November 3, 2020 / Abby Roberts and Bernard Fontaine

The Future of Work and the Reimagined Industrial Hygiene Profession

This blog post is adapted from the presentation of the same name, given by Bernard Fontaine at AIHce EXP 2020, and from a conversation with Bernard Fontaine that took place on Sept. 15, 2020.

The world is entering the fourth industrial revolution and consequently, the nature of work is changing. In the future, the industrial hygiene profession will need to look somewhat different than it does today to account for new realities. There are many ways in which future workplaces may look different from those we have become accustomed to: manufacturing facilities may be located nearer to their customer base to service them more quickly; renewable energy sources will see more use; technology will optimize production; wearable sensors will become part of clothing and PPE; and new manufacturing technologies, potentially including those based on nanotechnology, will proliferate. Changing economic, social, technical, and political circumstances will also fundamentally affect the nature of work and the work environment. New frameworks and approaches, such as Total Worker Health, are necessary; another framework, formulated for the purpose of coping with risks that are believed to be significant but are not fully understood or addressed, is that of “emerging risks.”

Bernard Fontaine, Jr., CIH, CSP, FAIHA, who has worked in industrial hygiene for over 40 years, has a surprising prediction for IH: “My vision is that the profession will become more integrated with other disciplines.” He explained that he wishes both to see individual IHs becoming more specialized, albeit working together and sharing information more than they do currently, and the profession as a whole collaborating with others on specific issues.

In his presentation at AIHce EXP 2020, Fontaine indicated the areas in which IH could expand its focus, or benefit from dialogue with other professions. His vision falls in line with the focus on integrated solutions that is key to the Total Worker Health framework—in both cases, collaboration with and expansion into disciplines that have traditionally not been considered part of industrial hygiene.

These areas, into which the future IH profession may expand, include:

  • explorations of the field of Big Data and of predictive analysis, a variety of statistical techniques that analyze current and historical facts to make predictions about the future or otherwise unknown events—a methodology for using large data sets
  • widespread use of sensor technology, wearable devices, and citizen science for data collection
  • telehealth and other online solutions for delivering occupational healthcare to worker populations in remote locations or that are otherwise unable or reluctant to see an IH in person
  • online training and microlearning, which has potential to instruct workers on health and safety issues without significantly interrupting their usual work
  • sustainability, climate change, air pollution, and other environmental challenges
  • youth and student outreach to recruit future IH, OEHS, and other STEM professionals—building on groundwork laid by NIOSH’s Youth@Work / Talking Safety program, aimed at introducing middle and high school students to occupational health and safety relative to part-time employment and summer jobs
  • occupational disease in underserved work populations both within the U.S. and abroad—occupational accidents and diseases go systemically underreported in many countries, and significant populations in both the U.S. and overseas lack the infrastructure for IH support (collaboration with allied professions overseas may become essential to American IHs)
  • collaboration with an increasingly diverse and expanding array of stakeholders not affiliated with traditional IH, including financial managers, insurers, chemists, biologists, computer scientists, trade associations, and educators
  • reproductive and mental health—both are impacted by both genetic and environmental factors, meaning that the complete prevention of reproductive and mental health issues lies outside of traditional workplace health and safety (see the Oct. 13 blog post for more information)
  • sports and recreation—IH principles may be used to help make recreation safer
  • journalism and social media, which may improve IH’s visibility and branding

The future IH profession may also devote more effort to the issue of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). This will directly assist IHs in their mission of protecting worker health: if an IH is surrounded by other professionals from different backgrounds and perspectives—which could include people of different races, genders, ethnicities, ages, socioeconomic origins, career paths, and areas of expertise—everyone involved becomes more innovative through exposure to ways of thinking previously unfamiliar to them. DEI efforts align with both the TWH goal of protecting the health of all workers in ways tailored to their individual experiences, and Bernard Fontaine’s vision of a more integrated profession. The practice of considering viewpoints from a multiplicity of professions will become necessary to successful TWH implementation.

Finally, concerning journalism and social media, Fontaine stresses the importance of IHs learning to tell the story of their profession’s successes, communicate to employers the value of their services, and ensure that IH information is more widespread. He points to the role IHs played in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which remains little known to the public despite its importance. As a remedy he suggests that IH content be made more accessible and sometimes published in short form, such as in blog posts and online articles—a tactic that can be used to draw students into the profession as well as educate the general population. For this reason, communication and outreach is critical to the profession’s future. Above all, the IH profession must evolve and take on unprecedented roles to face a rapidly changing world.

Abby Roberts and Bernard Fontaine

Abby Roberts is the editorial assistant at The Synergist.

Bernard Fontaine Jr., CIH, CSP, FAIHA, is a member of the AIHA Board of Directors and of Workplace Health Without Borders.


A Wake-Up Call to the Business Sector?

This is a very inspirational and thought-provoking blog, which reinforces how something as horrific as a global pandemic can aid the OH/IH profession in generating awareness about the importance of worker health. COVID has introduced terms like "PPE" and "N95" to the general public, and hopefully will raise the collective consciousness of Wall Street on rewarding companies that do more to safeguard worker health and well-being.

By Lawrence Sloan on November 6, 2020 10:18am
Future of the IH profession

I also have more than 40 years of experience in Occupational Hygiene and I share Bernard Fontaine's views about the future of our profession and the importance of the TWH approach. In switzerland the Covid-19 pandemic offered an opportunity to the occupational hygienists to increase their visibility in measuring particles of different sizes and their content in coronavirus. This gave information on the airborne transmission of the virus and on the efficiency of the protective masks.

By Michel Guillemin on November 4, 2020 4:07am

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