More than 50 years ago, the U.S. passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, but American workplaces are still not safe. An estimated 95,000 employees died of diseases contracted in the course of their work in 2019, according to a 2021 AFL-CIO report. That same year, 275 employees died each day as a result of workplace hazards.
All workers deserve to work free from harm: With industrial hygienists’ combined knowledge of science and engineering, they protect safety and health on the job and in the community. Individuals inspired by this role should consider how to become an industrial hygienist.
Industrial hygienists anticipate, recognize, evaluate, and control hazards to help ensure people don’t get sick or injured. They work across many industries and in their communities to safeguard workers and the general public and to ensure compliance with occupational exposure regulations. Using practical, life-saving knowledge of everything from the flammability of materials to the measurement of levels of carbon monoxide to prevent toxicity, they prevent workplace-related illnesses and accidents.
Exposure to hazards can lead to a range of problems, including:
- Disease transmission (laboratories or healthcare settings)
- Respiratory conditions (mines or factories where workers inhale dust)
- Skin diseases (work environments where chemicals are used)
- Hearing loss (loud work environments such as construction sites or airports)
- Repetitive stress injuries (work environments where workers repeatedly perform the same motions)
To prevent these health issues, industrial hygienists implement safety measures that address various types of hazards, such as:
- Chemical hazards: dangerous chemicals that harm people when inhaled, absorbed, or ingested
- Biological hazards: viruses, bacteria, fungi, human fluids, or waste that can cause sickness
- Physical hazards: excessive heat, noise, or radiation
- Ergonomic hazards: repetitive motion injuries, excessive vibration
An industrial hygienist’s responsibilities center on two things: identifying hazards that put people at risk and eliminating exposures to those hazards. Industrial hygienists develop safety protocols and procedures that limit each hazard’s potential to do damage.
For example, industrial hygienists supply workers at risk for exposure to paint fumes with local exhaust ventilation, and they ensure compliance with guidelines for medical labs handling biological waste materials.
More specific duties of industrial hygienists fall under risk assessment and risk management.
Risk assessments aim to identify processes that could cause fires, chemical releases, or even explosions. They also consider areas of concern, investigating how ongoing exposure to toxic materials or stress on the body from repeatedly performing a task can affect a worker’s health over time.
Risk assessment is a formal process that involves the following four steps:
- Hazard identification: Evaluates a workplace to identify hazards, stressor and work processes with an eye to improving worker health and safety.
- Exposure assessment: Evaluates a person’s exposure to the hazardous agent, usually achieved from sampling, either “worst-case” or random.
- Dose-response assessment: Assesses the increasing or decreasing risk in response to levels of exposure to a hazard.
- Risk characterization: Estimates the possible occurrence or probable severity of the hazard.
The application of the risk assessment process allows industrial hygienists to determine the extent workers are exposed to individual stressors, whether these exposures are in compliance with occupational regulations, and the potential health effects of exposures. With this knowledge, industrial hygienists can make informed decisions about exposure control strategies, training needed, as well as required adjustments to procedures that can improve safety.
Risk management involves applying measures that aim to lessen or eliminate safety and health risks. These measures, often referred to as controls, involve engineering and administrative controls, and the use of PPE :
- Implementation of hazardous materials training
- Demonstrations on how to use safety equipment correctly
- Installation of ventilation systems
- Guidelines for handling chemicals
- *Nontoxic substitutions for toxic chemicals
- Introduction of work practices that minimize exposure to hazards
Controls can also involve designing safer work environments. For example, an industrial hygienist working with a company that uses abrasive blasting equipment can protect workers from breathing in silica dust by suggesting that the silica used in the abrasive blasting process be replaced with dry ice.
Additionally, risk management involves inspections and audits to ensure personnel fully understand and follow safety protocols and procedures.
Effective responses to oil spills, hurricanes, infectious disease outbreaks, nuclear incidents, and other emergencies often demand expertise in the management of environmental, biological, and chemical hazards and a sound understanding of exposure assessment strategies.
Industrial hygienists working in disaster response efforts participate in the day-to-day operations of emergency missions and assess the hazards individuals may face. They then offer guidance on what type of personal protective equipment is needed or how to avoid unnecessary risks during disaster response activities.
For example, after an explosion at a paper mill, industrial hygienists would secure the scene to ensure cleanup workers didn’t put themselves at risk or disturb evidence needed to investigate the accident’s cause. The industrial hygienists would make sure radiation sources in the destroyed mill weren’t compromised.
They would also set up monitors to detect harmful levels of different toxic chemicals and advise on the use of steel-toe shoes, hardhats, and hearing protection.
To best understand how to become an industrial hygienist, consider the education requirements, work experience, and job skills necessary for the role.
Industrial hygienists need at least a bachelor’s degree in industrial hygiene or a field such as engineering, chemistry, physics, or biology. The degree can provide either a foundation in accident prevention and occupational safety management or critical technical knowledge in the sciences.
Though not always required, an advanced degree in industrial hygiene opens many job opportunities. It also builds vital understanding about the effects of chemicals and other materials on the body and environment.
Curricula cover the following key topics, among others:
- The analysis of toxicological and epidemiological data to recognize, evaluate, and control workplace health hazards.
- The design of effective controls to address hazards
- An in-depth study of occupational safety and health regulations
To become certified, industrial hygienists must gain work experience in the field. The industrial hygiene work should address different occupational health hazards. Completion of an ABET accredited Masters program in Industrial Hygiene counts for one full year of professional experience for the ABIH CIH exam.
On-the-job experience gives industrial hygienists a chance to apply their classroom learning to the real world.
Industrial hygienist certification shows that the professional has reached a high level of expertise and education in the field. This offers a competitive edge to industrial hygienists trying to secure a position or advance a career.
Industrial hygienists must complete several years of work experience, supply references, and take an exam to apply for Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) certification from the American Board of Industrial Hygiene (ABIH).
Industrial hygienists need to excel in technical and interpersonal skills.
Industrial hygienists must explain safety procedures, the purpose and function of engineering controls like ventilation, the use of protective gear, and an array of safety concepts and practices. This requires them to express themselves clearly and make complex ideas accessible to workers who may have limited knowledge of scientific concepts.
Industrial hygienists must notice the small details to avoid overlooking health and safety hazards or incorrect adherence to safety protocols. Additionally, to understand and implement safety regulations, they also must pay attention to detail.
Industrial hygienists come up with solutions to health and safety problems and devise strategies for preventing future ones. This requires critical thinking and creative problem-solving. Designing protective processes and controls that keep workers safe also calls for excellent problem-solving skills.
Industrial hygienists earned a median salary of $76,340 as of May 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). According to PayScale, top earners make at least $121,000 a year.
The BLS expects the employment of industrial hygienists to grow 7% from 2020 to 2030, and 2029, which is the same growth rate as the average growth rate for all other occupations.
During the COVID-19 era and in the years to follow, industrial hygienists’ expert knowledge in biological hazard management is particularly relevant. As the nation recovers and rebuilds, industrial hygienists will help communities and businesses take the needed measures to prevent the spread of disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, workers in the private industry alone experienced 2.8 million injuries and illnesses in 2019. That same year, 5,333 people died from work injuries. The need for skilled industrial hygienists is undeniable.
Learn more about how to become an industrial hygienist by exploring Tulane University’s Online MSPH in Industrial Hygiene.