Safety Sleuths

Posted: June 02, 2007

How can respiratory problems be prevented when a lab worker deals with particles so small they pass through skin or blood vessels?

That's the kind of issue industrial hygienists face as nanoparticles increasingly show up in glare-reducing coatings on eyeglasses, dental bonding agents, cosmetics, inks, wound dressings, or on tennis balls to make them last longer.

It also explains why many of the 7,000 industrial hygienists who will arrive in Philadelphia starting today and next week for the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Exposition are signing up for nanotechnology sessions.

"People want to stay ahead of this," said Mary Ann Latko, director of scientific and technology initiatives for the American Industrial Hygiene Association, which is cosponsoring the convention with the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists. "They want to know about it before it shows up in their plants," she said.

The conference runs through Thursday.

Industrial hygienists are health professionals and scientists charged with making workplaces safe. Latko said the way they work has changed along with the workplace. Few employees can count on working for one company from graduation to retirement. "People are changing jobs," she said, "and not just jobs, but careers."

That means it is not as easy as it once was to track work-related health conditions. "It becomes much more complex and much more difficult to understand any previous workplace exposures that may impact health in later years."

Another change: Workers, as a group, are getting older.

"Regulations are geared to the average adult worker - that definition didn't include people working in their 60s, 70s and sometimes 80s," Latko said. Older workers respond differently to ergonomic issues, heat, and other factors.

The conference includes dozens of sessions on such topics as lessons learned and challenges faced in painting the Benjamin Franklin Bridge; and protecting elusive, vulnerable and low-wage workers, including illegal immigrants in construction, particularly if there are language and cultural barriers.

Today's focus is nanotechnology. "Right now, we are probably overprotecting workers," because hygienists would rather err on the side of worker safety while they become more sophisticated in how to protect them, Latko said.

The ultimate goal is protection without impeding workers. For example, engineering solutions such as better ventilation rather than masks, which can be annoying.

Tomorrow, there will be an all-day seminar on protecting police and other first responders who uncover illegal methamphetamine labs, and those who decontaminate the labs, often in homes. "It's trying to stay ahead of the current situation on the street," Latko said. "Our people are protecting the people who protect you."

While the conference is primarily technical, some sessions will address professional concerns, including recruitment, communication, and training.

Latko said hygienists come from many scientific backgrounds, including biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, and medicine. While their colleagues are becoming more specialized, hygienists must be conversant in a broad range of the sciences - dealing, for example, with mold in the office, nanotechnology in the lab, and noise in the factory.

Hygienists in the Philadelphia area earn $54,600 to $98,239; more than $100,000 with bonuses.

The job is not only scientific, she said. Hygienists may be in charge of companies' emergency planning. "Ka-Boom! Your Plant Just Blew Up! Now, Deal With It!" is the title of one seminar.

Hygienists also need skills in teaching, communication and corporate politics, as they try to convince management and employees of the importance of a safe working environment.

"It's the challenge of being a detective in the workplace," Latko said. "That's kind of the way we look at ourselves."

Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769 or

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