Forward Focus: The Future of Industrial Hygiene, Part 1

Barbara Nessinger, Editor-in-Chief

The evolution of industrial hygiene includes improving the ability to anticipate, recognize, evaluate, control and confirm worker protection—across all of the industries that serve this growing field. Industrial Hygiene in the Workplace reached out to numerous companies for expert opinions on a range of subjects that affect how the field will change going forward and, most importantly, the issues and challenges ahead.

The good news is that, despite setbacks this year by the global pandemic and budget cuts over the past four years—there is great enthusiasm in the industry, as a whole. In fact, the responses we received were so passionate and so thorough, it would take a 10,000-word article to sufficiently address all of the ideas and opinions expressed. Not only would I not want to write that article—I highly doubt anyone would want to read such a tome.

Therefore, this is first in a three-part series. This article first deals with how the new Biden administration’s positions on worker safety will likely change the scenario for most industries. The focus is on looking toward the future, rather than in the rearview mirror.

The second topic addressed here will be what challenges are most important to the various industries and companies we’ve interviewed. Although excluding the changes brought about by the global pandemic is nearly impossible, we examine additional issues that arose in our respondents’ engagement with clients, prospective clients, and other health and safety thought leaders and practitioners.

Shift in Power, Shift in Focus

Over the past four years, budget cuts in the U.S. under the Trump administration have affected key departments overseeing Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) standards. Some 20-30% cuts have been seen, as well as cuts to the Department of Labor and the EPA. These cuts influence the EHS industry, including job security and how industry values EHS/IH professionals.

The changes of the Trump administration have had a marked affect, not only on U.S. companies, but also on their global partners, all of whom have been impacted by the reduction in government resources and support. Said one member of the ACGIH staff, “[t]he result of the reduced resource allocation to OHS/EHS is a diminished perception, on the global stage, of the U.S. as an impactful, committed leader in OHS/EHS. Specifically, professional peers (i.e., scientists, engineers, researchers, etc.) likely question the commitment of the U.S. government to the promotion of health, safety, sustainability and the environment.” That said, the ACGIH board was swift to point out that the organization tries to remain indifferent to changes in administrations. “Though the industry may ebb and flow with implementation of best practice vs. compliance,” they stated, “ACGIH works to stay at the front of the field year in and year out.”

Some see the cuts of the past four years as a continuation of how some companies have been consolidating their expertise over the past decade. The Product Marketing Manager at Cority noted that there was already a noticeable shift in how businesses manage EHS staffing. “It appears that organizations are continuing to pivot toward a more generalist approach to health & safety, favoring practitioners who can ‘wear many hats,’ as opposed to in-house specialists engaged in a particular discipline like industrial hygiene.”

By staffing an organization with professionals able to manage multiple aspects of an integrated health & safety program and procuring specialists if and only when those services are specifically required can make sense. But, continued the Cority representative, “it also means organizations are losing considerable in-house expertise in several domains and, consequently, need tools to help generalists determine when those specialists need to be brought in to help address specific risks and opportunities.”

The need to create a lean, highly efficient workforce presents a challenge for safety executives. It has led to many organizations turning to a “connected” approach to safety. Opined the folks at Blackline Safety: “Whether it’s two-way communications, location monitoring or gas detection, technology that can help worksites ‘do more with less’ have helped managers empower their workforces to be as productive as possible, all while ensuring the safety of their people and staying within budget.”

One important question moving forward is how the new Biden administration in 2021 (and beyond) will affect EHS standards, OSHA, the EPA, etc.—and how it will affect businesses.

According to AIHA’s representative, one of the first and largest public fights will be over an emergency and then permanent standard from OSHA to protect workers from occupational exposure to COVID-19. President Biden has publicly supported issuing such a standard, and his administration will likely do so shortly after the inauguration.

“While this move would be strongly supported by worker advocate organizations who believe that additional protections are needed, business groups have signaled steep opposition, arguing that existing regulations already cover COVID-19, pointing to citations issued by OSHA to employers for coronavirus-related violations as evidence of this,” AIHA continued.

Business groups routinely point to the fact that regulations historically take time to be developed, issued, implemented and enforced. Further, said AIHA, “Government guidance is much more useful, because it can be quickly issued and updated as new information about the virus becomes available. Despite the anticipated opposition, the Biden-Harris administration is expected to issue an emergency temporary standard early next year. There will be little, if anything, members of Congress who oppose this action could do to stop it.”

The Biden administration’s priorities include accelerating the production of PPE (with priority going to frontline workers); expanded COVID-19 testing; and rapidly distributing vaccines. The new administration also supports doubling the number of OSHA investigators to increase workplace inspections and is expected to support additional funding for OSHA, NIOSH, and related occupational and environmental health and safety agencies and programs.

Safety Culture at the Forefront

COVID-19 placed enormous attention on how organizations are managing health risks. Some of the most pressing concerns mentioned across the board include the concept of “total worker health”—i.e., issues concerning aging populations, mental health, organizational risk factors and other socioeconomic impacts to workers’ overall health & wellness.

The pandemic has also reinforced the overwhelming importance of safety culture. Most health & safety professionals already recognized that safety culture is critical for operational excellence, year in and year out. And it is clear that those companies that practiced the most effective H&S efforts did better at weathering the pandemic. This can’t be overemphasized. In fact, Cority stated, “COVID-19 has been a great litmus test that’s proven the importance of engagement and culture on H&S results; we anticipate the focus on building a stronger safety culture will only continue to grow in the years ahead.”

Beyond the Pandemic

Although excluding the affects of COVID-19 on the industry at large is difficult, we asked about other challenges they see as being most important.

The ACGIH staff mentioned a few challenges, with the most important being a transient workforce; the increase in telework; fewer organized labor unions; language barriers; and “the ongoing introduction of new chemicals, products, processes and equipment that tend to put production and environmental performance ahead of impact on worker health.”

New technology and the ability of the workforce to interact with it was another much-stated issue that companies will face. Stated Blackline Safety, “Moving forward, one of the largest challenges our industry faces is overcoming that technology trust gap by helping organizations see the holistic value in embracing a digital transformation, especially as it relates to workplace safety.”

This often occurs, they averred, when “safety and operations professionals are often hesitant to embrace new technology, especially when it comes to the productivity of their worksites and the well-being of their people, since many of these digital tools have not been implemented in the field for a significant period yet.”

Current challenges across workplace sectors include fatigue management and fitness for duty. These two areas impact all areas of occupational health and safety and certainly total worker health. The ACGIH members noted that this includes “the impact of aging, recreational cannabis use, mental health and personal well-being. Equally challenging is the rapidly evolving impact of climate change and economic hardship. All of these areas have been exacerbated by the current global pandemic in almost every jurisdiction in the world.”

Changing Workforce

Another issue mentioned by many of those we interviewed was finding new industrial hygienists and H&S professionals. Most see the task of recruiting the next generation of safety professionals as a major challenge. “Reaching and educating new IHs will be a key challenge, as many 18-30-year-olds do not follow traditional media—no newspapers, magazines or traditional TV channels. Pay walls for websites and subscription services for visual media have created a fractured market where people are only exposed to what they want to see (and pay for),” averred the President of Air Systems International, Inc.

Members of ACGIH concurred with this sentiment, seeing the aging workforce as an important hurdle,  as well as the retirement of many IH professionals. “The impact of the outsourcing of the work, as well as the use of external consultants, will dramatically impact the potential for illnesses and injuries for workers,” they stated. [Editor’s note: Don’t miss the March-April issue of IHW, where part two of this article series delves into the diversity of the modern workforce—and more.] IHW

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS

We’d like to thank the following people for their assistance and participation in this article’s content. The time these individuals took to give complete, thoughtful answers is greatly appreciated.

  • ACGIH: members of both the ACGIH staff and the ACGIH Board participated

  • Mark Ames, Director of Government Relations, AIHA

  • Dave Angelico, President, Air Systems International, Inc.

  • Sean Baldry, CRSP, Product Marketing Manager at Cority

  • Blackline Safety, Sean Stinson, Chief Revenue Officer