Breathing Easier with Digital Solutions
By: Sean Baldry, CRSP, Contributor
A detailed and sobering report released in late 2021 by the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization found that nearly a quarter of all fatal illnesses are linked to on-the-job exposure to particulate matter, gasses or fumes. The study also found that approximately 80% of the roughly 1.9 million work-related fatalities studied were attributed to “non-communicable diseases,” which cannot be passed between individuals. These diseases accounted for 260,000 annual deaths due to chronic workplace inhalation exposures to chemical agents, such as asbestos, silica, arsenic and others.
Whether we consider these statistics or we point to the United Nations 2030 Agenda of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG3 and SDG8)—which calls for reducing occupational exposures to harmful agents—the objective is clear: Environmental, health and safety (EHS) personnel must improve the ways in which they monitor and mitigate exposures in their workplaces.
Fortunately, there is evidence that it is possible. Non-fatal occupational injury rates have been steadily declining over the past decade. However, rates of work-related illness overall have remained relatively constant, even rising in some cases.
Not only are lives at stake, but the costs associated with these illnesses are significant: according to NIOSH, work-related respiratory illnesses cost U.S. employers nearly $3 billion annually.
Despite the clear impact on the bottom line, corporate investments in industrial hygiene are simply not keeping pace. A Verdantix survey in 2021 found only 16% of firms planned to increase their 2022 budgets for industrial hygiene programs. To compound the issue even further, organizations are increasingly requiring EHS generalists to manage their industrial hygiene programs instead of hiring certified industrial hygienists.
For EHS professionals who are unfamiliar with—and untrained in—industrial hygiene practices, tackling common IH tasks, like planning surveys, taking samples or even interpreting results, can be complex, challenging and overwhelming. For already stretched-thin IH personnel, managing workplace industrial hygiene programs, as well as monitoring and mitigating employee workplace exposures, can be equally challenging and overwhelming.
Finally, when we couple this information with a survey conducted by the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), which reported that certified industrial hygienists spend almost as much time managing non-hygiene-
related EHS duties as they do on traditional IH tasks, and it’s a recipe for failure: not enough money, not enough time and not enough resources.
So, what’s the solution?
Work Smarter, More Efficiently
Working smarter and more efficiently, assisted by digital tools and trusted best practices, is the most effective way to optimize industrial hygiene programs and mitigate employee risk. While some organizations may still be relying on spreadsheets, McKinsey Global Institute estimates that software adoption increases productivity, on average, by up to 25%, largely through efficiency gains realized from improved communication and knowledge-sharing. Additionally, adopting tools already configured around standard IH workflows and best practices actually reduces the time it takes to see a return-on-
investment in the programs.
By leveraging standardized workflows provided by digital programs, EHS personnel can more easily monitor common IH metrics and further ensure mandatory reporting and compliance requirements are met. By quickly reviewing metrics on dashboards, instead of cumbersome spreadsheets and databases, staff can plan and respond so that hygiene risks are properly anticipated, recognized, evaluated and controlled in a timely manner to mitigate their potential impact. Best practices designed into purpose-built IH tools help lessen the confusion around what needs to be completed and can guide staff on the next steps in the workflow.
For example, there are solutions that help EHS personnel simply and efficiently quantify exposure and then suggest the respirator most applicable to an individual’s job, age and health status (i.e., smoker vs. non-smoker; bearded vs. without facial hair). Technology can automate the process, allowing staff to make the data-driven decisions to protect themselves and employees.
Some elements to consider when evaluating a digital approach for your company:
- Are there pre-configured, automated workflows to guide EHS professionals on specific agents to sample, the number of samples required and the sample type to use?
- Are there pre-loaded occupational exposure limit tables against which to assess IH monitoring results?
- Can the dataflow be personalized to allow individuals to make choices based on their unique health, job or exposure circumstances?
- Can you eliminate manual data-entry tasks by collecting and recording IH data from the field directly into mobile devices?
- Can you collect, process and interpret large amounts of data from devices embedded in clothing, equipment or the worksite?
- Can you integrate data from across the organization for improved efficiency, actionable insights and more accurate reporting?
- Can you store data in the cloud, making it less susceptible to loss or corruption?
- Is the solution scalable to grow with you and support future challenges and future direction?
Ultimately, better monitoring and mitigation of potential workplace exposures reduces the devastating and costly long-term effects of occupational illness.
Increase Communication, Drive Action
Digitizing a company’s IH program ensures information flows freely and quickly between key stakeholders with automated notifications and task lists that alert employees immediately when action is needed. This can also give leaders real-time updates on progress and task completion, directly from their mobile devices. Bringing all IH data to one place provides a “single point-of-truth,” thereby giving leaders confidence in their data and the decisions made from it.
All signs suggest that we, collectively, have a clear challenge ahead of us to ensure that our workers are safe. Improving efficiency by leveraging centralized IH data and tried-and-true best practices to make the decisions on where to prioritize your time and focus limited resources is key. Moving to digitized approaches will have us all breathing easier with effective management of industrial hygiene risks.
About the Author
Sean Baldry is a Senior Product Marketing Manager supporting Cority’s Health and Safety solutions. Sean has worked for nearly 20 years in occupational health & safety with leading global corporations servicing the construction, mining, automotive and manufacturing sectors. Sean is a Canadian Registered Safety Professional (CRSP).