You're an Occupational WHAT? Occupational Hygienist
What is an Occupational Hygienist (OH)?
Occupational Hygiene is a specialist role in health and safety. Occupational Hygienists (OH's) are often found advising organisations whose workers undertake tasks which are considered ‘high risk’. Workplaces in construction, mining and manufacturing – especially where hazardous dusts and chemicals are in use – are prime users of OH expertise.
The peak body for the profession - the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists (AIOH) - defines their role as: “Occupational hygienists use science and technology to measure worker exposures, assess worker risks and develop controls to improve the workplace environment.”
So if an OH turned up at your site, what might they do?
Peter explained “There are 3 key elements we consider when we walk into a workplace:
- Identify hazards (and measure them)
- Recognise what the hazard can do to workers at that site (health risks)
- Control the hazard.”
Yet a 'hazard' can be a very broad term in the occupational health and safety world. How does OH look at things differently?
In the workplace, hazards that OH’s are particularly concerned with include ‘noise, whole body and hand arm vibration from tools and mobile equipment, chemicals from processing and maintenance activities as well as dusts such as asbestos, respirable crystalline silica, coal dust and diesel exhaust particulate.’ (AIOH)
“Evaluation and measurement of hazards is a key part of what OH’s do. We put a number to it." said Peter, "Anyone can tell you a site is dirty or dusty. We say how dirty or dusty.”
You may be familiar with the idea of measuring dust levels on a quarry site and may have even seen a hygienist placing portable pumps around to get an accurate sampling of environmental dust levels, but OH is more than measurement alone.
Once a hazard has been measured, that number gets compared to Workplace Exposure Standards (WES). These results inform the next actions, which may include steps to control the hazard, further personal and environmental monitoring or referral to an Occupational and Environmental Physician (OEP) for health monitoring/health surveillance.
Occupational Hygienists (OH) and Occupational and Environmental Physicians (OEPs) - where does it get confusing?
Both OH and OEPs manage health risks for workers, but how do the two work together?
The best way of illustrating what OH and OEPs do is to look at a process and the kinds of monitoring and management this involves from both professions.
“Mostly OH assessments involve grouping people who experience similar environmental conditions or /work processes – called Similar Exposure Groups (SEG).” explained Peter “But we do need to keep in mind individual differences. We need to ensure management strategies work for everyone, so sometimes we need to increase controls so higher risk workers are catered for.”
A good example of this is lead-related process. “Females of childbearing age have different WES and lower blood lead levels to trigger a removal from lead work than males. So, if we protect females at that lower threshold, we should also be protecting males.”
Bringing together OH and Occupational and Environmental Medicine gives employers and workers a complete picture of risk and feedback on the effectiveness of controls. Where OH’s are experts are quantifying risks across groups, OEPs are experts in applying health risk data for groups of workers as well as individuals within those groups.
Unfortunately, workplaces don’t always engage both an OH and an OEP, meaning opportunities for better health risk management are lost.
“Half the time my reports don’t get given to a physician. I would love my reports to be forwarded to an OEPs who is engaged with same workplace,” reflected Peter.
And Peter's mistaken identity story?
Peter is fortunate that most of the places he attends in his professional capacity understand his role. But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing - he has on occasion been mistaken for a dental hygienist and a handwashing expert. “Pre-pandemic I would laugh if someone asked me if I taught workers to wash their hands, but lately I’m happy to recommend appropriate masks and ventilation controls for the airborne hazard - and also good handwashing technique!”.