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​The Evolving Role of Sensors to Protect Worker Health

By Brigette Polmar

The expert use of properly selected direct-reading instruments and shrewd interpretation of output is advancing the ability to protect worker health. “The types and volumes of data available when using sensor technology provide us with the tools we need to more precisely support the application of engineering controls,” said Donna Heidel, CIH, FAIHA, of Bureau Veritas North America (BVNA) while presenting at AIHce EXP 2017 in Seattle, Wash. “The real-time availability of this data also supports our ability to actively communicate to workers about specific work practices and also to provide immediate feedback when they may need respiratory protection or other protective clothing.”

Heidel explained the use of portable pocket sensors isn’t going to happen—it’s already happening. “Your smartphone—and not only your smartphone, but your workers’ smartphones—will soon be able to detect gases,” she said. “Advanced gas and chemical analytical instruments, like mass spectrometers and gas chromatographs, are being miniaturized to attach to smart phones. How will we prepare our profession to collect the information, analyze the data to determine exposure risks, communicate to the workforce and management, and use it all to protect worker health? What are the implications for the practice of industrial hygiene?”

BVNA’s subject matter expert for sensor technology was also on hand to discuss the evolving role of sensors to protect worker health. “There’s really a tremendous variety of direct-reading instruments on the market. Understanding their selection, use, and evaluation of the data they spit out is really a major challenge,” said Spencer Pizzani, CIH. “Now we’re talking about having second-by-second data, minute-by-minute data, data that can be trended, evaluated, and looked at in a variety of ways. We’re talking about being able to see agents we’ve never been able to look at before in places we’ve never been able to take instrumentation, and we have an unprecedented immediacy in resolution of that data. Our ability to leverage this data becomes the limiting factor as opposed to the availability of the data.”

Pizzani says there are three steps to effective sensor integration as it relates to a specific program or job:

1. Instrument selection: There are several things to understand for every instrument and every implementation. “When you’re talking about looking at instrument selection, you need to know so many things about your implementation,” said Pizzani. “You can’t just show up and hope it goes well. If you get it wrong, someone could be hurt or become sick. Building this knowledge base is really something that we need to consider a core part of industrial hygiene.”

2. Use of the instrument: “When we’re out in the field, we need to make sure that our instrument works the way we expect it to and it gives us the data we’re looking for,” Pizzani explained. He pointed to a “dead-band” incident that led him to call the manufacturer to learn more about the instrument’s potential blind spots.

3. Data evaluation: “We have to take this data and use it well,” Pizzani said. “We really don’t have all of the information that we need to be able to use this level and this complexity of data really well. This is the evolving practice of our process of industrial hygiene.”

In 2016, AIHA convened the Sensor Technology Summit to determine how sensor technologies are being used today, how they may be used tomorrow, and their implications for protecting worker health. That Summit resulted in a plan to develop the knowledge, skills, and abilities in the use of direct-reading instruments. The output from the Summit, “The Future of Sensors: Protecting Worker Health through Sensor Technologies,” is available as a PDF from the AIHA website.


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Brigette Polmar is a professional brand journalist who covers the industrial hygiene profession, AIHA member news, AIHce EXP, and more. A former Washington correspondent and broadcast journalist, Polmar is the founder of Brand Spoken​ specializing in industry-specific coverage on paper, online, and on the air.  


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