal computers to their health and safety work. Industrial hygienists also banded together to share their interests, ideas and applications. Instead of forming clubs, however, they established formal computer committees within the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH).

While some use the word geek as a slam, I sing it in praise (see "Geeks 101"). It is time to recognize the contributions industrial hygiene geeks have made in using computers to advance occupational health and safety.

The AIHA Computer Applications Committee ( and ACGIH Computer Committee ( were established in the 1980s to advance computer use by occupational safety and health professionals.

Early efforts were directed at basic computer literacy - how computers worked and how word processing, spreadsheets and database applications could be used to increase productivity and quality. The committees published computer guides and began sponsoring professional development courses and technical sessions at the annual American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Exposition (AIHce).

Technology Marches On

Committee members have kept pace with emerging technologies. In the 1980s, they were the first to use desktop publishing technology to publish health and safety information and newsletters for AIHA local sections.

Committees promoted professional networking through electronic mailing lists. Today, you can get help with your questions, and help others with theirs, on the AIHA-sponsored industrial hygiene mailing list ( Or go to ACGIH's Web site and use its Web-based Identification, Evaluation and Control message boards.

When CD-ROM drives became popular, the ACGIH Computer Committee led the charge, convincing ACGIH to publish the Documentation of the TLVs on CD-ROM. The success of the TLVs CD-ROM project led to the CD-ROM publication "Industrial Ventilation: A Manual of Recommended Practice."

When the Internet was opened to public access, the committees were instrumental in taking AIHA and ACGIH onto the World Wide Web. Both groups work diligently behind the scenes to ensure a successful Web presence. The AIHA Computer Applications Committee also hosts Web sites for AIHA technical committees and local sections.

Now that health and safety professionals are integrating personal digital assistants (PDAs) into their practice, AIHA sponsored a short course on PDAs in health and safety at this year's AIHce. The course was followed by a forum on "PDA Applications for the Working IH" later in the week.

Thanks to Ed Bartosh, you can see and hear these presentations online at Visit the site and learn how other professionals are using PDAs to make their jobs easier and to conduct ergonomics evaluations, hearing conservation assessments and ventilation inspections. The page also provides links to presentations from the "Computer Applications in Industrial Hygiene" platform session. In fact, you can view the entire catalog of conference presentations by visiting the electronic proceedings page at

The two committees don't hesitate to join forces when they share a common interest. The best example is the Joint ACGIH-AIHA Task Group on Occupational Exposure Databases. Established to address inconsistencies in information in workplace exposure databases, the task group sponsored a conference in 1997. The conference was followed in 2001 by the ACGIH International Symposium on Occupational Exposure Databases. The database effort has grown beyond the AIHA-ACGIH partnership to include the United Kingdom's Health & Safety Executive, the British Institute of Occupational Hygienists and the European Chemical Industry Council.

"Hopefully, occupational exposure database application developers will adapt the data dictionaries recommended by the joint ACGIH-AIHA task group," said Dennis Morgan, ACGIH Computer Committee chair. You can help by making sure your company's exposure database conforms to Data Elements for Occupational Exposure Databases: Guidelines and Recommendations for Airborne Hazards and Noise, available from ACGIH.

Committee membership is diverse. While ACGIH Computer Committee members are predominantly from government agencies and universities, AIHA Computer Applications Committee members mainly represent private companies and consultants. Regardless of affiliation, members of both committees are united by a common bond: the innovative use of computers to make the workplace a better place to work.

The computer committees are unique. No other safety and health professional organization has nurtured geeks like AIHA and ACGIH. The committees will continue to influence how health and safety professionals use computers.

Keep up with the latest developments. Read the AIHA computer column in The Synergist and the "IH Interface" column in the ACGIH journal Applied Occupational and Environmental Hygiene. Better yet, contact a committee chair and volunteer to help.


Geeks 101

Originally, a geek was a carnival side-show performer whose act involved biting the head off a live chicken or a snake. Today, a geek is someone talented in scientific or technical pursuits, especially computers.

Geeks come from all walks of life. They can be male or female, and any age, shape or size. The common belief that geeks lack social skills is simply not true. Like any other group - professional athletes, politicians and corporate CEOs - geeks run the gamut from crass to class.

Another misconception is that geeks have a total disregard for appearance. Sure, some geeks wear torn jeans and T-shirts, but others dress in a suit and a tie. Paying close attention to details, however, can be revealing. A digital calculator watch or slide rule tie clip are signs of a geek.

I first realized I was a geek in high school, embraced my geekness in college and came out of the closet in graduate school. Whether or not you realize it, there is a little geek inside you, crying to be recognized. Get in touch with your inner geek. Nourish it. You'll be glad you did.

Learn more about geeks on the World Wide Web:

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