Industrial Hygiene's Search for Identity

Article excerpt

Name changes, state licensure, and lack of public recognition have industrial hygienists arguing, complaining, and pondering their future. Why are such in-demand professionals so uneasy?

Change is a hard thing for most people to accept, and the profession of industrial hygiene is certainly changing. The functions and responsibilities of hygienists have expanded so much that the American Industrial Hygiene Ass. (AIHA) is considering a name change. States are developing licensing requirements for industrial hygienists because so many unqualified people have rushed to join their thriving ranks. Amid all this tumult in the profession, some people are wondering if industrial hygiene is undergoing what amounts to an identity crisis.

Bill Kelley, executive secretary of the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), said that discontent among members is "an aspect of growing and the evolution process. There has been an evolution in the profession which has forced people to get out of the old comfortable niche. I don't know if I'd refer to it as an identity crisis. I'm not sure it's that dramatic."

What is dramatic is the increase in the number of students enrolling in industrial hygiene programs across the country. According to a spokesperson at a national employment agency which specializes in the safety and health professions, starting entry-level salaries average about $28,000 per year. Certified industrial hygienists make, on average, $40,000 per year or more. Demand for hygienists is high, with educators saying they can barely get industrial hygiene graduates out the doors before they are snapped up by companies. This process has been fueled in part by a growing market for specialists in various areas like environmental health, asbestos consulting, and ergonomics.

Despite growth in their ranks, industrial hygienists complain that relatively few people have any understanding of their profession. They don't clean teeth, and they don't clean toilets. Ask the average man on the street about the duties of industrial hygienists, however, and those are two answers you might hear.

AIHA puts out a colorful brochure which identifies industrial hygienists as "scientists and engineers committed to protecting the health and safety of workers and the community." While most industrial hygienists would agree with that description, it may not be shared by the public, workers, and management. Indeed, as ACGIH's Kelly notes, many people "have an incomplete or no understanding whatsoever of the profession of industrial hygiene."

"The profession has been reasonably clear within itself as to what it was about. We need to not keep that information to ourselves. We need to share it with others. When you attempt to do that and the public's answer is 'Huh? Is that like a dental hygienist?' ... You realize you're not as revered as you think you should be. Not necessarily does the world revolve around you," chuckled Kelley.

Since many people do not know the scope of the job or the qualifications and training necessary to become industrial hygienists, there is really nothing to stop "unqualified" people from entering the field. The profession is in demand, and there are always companies willing to hire them.

"There's no real legal prohibition against a person saying 'I'm an industrial hygienist. Yesterday, I was a basketball player or a janitor, but today I'm an industrial hygienist.' There's nothing to stop a person from doing that and it's being done, frankly," admits Jeffrey Lee, Ph.D., CIH.

Lee, an assistant professor and director of industrial hygiene, Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, Salt Lake City, noted that "a lot of big consulting firms are hiring technicians who have little or no qualifications and calling them industrial hygienists."

Added Tom McManus, CIH, chair of AIHA's ad hoc committee to study licensure, "The qualifications and skill mix of some of the people practicing industrial hygiene might not be what they should be and we're concerned about that. …