Cummings Awardee Urges Industrial Hygienists to Consider Risks Beyond Exposure

By Kay Bechtold

June 9, 2016—AIHA Fellow Fred Boelter, CIH, PE, BCEE, urged AIHce attendees to expand their professional focus beyond exposure during the Donald E. Cummings Memorial Award Lecture on Wednesday, May 25, at AIHce 2016. Boelter, who was introduced by former AIHA President Christine A.D. Lorenzo, CIH, as a “walking body of knowledge” on risk management, environmental engineering, and industrial hygiene, explained that to continue to improve worker health in today’s changing workplace, industrial hygienists must “learn and express a new language” related to the larger world of risk, which includes both occupational and non-occupational risk.  

“The data would suggest that most health risks are unrelated to work,” Boelter said. “One hypothesis to consider is that we will only have marginal impact on worker health if we only focus on workplace exposure.”

In a world “abundantly populated with risk,” Boelter noted that industrial hygiene professionals must look beyond their own perceptions of risk to understand how it’s perceived by workers and the general public. People don’t think about risk in terms of a mathematical equation, he said, pointing out that risk acceptability differs from person to person.

“We have to understand what’s in the eye of the beholder,” he said. “And professionally, we need to learn a new language if we are to have impact. To have impact, we need to do four things: change awareness, change behavior, improve wellness, and change laws.”

Industrial hygienists’ unique relationship with workers and employers puts them in a position to raise awareness about health risks that go beyond exposure, Boelter explained. Moving forward, industrial hygienists should focus on learning skills to help them facilitate behavioral change among workers.

But change is necessary at the management level, too. Boelter pressed his audience to try to frame discussions on occupational risk factors more clearly and to work on presenting that information in more “compelling business terms.”

“If our message and story is not being discussed in the board room, it’s not being retold,” he said.

Toward the end of his talk, Boelter contended that the industrial hygiene profession will have to take some risks to succeed in protecting worker health over the coming years.

“What would become of worker health if our profession disappeared?” Boelter asked his audience. “I think what we need is some youthful energy and daring spirit, and guess what that is? It’s risk taking. The future of worker health may just depend on it.”

Boelter is a past recipient of AIHA’s Edward J. Baier Technical Achievement and Henry F. Smyth, Jr. Awards, and a former chair of the AIHA Risk Assessment Committee.

Established in 1943 to honor the memory of AIHA’s third president, the Donald E. Cummings Award is given for outstanding contributions to the knowledge and practice of the profession of industrial hygiene.

Kay Bechtold is assistant editor of The Synergist. She can be reached at (703) 846-0737.

View more Synergist coverage of the conference on the AIHce Daily page.