Industrial Hygienist  What They Do

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dot"[Industrial] hygienists study the health impacts of the working environment," explains Stewart Sampson. He is an industrial hygienist. "They try to anticipate, evaluate and control exposures to chemical or physical agents that may injure workers."

dotCompanies use industrial hygienists to ensure a healthy and pleasant workplace, to save losses from sick days, disgruntled workers and possible lawsuits, and to satisfy government regulations concerning workplace safety. Governments use industrial hygienists to ensure compliance with regulations.

dotGrady Russell is an industrial hygienist. Russell says that while many outside the field aren't familiar with the exact methods of it, many are familiar with some of the medical conditions looked for and the terminology used by this science.

For instance, the term "occupational hazard" is now a common one. Most people now know that working in noisy places causes tinnitus, a chronic ringing in the ears.

It's also common knowledge that carpal tunnel syndrome (inflammation of hand tendons because of repetitive use) frequently affects people such as musicians, dental hygienists, meat cutters and cashiers.

dotKathy Smolynec is an industrial hygienist for a railway company. She says she enjoys the oddity and often pioneering feeling of her work. "It's very different," she says. "It's an uncommon job. Few people know what you do. You're often working in an area no one else has worked in before."

She adds that there's an exciting element of investigation to industrial hygiene. "It's very much detective work," she says.

dotSmolynec says navigating the sometimes-tense relationship between workers and employers is a difficult part of her job.

"What I dislike is how skeptical people are," she says. "Sometimes, to management, I'm seen to be some kind of rabble rouser. That politicizes what should be an objective, scientific study [of workplace health concerns]."

dotSmolynec says that sometimes it's workers who are dubious of industrial hygienists. She describes a time she was asked to investigate whether a radio could be causing employees' digestive tract troubles. Smolynec says that the particular radio in question isn't known to have this kind of effect.

"I was describing to a group of employees why there's no way a radio receiver could be causing [the] stomach problems they were having," she says. "I heard one person say, 'She has to say that. Otherwise, she'd get fired.'"

Smolynec says that after studying them, she believed fear of the radio caused the workers mild anxiety. The anxiety in turn was probably causing their stomach problems.

dotTom Grumbles, an industrial hygienist, says hygienists work in several settings, each with different hours. "The work environment is highly variable," he says.

"Many hygienists are located at one facility and will spend much of their time outside in the workplace observing and measuring the environment and workplace. Some work in a consulting or corporate role, and travel is a routine part of their jobs."

Since this job may often involve physical inspection of plants, factories and facilities, people with visual impairments may encounter some challenges entering this line of work.

dotJohn Orser, an industrial hygienist, says that his work is deeply satisfying. "When I do or say something that informs a worker about an aspect of their work that they did not know, I see the light of understanding in their eyes," he says.

"By my evaluation of the workplace, I provide the means for worker health protection, preventing human injury and protecting management investment," Orser says.

At a Glance

Make sure working environments are safe and pleasant

  • Hygienists work in many different settings, with variable hours
  • You have to have good people skills
  • You'll need a university degree