November 16, 2023 / Ed Rutkowski

Three Thoughts on Exposure Judgments

Regular readers of The Synergist and the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene (JOEH) are by now familiar with the idea, supported by research, that OEHS professionals' exposure judgments are often wrong and tend to underestimate exposures. On a recent episode of the Healthier Workplaces Show, host Bob Krell turned the mic over to two members of AIHA's Improving Exposure Judgments Advisory Group, Steven Jahn and Billy Bullock, whose conversation ranged from ways to improve exposure judgments to practical ideas for educating workers and management about OEHS issues. Below are some highlights of their discussion:

1. Look for ways to "calibrate" your judgment to a new task or workplace. While experience has many benefits, deep knowledge of a particular industry or company may not serve you well in new situations. In Bullock's view, experience sometimes introduces bias that affects judgment. To guard against this bias, be sure to fully observe new work tasks and processes; if monitoring data are available, perform some statistical analysis to determine the central tendency of the exposure profile.

2. To stay sharp, judgment needs exercise. AIHA offers training in exposure judgment, such as a free e-learning course. While training is vital, skills in judgment need to be regularly put to the test. Bullock suggested OEHS departments conduct periodic exercises in which staff watch a video of a work task and evaluate the acceptability of the exposure. Then, the departments provide staff with actual exposure data against which they can determine the accuracy of their initial judgment.

3. Integrating aspects of qualitative exposure assessment into your company's new chemical approval process can have many benefits. Before organizations bring new chemicals into a workplace, they often require employees to indicate what the substance will be used for, why it's necessary, and in what quantity it will be stored on site. This information is provided to the OEHS department for review. Bullock suggested augmenting this process to collect the kinds of information typically needed for a qualitative exposure assessment, such as the duration and frequency of chemical usage. By receiving this information up front, Bullock's department no longer needed to ask a field IH to spend time collecting it, and other staff became more aware of the purpose of his department, why their work was important, and how the determinants of exposure affect potential risk.

To listen to the entire conversation, head over to the Healthier Workplaces Show webpage and look for Episode 23, "Navigating Workplace Risks."

Related: Read a good summary in The Synergist of research on the accuracy of OEHS professionals' exposure judgments.

If you'd rather read the research itself, look for the JOEH papers titled "Effect of Training on Exposure Judgment Accuracy of Industrial Hygienists" and "Using Checklists and Algorithms to Improve Qualitative Exposure Judgment Accuracy." (Note: to view JOEH articles, AIHA members must first log in to Please read these instructions on how to access JOEH.)

While he was AIHA president, John Mulhausen wrote several Synergist columns on exposure judgments. You can find them in the November 2021, December 2021, and April 2022 issues.

The AIHA website offers detailed background on the Improving Exposure Judgments initiative as well as many free tools for performing exposure assessments.

Ed Rutkowski

Ed Rutkowski is editor in chief of The Synergist.


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