Members Making a Difference: Laurence Svirchev, CIH
Protecting the health and safety of people at work has never been as critical as it is now during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our members have used their expertise and knowledge to mobilize and collaborate online, at work, in communities, and in households. Take Laurence Svirchev, CIH, AIHA member since 2003, and AIHA ambassador to China. In early February, he appealed to the AIHA membership through Catalyst for altruistic donations of PPE that would go directly to hospital emergency medical staff in Wuhan.
I reached out to Laurence to find out how he got involved in the COVID-19 response, what resources he used, and his thoughts on why IH/OEHS is a fulfilling profession.
Laurence has 38 years of experience in the IH/OEHS field, including working as an occupational hygiene officer with WorkSafeBC in British Columbia, Canada. One of his tasks was to inspect the health and safety operations of hospitals at the time of the SARS outbreak in 2003. That lead him and other IHs to collaborate with the ad hoc SARS Scientific Committee. They researched what happens when a person coughs and sneezes. A dramatic high-velocity photo from the 1930s of a person sneezing led to a series of questions about the visible particles coming out of their mouth. How long do these particles stay in the air before they deposit on surfaces? What is the distribution of particles and their deposition sites within the respiratory system?
At that time, the "3 feet rule" dominated: only healthcare workers within three feet of a patient were thought to need fit-tested N95 respirators. Industrial hygienists demonstrated that infectious aerosol particles could have long residency in air beyond the 3 feet mark. Doctors and other medical professionals therefore needed fit-tested respiratory protection before entering the clinical setting. The IHs and their medical colleagues also had to learn how to protect other healthcare workers, such as orderlies delivering meals to patients. To overcome these differences in understanding, Laurence stressed the importance of closely collaborating with the medical and public health communities, as different professions have different knowledge bases. As a result of these collaborations, there was no transmission of SARS in British Columbia.
After SARS disappeared, Laurence was employed with a Chinese construction company, managing the health and safety programs of its international branches. When COVID-19 appeared in China at the end of 2019, Laurence was personally concerned, as he has many friends and family in China and around the world. Using his professional knowledge and connections, Laurence started publishing in The Synergist and posting on Catalyst, encouraging his peers and colleagues to donate PPE to vetted Chinese contacts, people who would ensure health care workers received needed equipment until China could ramp up its internal production.
Laurence identified his key takeaway: “Knowledge and human need causes people to pull together,” he said, and emphasized the importance of sharing that knowledge to combat problems such as COVID-19.
I asked his advice for students considering careers in IH. “Young people are inspired, but they may not know what they want to do,” he said. “They are always looking for direction and ultimately, they will find it. In IH you can specialize in various fields; once you have learned the fundamentals you can do whatever you want. Young people can see the opportunities that IH offers.”
In IH, students establish a general base upon which they can build and specialize according to their fields of interest. And when a crisis, such as the one we are currently facing, occurs, they are able to share their knowledge and experiences to make a difference beyond the confines of their job or business.
Laurence concluded our conversation by saying that “our organization and our members are mobilized and doing really great stuff. The exchange of ideas and questions on Catalyst shows that we are all still learning and looking for the right things to do. Industrial hygienists are curious and caring people, always seeking new knowledge and modifying old knowledge to fit new circumstances.”
As a non-IH staff member of AIHA, I would like to thank all IHs for their contributions to the safety and health of workers. What IHs do makes a difference on the lives of others. I have been so personally inspired by this profession and our members that I tell my friends and family about what industrial hygiene is and the impact it has on people and suggest it as a viable career.
I encourage our members to use the resources AIHA makes available. Get on Catalyst, publish on SynergistNOW or in The Synergist, check out the COVID-19 resource center, mentor a rising IH/OEHS, look at our CareerAdvantage job board, or post on our social media channels. AIHA is here to help provide you what need to do your job.