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Written By: Henry P. Shotwell, Ph.D., CIH and Robert E. Sheriff, MS, CIH, CSP
November 7, 2018
People engaged in manufacturing, the folks who make the products we all use every day, are exposed to a wide variety of chemical liquids, gases, vapors, fumes, fibers, dusts, microbes and other particulates, which all have the capacity to cause harm. Of course, just because something can hurt you, doesn’t mean that it will. Then again, even ordinary drinking water can be dangerous.
So who determines whether a particular chemical, microbe, or particulate is likely to hurt a worker who is exposed during the course of his or her work activities? Enter the Industrial Hygienist, also referred to as an Occupational Health Specialist or Occupational Hygienist, or even an Occupational Health Consultant.
The Occupational Health Consultant has to consider many factors regarding the nature of a suspect material and its level of exposure to individuals. What harm is it capable of causing? How long will the worker be in contact with it? Will it be all shift long, or only for a brief period? Can the material be absorbed through the skin? How does the material enter the body? Is it more harmful to breathe than it is to touch? Will temperature or humidity alter the harmful nature? Does it have an odor that can serve as a warning?
These questions can be answered by the qualified professional after assessing the workplace conditions, referring to a Safety Data Sheet (SDS) or one of the many available online databases such as the National Library of Medicine’s TOXNET, taking samples/testing for laboratory analysis or making measurements with a direct reading instrument. The American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) is a source of information, education and a list of consultants who may assist your occupational health needs.
After considering all these variables, the expert may conclude that engineering controls or some alteration of work practices are needed to reduce or even eliminate potentially harmful exposures. As a last resort, the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) may be recommended to protect the workers’ health.
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