Many heard or may have read in the news about the fertilizer explosion that erupted in West Texas on April 17, 2013. A large blast that released chemical agents into the atmosphere shook the town. This accident damaged 150 buildings and caused fifteen deaths and 160 injuries (Kuehler, 2019). An accident of this magnitude highlights that occupational hazards exist in the workplace, and explosions of this sort require attention to prevent such a horrific event.

This article provides safety personnel and managers with a general understanding of the industrial hygienist (I.H.) role and how they identify chemical exposure, and how to reduce the risk. Hazardous chemicals exist in many industries, and attention is necessary to prevent worker exposure to airborne hazards.

Some may ask who the correct person to turn to for answers while searching to prevent the next workplace disaster is? According to Fuller (2015), workplace safety existed for thousands of years. Accidents have involved people since 400 B.C. Workplace safety has a lengthy history that requires oversight in today’s industrial market. To help oversee the chemical hazards, an I.H. identifies chemical exposure and finds solutions to reduce workplace injuries, illnesses, and fatalities (Fuller, 2015).

With the help from an IH professional, they can collaborate with company officials with less experience to identify, reduce, and eliminate chemical hazards. Preventing workers from inhaling harmful chemicals may decrease acute and chronic effects. The hygienists can often provide details by comparing test results against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards (Fuller, 2015). Comparing this information summarizes whether the employee exposure exceeded the legal limitations developed by OSHA.

Industrial Hygienist Overview

The IH profession relies upon the fundamental principles of chemistry, anatomy, and mathematics (Fuller, 2015). They collect the exposure results by sampling air particles they gained from locations throughout a facility. Once the samples arrive back from the laboratory, most individuals compare the results with the OSHA permissible exposure limits (PEL). Many complete the task by comparing the test sample with the PEL to determine whether the exposure is acceptable. Determining whether the sample result exceeded the limitation remains the question asked most often by those in the profession.

Acceptable Risk Level

One example would be the level of risk that OSHA considers acceptable for each employee exposed to a hazardous chemical. OSHA has used the risk of one fatal occurrence in 1,000 workers exposed to a chemical within an eight-hour shift. A lifetime of 45 years is an acceptable level of risk (OSHA Occupational, 2016). Interestingly, they have upheld this level of risk in court decisions. Over a 45-year career span, the eight-hour period provides the baseline to measure hazards that result in acute and chronic illness. Illnesses lead to concern as OSHA PELs reduce the risk of death to less than 1 in 1,000. However, this would be incorrect because of the requirements placed on OSHA in setting limitations. Many of the limitations developed in the 1960s and 1970s still exist today (Fuller, 2015). A problem exists during the hazard analysis performed today and comparing it against the OSHA limitation from decades ago.

Occupational Exposure Limit (OEL)

The first preference is to compare the chemical test results to the permissible exposure limits (PELs) published by OSHA. They are the only limitations that are mandatory. The law requires employers to reduce exposure from chemical hazards to a level below the OSHA limitation. Exposures not reduced to less than the published limitation allow OSHA to issue citations and impose fines. Encouragement for employers to seek hazards and reduce exposure below the exposure limitations. Most employers use the OSHA PELs when comparing sampling results.

OSHA established the PEL that represents an acceptable level of risk. Over the years, OSHA requires exposure to remain below the limitation that suggests the risk is acceptable. Therefore, each OEL developed by OSHA establishes the baseline to protect the worker from exposure. An IH performs a risk assessment using sampling methods by gathering the test results to determine whether the level of risk or severity exceeded the baseline. Table 1 shows three examples of welding hazards, exposure limitations, and the test results.

Manganese Fume

Manganese fume testing resulted in 0.1667mg, and the OSHA ceiling is 5mg/m3. A reduced exposure rate exists, and the risk is acceptable according to the OSHA limitation. However, inhaled manganese is a concern as the particles bypass the body’s regular defense system. Accumulation of the hazard may damage the lungs, kidney, and central nervous system (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health [NIOSH], 2013).

Copper Fume

The copper fume test result showed 0.146 mg, and the OSHA 8-hour TWA suggested 0.1mg/m3. The results present an overage of 0.04 compared to the OEL PEL of 0.1 mg/m3. Copper fume targets the respiratory system requiring a respirator rated at 95% or greater (NIOSH, n.d.). An unacceptable exposure rate according to OSHA. Since the OSHA exposure limitation is mandatory, the risk is unacceptable concerning enforcement action and requires the industrial hygienists’ attention.

Lead Fume

The exposure of lead fume from the sample resulted in 0.042mg/m3. Comparing 0.042 to the OEL of 0.05 mg/m3 suggests the exposure is less than the baseline. The exposure happened during the inhalation of the lead particles during metal processing. Lead fume does not have an odor and presents a challenge whether the worker has been exposed (NIOSH, 2018). Therefore, lead fume testing presents the best option to determine whether the exposure exceeds the OSHA limitation. However, sampling and analytical error may occur, lead fume is close to the exposure limit, and presents an unacceptable risk level.

Final Note

OSHA requires organizations to reduce the risk below the established limitations. The established PELs developed decades ago include less hazard information to determine the acute and chronic risk. A sample that falls below the PEL is an acceptable risk. Without updates to the PEL from the 1970s and no changes to the information, worker health and wellbeing may be on the line due to outdated information. New standards are necessary to develop and compare against the OSHA baselines developed decades ago.