In 2011, a NIOSH-commissioned report, the National Assessment of the Occupational Safety and Health Workforce, included a troubling finding about the future of workplace health and safety. According to the report, employers planned to hire more than twice as many occupational health and safety professionals as were expected to graduate from universities in the United States. A summary of the report on the NIOSH website observes that “future national demand for occupational safety and health services will significantly outstrip the number of professionals with the necessary training, education, and experience to provide such services.”
Today, the future predicted by the report is upon us, exacerbated by the retirements of many industrial hygiene professionals. In recent years, AIHA has helped replenish the “pipeline” of OEHS professionals by recruiting new younger members (as well as a growing number of international members). To further close the gap between the supply of OEHS professionals and the demand for their skills, AIHA can and should play a role in educating an often-overlooked population—the OEHS-related professionals known as “technicians.”
So what is an OEHS technician? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these practitioners collect data on the health and safety conditions of the workplace. They work with and support more senior-level OEHS professionals in conducting tests and measuring hazards to help prevent harm to workers, property, the environment, and the general public. Duties include but are not limited to:
- inspecting, testing, and evaluating workplace environments, equipment, and practices to ensure that they follow health and safety standards and government regulations
- conducting monitoring of potentially hazardous chemical, physical, and biological agents
- working with OEHS specialists to identify and manage risks such as hazardous conditions or equipment
- evaluating programs and educating workers on workplace health and safety
- demonstrating the correct use of safety equipment and supplies
- investigating incidents and accidents to identify the cause and how they might be prevented
The minimum educational requirement for OEHS technicians generally includes at least an associate's degree, although a bachelor's degree may be required or preferred. Others may enter the profession with a high school diploma and supplemental training obtained through a vocational technical program.
However, some OEHS technicians need to master many of the competencies required of IH professionals with four-year or graduate degrees. At a minimum, technicians are expected to master core competencies and the ability to work independently on IH projects, under the guidance of an IH professional. This may include:
- basic characterization of work environment to obtain details of the operational tasks including worker interviews, obtaining SDS and chemical inventories, observing tasks performed, and completing a job hazard analysis in their employment setting
- calibration and maintenance (to include tracking of annual calibration) of noise, gas/vapor detection, and other survey or personal meters
- set-up of air sampling trains, to include airflow calibration of pumps, in accordance with OSHA, NIOSH, ASTM, EPA, or other valid standards
- field observation of operational tasks during sampling or physical agent exposure surveys to match up the data and the tasks performed
- other such measurements as needed to verify the effectiveness of select control measures (for example, local and general exhaust systems, noise controls, and so on)
Reliable news sources and select university studies indicate increasing numbers of U.S. workers don’t have a four-year college degree but are employed in industries that could benefit from the skills of an OEHS technician trained in safe work practices. These industries include manufacturing, mining, warehouse packing operations, commercial trucking, food service, and many others that may not be able to justify having a professional with a bachelor’s or master’s degree on staff.
AIHA is well positioned to help prepare OEHS technicians to fill the health and safety needs of these industries. We offer an array of in-person and online training opportunities, including the Fundamentals of IH road courses, a series of online Elemental courses (EIH I, EIH II, and EIH III), and PDCs and technical sessions at AIHce EXP. Of particular relevance are our certificate programs in occupational exposure assessment and in direct-reading instruments for detecting gases and vapors, as well as the OHTA W201 Basic Principles online course.
We understand that technicians don’t have an association that can cater to their specialized needs. Further, it’s unclear how many technicians exist domestically; internationally, it is surmised that the population is quite large.
To this end, AIHA is seeking to develop an entry-level industrial hygiene training matrix for a cross-section of relevant occupations that reflects suitable hazard analysis and exposure assessment skills to prevent or reduce workplace injuries or deaths. The professional sectors to be considered are all branches of the U.S. armed forces, forensic/crime scene technicians, police, and state highway weigh station/HAZMAT crews. Next year we plan to conduct a needs analysis based on outreach to select organizations representing these practitioners.
Beyond providing OEHS education, we might envision AIHA as a “home” for this diverse global community to learn, network, and exchange ideas, thereby ensuring we remain a sustainable organization for decades to come—and helping meet the demand for OEHS skills.
If you have any thoughts on how AIHA can reach an OEHS technician population, please email me directly.