January 17, 2023 / Abby Roberts

Building OEHS Programs as an Early Career Professional 

This blog post is based on a presentation given by Margretta Murphy at AIHce EXP 2022. An expanded version was published in AIHA's 2022 ebook, The Essentials of OEHS Communication.

Margretta Murphy, CIH, CSP, is a relatively young OEHS professional: as of May 2022, she had been working in the field for about six years. Roughly a year before AIHce EXP 2022, she had started a new job, too—as the safety manager for SEAM Group, a company focused on helping organizations in a variety of industries safely operate and maintain their electrical equipment. SEAM Group hadn't focused much on OEHS before Murphy's arrival. In her new position, Murphy was responsible for building up programs that could protect SEAM Group's field teams when they worked in settings where they were at risk of exposure to noise, toxic materials, and other hazards.

"It can be really challenging to show up in new environments and start new roles," Murphy said, "especially if you're a solo practitioner trying to get these OEHS programs, make that case, and help people understand why OEHS is important and relevant."

Her session at AIHce EXP 2022, "Fostering Industrial Hygiene Programs at a Safety Company," provided a high-level overview for early career professionals, solo practitioners, and professionals at growing companies interested in building OEHS programs. Her experience may offer lessons for professionals aiming to develop OEHS programs in a range of circumstances.

Building the Team

SEAM Group field teams—teams of workers who maintain equipment in a wide range of work sites and industries around the country—routinely encounter a variety of safety and health risks. These safety risks included electrical risks (such as arc flashes); slips, trips, and falls; sprains, strains, and tears; struck-by incidents; and cuts, lacerations, and burns. Health risks included hearing loss, ergonomic hazards, hazardous materials, thermal stress, vibration, and fatigue. The possibility of ergonomic hazards immediately stood out to Murphy, as the field team members worked a very physical job, which sometimes involved lifting objects weighing 50 to 80 pounds. Other immediate concerns included noise exposures and hearing loss, lead exposures occurring when teams worked at battery recycling facilities, and the necessity for teams to work in extreme temperatures.

To start, Murphy used AIHA’s Industrial Hygiene Performance Metrics Manual to identify the metrics needed to track injuries, illnesses, accidents, and other information that would help her make a business case for necessary OEHS programs. She knew she would have to prioritize the hazards she chose to focus on because she couldn’t address all of them immediately. Instead, she had to determine which hazards were associated with the highest level of risk—not only from her perspective as an OEHS professional but also from the perspective of the company’s senior leadership. They were more likely to understand risk in operational, financial, and strategic terms. Murphy would have to frame risk in ways they understood in order to secure their support.

But a company isn’t only made up of executives, and Murphy also looked for potential project members across the organization—people who could help her gather information and data that would reinforce her argument. She worked to get the backing of SEAM Group's field directors, who had spent between nine and 17 years doing the work she was performing risk analyses on; they knew their work and could help ensure that Murphy's analyses accurately reflected the hazards they encountered and that she appropriately prioritized risks. Obtaining field team members' support was also essential to the project's success because prospective OEHS programs would cause changes to their daily operations.

Online Tools for Collecting OEHS Data

One free, online-accessible tool that Murphy used while developing OEHS programs for SEAM Group was AIHA's Business Case Tool. This spreadsheet-based tool is available for free on the association’s website and walks users through the process of creating business cases for OEHS programs.

Because SEAM Group's OEHS program was so new, the company didn't have many of the instruments to measure the data Murphy needed to make her business case. Instead, she drew on data the company already had access to or used other tools available online. SEAM Group's insurance and OSHA 300A logs helped Murphy explain how much money ergonomic hazards had cost the company in the past. Online resources that helped Murphy make her cases for various OEHS programs included:

  • The National Safety Council's work injury tools, which include estimates for the amount of workers' compensation paid for various illnesses and injuries.
  • OSHA's business case resources, which provide industry-specific hazard information.
  • NIOSH's Work-Related Injury Statistics Query System (Work-RISQS), a tool for obtaining estimates on the number of nonfatal occupational injuries treated in U.S. hospital emergency departments.
  • The Noise Job Exposure Matrix (JEM) app, created by the University of Michigan School of Public Health, which Murphy used to support her case for hearing protection and surveillance programs.
  • NIOSH's Sound Level Meter app, which allowed Murphy to demonstrate on-site noise sampling to field teams.
  • AIHA's Ergonomics Assessment Toolkit (accessible on the Ergonomics Committee's webpage), which Murphy used to identify the points in various work processes where field team members had the highest risks of ergonomic injuries.
  • The OSHA-NIOSH Heat Safety Tool app, which enabled SEAM Group field teams working in hot or humid conditions to protect themselves from heat-related illnesses and injuries and helped Murphy make the case for investment in lighter-weight personal protective clothing and equipment, better work/rest cycles, and other controls.

Other tools that Murphy used in more limited capacities were AIHA's Qualitative Exposure Assessment Checklist, NIOSH's Occupational Exposure Banding eTool, and AIHA's Exposure Modeling Toolbox. Many of the tools mentioned in this post can be accessed for free through AIHA's Risk Assessment Tools and Apps and eTools Resource Center webpages.

Quantitative vs. Qualitative Data

Murphy built her cases for OEHS programs and interventions primarily on quantitative and semi-quantitative, not qualitative, data. She wanted to use numbers-based, measurable data to bring SEAM Group leadership to her side, instead of relying on her expertise as an OEHS professional.

“I'm earlier in my career, so I really didn't want to go with a lot of fully qualitative studies," Murphy said. "A lot of these hazards are higher risk, so we wanted to make sure that we're getting more data-driven solutions, too." More information about the challenges of using professional judgment can be found in the January 2014 Synergist article "Judgment Day: How Accurate Are Industrial Hygienists' Qualitative Exposure Assessments?", the January 2022 AIHA President's Message, and Chapter 6 of AIHA's 2015 publication A Strategy for Assessing and Managing Occupational Exposures.

Murphy created a framework to help her choose when to use various types of data—qualitative, semi-quantitative, and quantitative—based on her level of professional judgment, the amount of resources required, and the level of risk in various situations (see Table 1). According to this table, for example, OEHS professionals are better off relying on qualitative data in circumstances where they have a significant level of relevant professional judgment, require relatively fewer resources, and estimate a low to moderate level of risk.

Table 1: Murphy's framework for choosing the right type of data in a given situation.

Level of Professional Judgment
Resources Required (time, money, personnel)LowModerateHigh
Intended Risk LevelLow to ModerateModerate to HighHigh

Courtesy of Margretta Murphy.

Growing the Team

As Murphy continued developing SEAM Group's OEHS programs, more and more people within and outside of the company were brought onto the project. "The key thing here is building out the project team and developing relationships," she said. "It's not just with one or two people, it's across the board. I'm working with all of our divisions now."

The OEHS team worked with SEAM Group's supplier management to ensure that field team members received everything they needed to safely perform their jobs, such as PPE. The hiring team implemented pre-hiring physicals and functional capacity exams, which involved contracting with outside occupational health services. These efforts enabled field team members to be medically cleared and set up for success to work in a highly physical role.

The sales and contracts team helped update client contracts to include new OEHS programs. The company also required field teams to have necessary safety training and education as well as allowed field teams to stop their work if something went wrong. Murphy and the sales team also worked together to screen and evaluate new clients for work with compliance or OEHS requirements. Site safety teams reached out to coordinate safety efforts with clients so that all employees were protected.

Site visits and audits strengthened relationships with the field teams. The OEHS project team used visits as opportunities to get to know field team members and listen to their concerns about risks and perceptions of the OEHS programs' effectiveness. SEAM Group formed a safety committee, a forum for company leaders and field team members to discuss the impacts of OEHS programs on operations, strategy, and health and safety.

Presenting the Business Case

Murphy found that the last, toughest, and most critical part of AIHA's technical framework was summarizing and presenting the business case. For this, she needed to use various strategies depending on the group she was talking to.

Murphy's tips for presenting business cases for OEHS programs to company leaders are:

  1. Keep it simple; have a clear problem statement and clear interventions.
  2. Keep it clear and concise, don't overwhelm your listeners with data, and use plain language.
  3. Turn data into a compelling story, if you can. Talk about the impacts of safety programs on people that your audience has met.  
  4. Focus on business value.  
  5. Anticipate tough questions and prepare yourself to answer them by running your presentation by a friend or colleague. Ask them to challenge you on anything that may not be clear or thoroughly explained.

Finally, the project should be geared toward continuous improvement. "We have to demonstrate that we're not just doing these programs because they're nice to do when things are going well," said Murphy. "This is critical to us all the time, and we need to keep getting better at it."


AIHA: A Strategy for Assessing and Managing Occupational Exposures, Chapter 6, "Approaches to Improving Professional Judgment Accuracy," 4th ed. (2015).

AIHA: "Technical Framework: The Keys to Effective Presentation of Your Business Case."

Murphy, Margretta. "Fostering Industrial Hygiene Programs at a Safety Company." AIHce EXP, AIHA, May 24, 2022, virtual. Conference Presentation.

Abby Roberts

Abby Roberts is the editorial assistant at The Synergist.


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