How to Use Industrial Hygiene to Improve Worker Health & Safety

Much like everyday hygiene, industrial hygiene is a term associated with health and habits that help to keep you from getting sick and injured. In an industrial setting, hygiene also is used as a blanket safety term for a number of other workplace hazards that can be addressed via not only traditional personal hygiene, but also attention to detail, and the following of safety protocols.

According to the National Institutes of Health:

The profession of industrial hygiene uses strict and rigorous scientific methodology and often requires professional experience in determining the potential for hazard and evaluating exposures or risk in workplace and environmental studies.

-NIH – What is Industrial Hygiene

Industrial Hygiene Analysis

The first step in working toward any kind of industrial hygiene plan is to conduct a workplace analysis. Basically, you need to be looking through your workplace for anything that could pose a threat to worker health. While industrial hygiene sounds like it has to do specifically with the kinds of diseases and sickness that we commonly associate with personal hygiene, in an an industrial setting we also want to take into account all other potential sources of injury and danger.

In your analysis, you’ll want to do a walk through yourself, or ideally with the help of a worker or group of workers, and start at the very beginning of your process (probably material offloading/intake). Move through a day in the life of your workers until you reach the end of your process, where finished products are made ready for shipping. At every turn, be looking for and asking your employees about potential threats. These threats can fall into many categories, so let’s take a look at what those are and how you can go about addressing them.

Hygiene at the Employee Level

This basic category does mimic personal hygiene, you’re basically looking for places in which hand washing habits, worn equipment, and the materials that workers come into contact with on a daily basis might do them harm through bodily contact. This usually has to do with ingestion or with skin contact for substances that might be absorbed. In addition to bacteria and everyday germs, consider how chemicals used in your production process might cause a worker to get sick. When browsing OSHA literature, you’ll find these aspects of industrial hygiene labeled as biological and chemical hazards.

Generally, the best way to address basic hygiene is by ensuring that workers rid their person of any harmful bacteria or chemicals early and often. Hand washing should always be required after an employee handles any kind of chemical, even when they have been wearing gloves or another type of personal protection equipment or device. Clothes that might take in chemical fumes or residue should also be changed out of as soon as they are no longer required for a work task. Before eating, workers need to wash their hands thoroughly and make sure that any clothing they’re wearing after ditching PPE isn’t also contaminated. Workers should be reminded to properly wash up after using the bathroom and after shaking hands with or touching customers and coworkers to prevent the spread of illness. More than any one injury type, sick days will take their toll on your productivity.

Process Adjustments

PPE-RequiredSometimes, whether conducted internally or by an industrial hygiene professional, it will come to your attention that certain processes in your business are just simply unsafe. When a threat is brought to your attention, you’ve got to either eliminate it or introduce more preventative measures to minimize the likelihood of a problem occurring for your workers. It is preferable that you eliminate a problem altogether rather than simply “cover it up” with more layers of PPE or safety protocols. One example of this would be a dust or powder used in production that is fine enough to become airborne and be breathed in by employees. Many such substances, like the silica dust often found in construction work, is carcinogenic and can cause cancer and other complications years down the road. In these cases, the elimination method is to find a suitable, safer alternative to use. In many cases, changes can be made to harmful ingredients or materials without compromising the quality of the finished product. When this is not the case, you’ll instead be looking at ways that PPE – respirators or some variant thereof, in this case – could be used to prevent harm from being done. Also, making sure all chemicals are properly labeled with GHS labels will help communicate to the employees the potential danger that the chemical can cause. In addition, installing safety labels that communicate that PPE is required can also be beneficial and helpful for the employees.

Ergonomic tweaks to make your work site easier and more physically accommodating for employees can also help to cut off the potential long term effects caused by improper lifting, moving, and bodily strain.

Next Steps

The above are just a few examples of things that might come up, but to properly keep your industrial hygiene up to par, it is recommended that you hire a professional; as many hours as you spend dedicating to becoming the best in your position, an IH expert will have dedicated to their craft as well. Not only does this make the process relatively hands-off for you, but a trained expert is more likely to spot and be familiar with hazards threatening your workers. You can even combine professional findings with your own walk through with workers to gain multiple points of insight. Once you’ve gotten your analysis report back, you’ll likely be informed of the recommended corrective actions along with a breakdown of what they would mean for your business, how much they would cost, and how urgent each is. You can then use this information to make an informed decision about how and how quickly, you will proceed. The willingness to spend some of your money on getting an IH job done right is not only a monetary investment in your company’s future, but it’s also a goodwill investment to employees, showing that you’re taking their safety and comfort seriously.

Additional Resources