May 25, 2023

Synchronicity: The Successes of Video Exposure Monitoring

By Ed Rutkowski

By today’s standards, the concept was low tech: bulky, shoulder-mounted cameras to record workers performing a task; hand-held particulate monitors; simple spreadsheets for capturing exposure data. Yet these tools were state of the art when video exposure monitoring, or VEM, was being developed in the early 1980s. At that time, as recounted at AIHce EXP 2023 by Jim McGlothlin, an industrial hygienist who for many years was one of the foremost practitioners of VEM, affordable personal computers were just beginning to appear on the market, and VHS (video home system) videotape was the dominant recording medium. Although adoption of VEM was hindered by the costs, complexity, and accessibility of these systems, McGlothlin’s work, first at NIOSH and later at Purdue University, demonstrated that VEM could lead to significant improvements in work practices that protected worker health.

VEM is the synchronization of data on a chemical, biological, radiological, or physical agent with video recordings of workers. By obtaining exposure data with real-time monitors and matching the data to the recording, VEM allows the OEHS professional—as well as the client and the workers themselves—to see which parts of a task cause the highest exposures. In one early application that McGlothlin oversaw, VEM revealed that dust exposures to a worker scooping powder out of a drum spiked when the drum was approximately half full. The solution was to cut the drum in half and raise it to waist height, which not only reduced exposures by 98 percent but had beneficial ergonomic effects because the worker wasn’t bending over as much. This change in process also made the work more efficient, with workers completing the task in one-third the time, McGlothlin said. The solution was also much more economical than what might have been proposed—ventilation improvements, for example—if only the data and not the video had been available.

Other successes followed. McGlothlin participated in a project in New Zealand where VEM was applied to dust exposures from carpentry tasks. The technique showed that the vast majority of the dust was generated by three workstations. In another application at a hospital, VEM revealed, through infrared imaging and devices that quantified nitrous oxide exposure, which of two scavenging systems for waste anesthetic gases produced during surgery was more effective. The Navy used VEM during training for special operations forces; analysis of heart rate and heat signatures during high-intensity training showed which recruits were struggling. VEM also revealed why a Purdue doctoral student was exposed to benzene: her gloves were contaminated, and every time she adjusted her glasses or touched her face, the exposure spiked.

Despite these and other accomplishments, VEM was never widely adopted within OEHS, possibly due to costs: back in the 1980s, equipment cost thousands of dollars. But with the development of accessible video recording through smartphones and low-cost sensors, the main barrier to entry is lowering, perhaps allowing wider application of VEM and greater, if belated, recognition of its benefits. In any case, McGlothlin remains an enthusiastic proponent: “If you have video synchronized with data collection,” he said, “it makes all the difference in the world.”

Ed Rutkowski is editor in chief of The Synergist.

For Further Reading:

The Synergist: “Video Exposure Monitoring: The Wow Factor” (October 2009—members-only PDF).

The Synergist: “From ‘Wow!’ to ‘What’s Next?’: The Future of Video Exposure Monitoring” (January 2010—members-only PDF).

The Synergist: “VEM Goes Mobile: ‘Helmet-cam’ Allows Video Exposure Monitoring for Mobile Workers” (March 2013—members-only PDF).