IOHA Presenters Seek to Close Gaps in Occupational Hygiene Capacity Worldwide

Published Sept. 26, 2018

By Kay Bechtold

Organizations like Workplace Health Without Borders are made up of passionate volunteers who work to reduce and prevent occupational diseases worldwide, but many more volunteers are needed to address occupational hygiene and safety needs in underserved areas. More than two billion workers lack basic access to occupational safety, health, and hygiene professionals, said WHWB board member and AIHA Fellow Lydia Renton at a session on Monday, Sept. 24, at the 11th Annual Scientific Conference of the International Occupational Hygiene Association in Washington, D.C. Renton and her co-presenters highlighted strategies and opportunities for volunteers to engage in projects that will help support occupational hygiene efforts around the world, especially in economically developing countries. From grinding agate in India—volunteers were able to reduce the amount of respirable silica generated by grinding and polishing agate in a workplace by a factor of 10—to an ongoing project focused on the hazards of brick kilns in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, volunteers can make a difference in a variety of industries. 

Steven Thygerson, an associate professor in the Department of Public Health at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, who is involved in the brick kilns project in Nepal, touted WHWB’s ability to match occupational health and safety professionals with volunteer opportunities abroad. He described himself as a protégé of Bill Carter, who in 2009 under the Fulbright Program introduced the first course in occupational health in Nepal as part of Kathmandu University’s environmental science and engineering program. Thygerson also traveled to Nepal in 2016 under a Fulbright Specialist grant to analyze occupational hazards in the brick kiln industry and train instructors in the occupational health program. Earlier this year, Thygerson helped teach a one-time occupational safety and health foundations class in partnership with Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique.

Thygerson said these international projects underscore the need for more funding in these areas, especially from multinational companies. The work in Nepal was mostly self-funded with some additional funding for student travel, and Underwriters Laboratory (UL) funded travel and lodging in Mozambique for two instructors, he said. The grant was secured by WHWB. Countries like these would also benefit from established centers for OHS similar to NIOSH Education and Research Centers in the U.S. and increased focus from governments on worker health and safety, Thygerson said.

Thomas P. Fuller, AIHA’s representative to IOHA, discussed broader global needs related to occupational hygiene, including increased marketing and branding around the profession. Expanding training and education programs at every level—from elementary up to high school and beyond—is important to educate the public about occupational hygiene, Fuller said. He stressed the need to place extra emphasis on courses for economically developing countries and the importance of working on an international consensus of curricula around the world.

“A six-year-old can tell you what a nurse does, but they can’t tell you what an occupational hygienist is,” Fuller said. He wants to change that.

One of WHWB’s core goals—which it shares with organizations like the Occupational Hygiene Training Association and AIHA’s International Affairs Committee—is to develop occupational hygiene capacity in economically developing countries. Many of these countries have extreme shortages in OHS training and education—a significant problem that’s getting worse, Fuller told attendees. He stressed economically developing countries’ need for immediate support for training both workers and managers.

“We’re transferring our hazardous industries” to these areas, Fuller said. “They end up using our older hazardous equipment and systems, and on top of that they’re less experienced and tend to be younger workers.”

Economically developing countries need routine or typical occupational hygiene training as well as attention in areas of particular concern, Fuller said. The industries in which injuries, illnesses, and fatalities occur most often include construction, where safety is a large concern; hazardous industries involving chemicals; agriculture, which has significant hazards and affects children and unprotected populations such as migrant workers; and infectious agents in healthcare.

Addressing these hazards and increasing occupational hygiene capacity around the world takes many resources, but success primarily comes from the efforts of volunteers.

“Volunteering is one of the greatest forms of professional development,” Renton said. “We need more of you to help and participate in whatever way you can.”

Related: The "Pole to Pole" series, which was exclusive to the digital Synergist, examined the occupational and environmental health and safety challenges facing workers and the public in different regions around the world. The last installment of the series focused on efforts by WHWB.

Kay Bechtold is senior editor of The Synergist.