May 23, 2023

Growing Pains: For Real-Time Particulate Monitoring, the Learning Curve Is Steep

By Ed Rutkowski

The rapid development of real-time particulate monitoring devices in recent years has given rise to justifiable excitement about their potential applications in workplaces. Unfortunately, as industrial hygienist Dustin Bennett explained yesterday during a technical session at AIHce EXP 2023, guidance about how to use these devices has not kept pace with their increasing usage. As described by Bennett, many organizations are lured by the seeming ease with which these devices provide data on exposures but fail to understand their complexities, resulting in a failed deployment.

The problems may begin even with the name “real-time particulate monitoring,” which is a bit of a misnomer: most RTPM devices do not provide immediate readouts of exposure levels, Bennett said. Instead, the data is logged during the workday and downloaded at a later time.

Bennett described two main types of RTPM. TEOM devices are named for the technique—tapered element oscillating microbalance—through which they constantly measure concentrations of air particles. Optical devices, which rely on light-scattering technology to estimate mass, are relatively quick and robust, Bennett said.

Typically, organizations are motivated to try RTPM devices by one of several possible triggers, including the measurement of exposures above a relevant occupational exposure limit or the raising of concerns by stakeholders such as unions. In such a reactive scenario, an organization’s decision-making process is often hasty and leaves much to be desired, Bennett said. Potential devices are identified by searching the internet or speaking with sales representatives, and the devices are placed on workers right out of the box with the intent of measuring against an OEL.

“Unfortunately, it’s not [that] simple,” Bennett said.

Among the trends influencing the way organizations use these devices is an influx of sensors. “Probably in the last three or four years we’ve seen more devices come to market than in the previous thirty years,” Bennett said. With so many devices available, more are being purchased, and industrial hygienists are finding that other professionals are providing guidance on usage and implementation. Another problem is a lack of standardization and difficulty obtaining information about a given device’s specifications.

Some valuable guidance documents do exist. Bennett singled out the European standard PD CEN/TR 16013-1:2010, Workplace Exposure - Guide for the Use of Direct-Reading Instruments for Aerosol Monitoring - Choice of Monitor for Specific Applications; a chapter of the NIOSH Manual of Analytical Methods on measuring respirable aerosol with real-time optical monitors (PDF); “Considerations for the Adoption of Real-Time Particulate Monitoring” from ICMM; and a new AIHA publication, “Establishing a Process for the Setting of Real-Time Detection System Alarms” (PDF).

Bennett recommended a three-step deployment process for RTPM devices, which he characterized as discover, plan, and implement. “This process is very similar to what you’re going to go through if you’re going to sample for a new agent,” he said. In the discovery phase, organizations should determine the risk-based need for RTPM devices and prioritize the exposures for which they intend to use the devices. The planning phase includes the setting of objectives, the selection of devices, and the creation of plans for communicating about the devices to workers and deploying them in a facility. In the implementation phase, organizations should focus on documenting processes, training employees, and acting on the results obtained from the instrument.

Above all, Bennett recommends that organizations new to RTPM devices adopt modest goals. “In my opinion, it’s best to walk before you run in this space,” he said. “Keep it simple.”

Ed Rutkowski is editor in chief of The Synergist.

For Further Reading

The Synergist: “Cause for Alarm: Addressing the Alarm-Setting Process in Real-Time Detection Systems Implementation” (March 2023).

The Synergist: “Five Common Difficulties in Real-Time Detection System Implementation: Connectivity, Data Interpretation, and Other Issues” (November 2022).