My Site Visit to Clariant
As a new AIHA staff member with no prior knowledge or experience in industrial hygiene, one of my primary tasks was to learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible, about the field.
While reading The Synergist and exploring the AIHA website was helpful, to me the most practical option was to find an opportunity to observe an IH on the job. I happened to mention this to Elizabeth Pullen, an industrial hygienist with Clariant, and she invited me to spend a day with her when she visited her company’s plant in Virginia.
On the day of my visit, Elizabeth was already meeting with Greg, the company’s safety manager, when I arrived. They were reviewing air sample test results for the company’s plants in North America. The spreadsheet they were using was populated with cumulative data, and they were paying particular attention to how the numbers for each plant had changed over time. It was readily apparent, even to a novice like me, that the steps that had been taken to reduce exposure levels at several sites had been effective, as indicated by the decline in chemicals detected in the samples.
After spending some time going through the data, they suggested we take a break and tour the factory. Outfitted with hard hats, safety glasses, and hearing protection, we stepped into the production area, paying attention to stay within marked pedestrian lanes. As we walked, Elizabeth and Greg described the various manufacturing processes that were taking place, and highlighted where measures had been taken to protect the workers. Dust collection devices were located next to tables and machinery where powdered chemicals were used, helping to keep extraneous particulate matter to a minimum. Safety rails and gates guarded against falling and mishaps with forklifts. Workers wearing nitrile gloves, respirators, or face shields greeted me as we passed by. At one workstation we saw where heavy bags had to be carried by hand from a pallet up a short flight of stairs. Greg suggested they look for a way to improve the ergonomics by raising the pallet to a height where the bags could be pulled onto a roller conveyor, lessening the stresses of repetitive heavy lifting and minimizing the potential for injury.
After the tour, we returned to the meeting room where a different spreadsheet was used to document the multitude of tasks performed by the workers at the plant. Individual employees joined us to talk about their duties in terms of preparation, performance, and cleanup. Potential hazards (anything from pinch points to toppled machinery to ergonomic stressors), preventive measures (respirators, PPEs, training, and so on), and opportunities for improvement were all identified and recorded. The discussions helped everyone think about what could potentially happen when, for example, driving a forklift in a high traffic area or cleaning machinery between uses. One employee described how he had to drive cautiously around a warehouse corner where it was difficult to see, and suggested that a convex mirror on the facing wall would improve the situation. A note to that effect was added to the spreadsheet, as were other ideas provided by workers.
At day’s end, Elizabeth explained to me that the summary data from these interviews would be provided to the plant manager so that opportunities for improvement could easily be identified and acted upon. I left with a much clearer understanding of how industrial hygienists use their knowledge and experience to document practices that help maintain and improve workers’ health.