When you think of hygiene, you probably think of the basic things you do every day to stay healthy like brushing your teeth, washing your hands or sneezing into your elbow. All of these things help keep you and others from getting sick and staying clean and fresh makes shared spaces a bit more pleasant.
What you might not think of, though, is the concept of hygiene on a larger level and the things that businesses do to ensure that employees, visitors and customers remain safe and healthy. Industrial hygiene is part of occupational health and safety and it is a key aspect of maintaining the well-being of all employees, from the executives to the factory line workers.
Industrial Hygiene Defined
According to the American Board of Industrial Hygiene, “Industrial hygiene is the science of protecting and enhancing the health and safety of people at work and in their communities. Health and safety hazards cover a wide range of chemical, physical, biological and ergonomic stressors.”
All companies, regardless of the industry, are responsible for maintaining the health and safety of their employees at work, so industrial hygienists carefully evaluate work areas to identify any possible issues and develop solutions to those problems.
Industrial hygienists use their training in occupational health and safety to not only identify potential hazards in a work environment, but also to anticipate potential hazards by recognizing specific conditions that could create a hazard. For example, an industrial hygienist might notice that while a configuration of storage shelving may not present a risk currently, should the upper shelves be packed inappropriately, there is an increased risk of falling items, especially if the lower supports are hit by a forklift. The hygienist would then develop solutions to the issue, which might include a safer shelving setup, additional training on how to stack shelves, or new policies about warehouse safety.
Industrial hygienists also work on more long-term challenges. For example, in some companies, employees may be required to work around large amounts of chemicals, dust or even noise. While on a short-term basis, any of these may not be harmful, for employees who work in that environment for several years or even longer, those conditions could prove harmful. By analyzing the work environment, an industrial hygienist can help a company reduce the hazards and prevent serious illnesses or injuries over time.
Typically, once the industrial hygienist makes recommendations to mitigate a hazard, the company, not the hygienist, is responsible for following through on those recommendations.
Why Industrial Hygiene Matters
Not only are employers responsible for the health and safety of employees, but maintaining an unsafe work environment, or one that contributes to mental and physical health problems, is a costly proposition. In 2013 alone, workplace injuries and accidents cost U.S. employers $62 billion, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That figure includes not only medical costs, but also the lost productivity and employee absenteeism caused by the injuries.
Managing the healthcare and productivity costs related to workplace accidents are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the importance of industrial hygiene.
Happier, More Engaged Employees. According to the British Columbia Ministry of Health in Canada, employees who work in an environment that is safe and limits stress, with a supportive supervisor and flexible schedule, have the highest levels of work-life balance and are thus happier and more productive. Maintaining good industrial hygiene allows employees to feel safe and focus on their jobs rather than avoiding hazards, which also improves their work. By removing the physical and mental discomforts that contribute to stress, anxiety and fatigue, employees are not only less likely to become injured or ill, but more likely to produce quality work.
A More Professional Environment. Research indicates that companies that make industrial hygiene a priority are more likely to be respected by both employees and the public. People want to work for companies that value their employees and keep them safe and healthy. The more successful your efforts in this area, the easier it is to develop a reputation as a great place to work, which can improve the talent pool and, ultimately, your company’s bottom line.
Most industrial hygienists have extensive education and training in occupational health and safety, as well as experience in industrial environments where they learn to identify and anticipate potential hazards. As companies look for ways to increase productivity and profitability while also taking better care of their greatest asset — their employees — industrial hygienists are likely to become more in-demand and an integral part of any company’s overall health and safety effort.