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Industrial Hygiene: Chemicals, and Noise, and Mold, Oh My!

What Is Industrial Hygiene?

Industrial hygiene, or IH, is devoted to the anticipation, recognition, evaluation, and control of those environmental factors or stresses, arising in or from the workplace, that may cause sickness, impaired health and well-being, or significant discomfort and inefficiency among workers or among citizens of the community.1 When one thinks of IH, many times the first things that come to mind are air and noise monitoring. IH covers much more than that; quite frankly, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Environmental Factors and Stresses

Environmental factors or stresses include chemical, physical, ergonomic, and biological hazards. Each of these come in various forms and can be introduced to the body, and cause damage, in a variety of ways. A substance can be inhaled (breathed in), absorbed (through the skin or mucous membranes), injected (through skin by a sharp object), or ingested (introduced to the body through the mouth).

Chemical Hazards

Chemical hazards refer to gases, vapors, dusts, fumes, mists, and smoke. Dusts, fumes, and mists are particle-type air contaminants or particulates. They can be inhaled, absorbed, or ingested into the system. The effects of chemical exposure can be acute (a brief time between exposure and symptoms) or chronic (a lengthy time between exposure and symptoms). Smoke and vapors are particles, liquid or solid, that are suspended in a gaseous medium like air. Chemical material safety data sheets or MSDSs provide a wealth of information to assist with protecting employees from a harmful exposure.

Physical Hazards

Physical hazards include non-ionizing and ionizing radiation, noise, vibration, and extreme temperatures. Physical hazards affect the employee’s physical health from an external point of view. The effects of exposure to many physical hazards may not be immediately evident. Noise, vibration, and some radiation exposures become more evident over time. Conversely, extreme temperature exposure like frostbite and sunburn and overexposure to radiation are more likely to be immediately evident.

Ergonomic Hazards

Ergonomic issues are often thought to be exclusive to the office environment and mostly computer-related. Ergonomics involves workstation design, repetitive motion, improper lifting, reaching, and poor visual conditions. Proper tool and equipment selection ensure that the work environment is being fitted to the employee and not the other way around.

Biological Hazards

Biological hazards refer to insects, mold, yeast, fungi, bacteria, viruses, and other organisms that cause sickness or disease when they enter the body by breaking the skin or directly entering the body. The resulting sicknesses may be acute or chronic in nature. Medical personnel, housekeeping personnel, maintenance personnel, and other occupations that handle bodily fluids, animals, or food products are potentially at risk. Personal hygiene, such as frequent hand washing, is very important when addressing biological hazards to prevent an employee from ingesting or cross-contaminating an area with a biological hazard.

Controlling Exposures

Generally, when asked how to control an exposure, the first response is personal protective equipment (PPE). Three areas should be evaluated before protecting employees using PPE: engineering controls, work practice controls, and administrative controls.

Engineering controls are used to remove the hazard or the source of the hazard by substitution, isolation, ventilation, or altering the design. Engineering controls should be considered in planning stages but can be integrated into the design later if an employee exposure is identified. Engineering controls are the control of choice because they are not dependent on the actions of the employee to operate appropriately.

Work practice controls involve the steps necessary to complete the required task safely. A job safety analysis is a tool that can help identify areas needing improvement by observing and evaluating employee tasks step-by-step. Examples of work practice controls that can be implemented include ensuring good housekeeping in the work environment. Another work practice control is ensuring that employees who work with chemicals, bloodborne pathogens, or other contaminants practice good personal hygiene and frequent hand washing.

Administrative controls are written policies, procedures, and the work practice controls instituted by management to protect the employee from an identified hazard. Administrative controls are only effective if employees understand what is required and comply and if management monitors the controls and consistently enforce them. Utilizing administrative controls requires cooperation and communication between the policy and procedure creators and the employees actually performing the work. Employee input is essential for successful implementation.

OSHA/VOSH Standards

Many of the OSHA/VOSH standards address aspects of industrial hygiene. The specific and relatively common general industry standards that address more of the IH exposures include:

  • Subpart G – Occupational Health and Environmental Control
    • 1910.94 – Ventilation
    • 1910.95 – Occupational noise exposure
    • o 1910.97 – Non-ionizing radiation
  • Subpart H – Hazardous Materials
    • 1910.119 – Process safety management of highly hazardous chemicals
    • 1910.120 – Hazardous waste operations and emergency response
  • 1910 Subpart I – Personal Protective Equipment
    • 1910.132 – General requirements
    • 1910.133 – Eye and face protection
    • 1910.134 – Respiratory protection
    • 1910.135 – Head protection
    • 1910.136 – Occupational foot protection
    • 1910.137 – Electrical protective devices
    • 1910.138 – Hand protection
    • 1910.146 – Permit-required confined spaces
  • 1910 Subpart Z – Toxic and Hazardous Substances
    • 1910.1000 – Air contaminants
    • 1910.1001 – Asbestos
    • 1910.1018 – Inorganic arsenic
    • 1910.1030 – Bloodborne pathogens
    • 1910.1200 – Hazard communication

An industrial hygienist or appropriately trained individual measures the effects of stressors and environmental factors by evaluating the intensity, frequency, and duration of the exposure. This information should then be compared to regulatory, agency mandated, and best practice standards. Gathering information from these sources ensures that the employee’s exposure or potential exposure will be appropriately addressed and the appropriate controls will be utilized.

1Industrial hygiene. (n.d.). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved August 18, 2006, from website:


Occupational Safety and Health Administration.(1998). Informational Booklet on Industrial Hygiene. Retrieved August 25, 2006, from

Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (n.d.).OSHA Technical Manual. Retrieved, August 25, 2006, from

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (n.d.). General Industry Standards. Retrieved, September 1, 2006, from

University of Arizona. (n.d.). Basic Principles for Controlling Chemical Hazards. Retrieved, August 28, 2006, from

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