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As defined by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, industrial hygiene is the science of anticipating, recognizing, evaluation and controlling workplace conditions that may cause worker injury or illness. Below are the most frequent hygiene issues encountered at facilities.

1. Air contaminants

Air contaminants are the most considered problem in relation to industrial hygiene. They can take the form of particulates, gases or vapors and include dusts, fumes, mists, aerosols and fibers. In most cases, sampling can be performed to identify concentrations of these contaminants and compared with standards issued by OSHA or the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Nearly all commonly found air contaminants have an OSHA and/or NIOSH standard. Sampling is the only way to confirm that workers are not exposed to contaminants above the Permissible Exposure Limit, or PEL. The following items are examples of some of the most common air contaminants.

2. Dusts and particulates

Dusts and particulates are generated by a variety of industries, for example, powdered ingredients entering mixing vats, sawdust, dust generated by grinding and polishing or machining parts. In each case, sampling can be performed in the work area or directly on the worker to evaluate the exposure to total dust and/or respirable dust – dust small enough to reach the lungs. There are OSHA PELs for the total dust and respirable dust that workers can be exposed to over the course of each day. It’s recommended to perform sampling to ensure that respirators are not needed for your workers.

3. Chemical hazards

Chemical hazards are not all air contaminants and include hazardous materials that can be toxic through absorption and ingestion. Facilities that store and use hazardous materials should have a hazardous communication program in place to make employees aware of the chemical hazards of their working environment. This program includes maintaining current safety data sheets, labeling containers and training.

4. Biological hazards

We have all heard a lot about biological hazards recently. These include viruses, bacteria, fungi and other living organisms. In occupations where there is the potential for exposure to biological hazards, workers should practice proper personal hygiene, particularly handwashing. Medical facilities should provide proper ventilation, appropriate personal protective equipment, such as gloves, respirators, adequate infectious waste disposal systems and appropriate controls for isolation in instances of particularly contagious diseases such as tuberculosis.

5. Volatile organic compounds

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids and include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects. VOCs are ingredients in a wide variety of manufactured products and can cause workers in manufacturing facilities to potentially be exposed. Personnel monitoring for volatile chemicals can be performed to evaluate exposure, as compared with the PELs for these chemicals, to determine whether additional controls are needed to protect workers.

6. Hazardous metals

There are several hazardous metals that, when released into the air, could be inhaled by workers. Some common sources of these metals include welding fumes, metal plating, and the grinding and polishing of metal parts. Similar to particulates and VOCs, sampling can be performed to evaluate worker exposure and guide decisions about ventilation and fume control.

7. Mold

We think of mold as a contaminant potentially found in homes, but it can also be found in an industrial setting. Processes that use water or are naturally humid, like steam cleaning, washing, or wastewater treatment, have the potential to be impacted by mold. Mold needs moisture to grow, and in humid industrial environments, it can be difficult to control. Unfortunately, there are no regulatory standards for mold like there are with dust, VOCs and metals. Exposure to mold results in different impacts on different people. The key is to know you have an issue and to address it quickly. Air testing the impacted area and comparing those results with the mold spore levels outside is the best way to confirm whether there is a mold issue.

8. Noise

Noise, a significant physical hazard, can be controlled by installing equipment and systems that have been engineered, designed and built to operate quietly. Noise control includes enclosing or shielding noisy equipment, making certain that equipment is in good repair and properly maintained with all worn or unbalanced parts replaced, mounting noisy equipment on special mounts to reduce vibration, and installing silencers, mufflers or baffles. In addition, erecting sound barriers at adjacent workstations around noisy operations will reduce worker exposure to noise. If engineering controls and administrative controls are not sufficient to maintain noise levels below the action level of 80 decibels, then hearing protection for employees must be considered. 

9. Ergonomic hazards 

Ergonomics studies evaluate a full range of tasks including, but not limited to, lifting, holding, pushing, walking and reaching. Many ergonomic problems arise from poorly designed job tasks, which can result in conditions such as excessive vibration and noise, eye strain, repetitive motion and heavy lifting problems. Improperly designed tools or work areas can also be ergonomic hazards. Repetitive motions or repeated shocks over prolonged periods of time can often cause irritation and inflammation such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Studies can help determine what hazards for workers are present and develop solutions.

10. Worksite analysis

A worksite analysis, sometimes called a job hazard analysis, is the first step in identifying specific job duties for specific hazards. This process can include, but is not limited to, observing job duties, collecting samples for analysis and performing research about the activities. The end product is a summary of the hazards for a specific job and what controls should be in place to protect the employee. When properly implemented, the end result of a worksite analysis is a safe workplace for employees.