What Is Industrial Hygiene? Protecting Workplace Safety

A person gets fitted with a respirator during a COVID-19 outbreak.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made industrial hygiene, the science of protecting workers’ health and safety, more important than ever. Especially as businesses reopen and people reenter the workforce, industrial hygienists are needed to help identify and mitigate risks and hazards.

In February 2021, the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) called on U.S. safety regulation agencies to update their COVID-19 protection guidelines for workers, which have not been changed since October 2020. For example, the AIHA suggested federal funding for state and local workplace safety programs as well as temporary emergency standards for the workplace. Without these resources, organizations and employees risk operating in unsafe environments and triggering new COVID-19 outbreaks.

Even before the pandemic, however, industrial hygienists had been applying their scientific expertise to uphold health standards and contribute to a safer global workforce. For those interested in this field, it is important to understand exactly what industrial hygiene is and how an advanced degree such as Tulane University’s Master of Science in Public Health (MSPH) in Industrial Hygiene can help prepare professionals for impactful careers in the wake of COVID-19 and beyond.

What Is Industrial Hygiene?

Industrial hygiene is the science of protecting the health and safety of people in the workplace. The term industrial hygiene emerged in the early 1900s with the launch of the Industrial Hygiene arm of the American Public Health Association (APHA). Today, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires companies to uphold certain industrial hygiene regulations and occupational health standards.

The processes of industrial hygiene involve identifying, analyzing, and controlling workplace conditions and hazards to prevent dangerous and harmful work environments. These problems can fall into different categories, including:

  • Chemical hazards, such as fumes and vapors
  • Biological hazards, such as viruses and bacteria
  • Physical hazards, such as heat and radiation
  • Ergonomic hazards, such as lifting or pushing heavy machinery
  • Air contaminants, such as fibers and aerosols

Industrial hygiene is important because it can prevent potential illness, injury, and stressors at workplaces, which can have short- and long-term effects on the health and well-being of the people who work there. Employees at a factory, for example, may be exposed to harmful chemical agents. Industrial hygiene specialists can examine the workplace and propose plans to filter or eliminate them.

What Do Industrial Hygienists Do?

Industrial hygienists are professionals who are trained to “anticipate, recognize, evaluate, and recommend controls for environmental and physical hazards that can affect the health and well-being of workers,” according to OSHA. They are also responsible for helping organizations understand and adhere to federal, state, and local safety regulations.

More specifically, industrial hygienists can:

  • Use applied scientific principles to identify hazards
  • Compile and analyze data about workplace risks
  • Interpret toxicology reports
  • Develop controls and remediation programs to address hazards and risks
  • Work with organizational managers to communicate and integrate these programs effectively
  • Manage and monitor these programs to improve health in the workplace

Industrial hygienists can help many types of organizations, such as labor unions, government agencies, and educational institutions. According to 2019 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the largest employers of occupational health and safety specialists, including industrial hygienists, were:

  • Government organizations
  • Manufacturing companies
  • Construction companies
  • Scientific and technical consulting services
  • Hospitals

While on the job, industrial hygienists are often required to wear protective equipment, such as gloves, masks, and respirators, to keep themselves safe from potential harm.

How Has COVID-19 Increased the Need for Industrial Hygiene?

COVID-19 has shone a light on the importance of industrial hygiene. Organizations that continued to operate throughout the pandemic and those that recently reopened have needed to implement new safety protocols and regulations to protect their workers. Specifically, companies across industries have had to take steps to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 in the workplace and ensure employees who do contract the disease do not spread it to others.

Many organizations have instituted administrative controls, such as teleworking and social distancing, and have also invested in personal protective equipment for their workers, such as N95 masks, which remove 95 percent of small particles that carry bacteria and viruses. Along with these masks come new responsibilities, however. OSHA requires companies that use these masks to conduct mask fit tests to ensure that they are being employed properly and successfully.

Even with these new challenges, corporate investments in in-house industrial hygiene programs have declined, according to Industrial Safety & Hygiene News, especially since many companies have been forced to lay off personnel. As a result, industrial hygiene consultants are being tapped to help businesses evaluate hazards and protect their workers’ health and safety.

Make a Difference with a Career in Industrial Hygiene

Tulane University launched the first U.S. public health school in 1912, establishing its position as a leader in this field. Through the MSPH in Industrial Hygiene program, professionals can develop the knowledge and skills they need to identify hazards in the workplace, develop and communicate strategies for remediation, manage occupational risks, and apply government regulations.

This program is supported by a grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), making students eligible for NIOSH traineeships and tuition support opportunities.

Learn more about how Tulane’s MSPH in Industrial Hygiene program can help you meet your goals and advance your career in industrial hygiene.

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Sources:

American Board of Industrial Hygiene, IH Defined

American Industrial Hygiene Association, Discover IH

G2 Consultants, Industrial Hygiene

Industrial Safety & Hygiene News, “Industrial Hygienists Are Vital Players in the War Against SARSCOV-2”

Occupational Health & Safety, “Breaking Down the Silos to Simplify Industrial Hygiene During COVID-19 and Beyond”

Occupational Health & Safety, “Health Organizations Petition Safety Agencies to Issue Occupational COVID-19 Guidance”

OSHA Office of Training and Education, “Industrial Hygiene”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Health and Safety Specialists and Technicians