August 9, 2016 / Brigette Polmar

An Error in Judgment: Improving Exposure Assessment

This post is the third in a series on insights into exposure assessment as presented at AIHce 2016 in Baltimore, Md. References to specific products or services do not constitute endorsement by AIHA or The Synergist.

Some call it intuition, others call it professional judgment, but all can agree it’s a powerful tool in the work of an industrial hygienist. IH/OHs often rely on professional judgment in making exposure assessments when dealing wi​th incomplete quantitative data, applying knowledge gained from their formal education, experience, experimentation, observations, inference, analogy, and intuition to make critical calls about worker safety.

Unfortunately, research reveals that judgments based on intuitive professional judgment are often inaccurate and underestimate exposure. Relying heavily on their professional experience, IHs may “eyeball” the data instead of using statistical tools to interpret monitoring data.

In today’s rapidly evolving environments, innovative IHs are working to integrate assessment methods to effectively address and correct common errors of judgment.

“If we are wrong, and we conclude that [exposure] is low when it’s in fact high, we leave those people vulnerable to overexposures,” said Susan Arnold, CIH, of SPH Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “What we’ve learned from the industrial hygiene research that has been conducted over the last ten years is that if we aren’t using a systematic objective tool to come to some conclusions about exposures, in the absence of measurements those decisions are frequently wrong, and they tend to underestimate the true levels of exposure.”

So Arnold set out to develop a systematic objective tool that hygienists could use to improve the accuracy of their judgments. She found inspiration in The Checklist Manifesto by surgeon and writer Atul Gawande, who asserts that professionals are only as strong as their checklist, an organizational tool that empowers people to put their best knowledge to use. Arnold had found her missing link, and “the tool,” as she calls it, was born: the IH/OH CheckList, an elegantly simple tool with impressive impact on the accuracy of exposure assessments.

“[Using a checklist is] about knowing the critical steps and knowing the order in which they need to occur, and then doing that every time. I developed the checklist to apply these tools that had already been developed, so this software tool brings that structure and rigor,” said Arnold, who, in collaboration with colleagues Mr. Mark Stenzel, CIH and Mr. Daniel Drolet, CIH, created The CheckList for industrial hygienists. “They have a tool that takes minutes to use that could literally double their exposure accuracy. It would be a significant improvement in worker protection,” she said—and it could lead to a significant cost savings over conducting full quantitative assessments.

Arnold’s CheckList has been built into an Excel spreadsheet. The tool automates many of the steps in the checklist. For now, a limited set of reference values required as inputs are conveniently embedded into the tool, which translates into time saved—less research and fewer calculations for IHs to perform—and, ultimately, improved accuracy.

The best part? The qualitative exposure assessment tool is free. You can download it from the web page of AIHA’s Exposure Assessment Strategies Committee.

Brigette Polmar

Brigette Polmar is AIHA’s conference correspondent.


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