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Written by Henry P. Shotwell, Ph.D., CIH, Vice-President, and Robert E. Sheriff, MS, CIH, CSP, President
November 14, 2018
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.
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, dust, 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. some of the more recent occupational health hazards that have been published are Beryllium, Silica, hexavalent chromium, welding fume, and isocyanates.
The Industrial Hygienist has to consider many factors regarding the nature of 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? What body organs does it affect? Short term (acute)? Long term (chronic)? Does it cause cancer? Are there government regulations on a particular chemical such as OSHA or EPA?
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.
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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