The future of occupational hygiene?

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Last week I was over at the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Exhibition (AIHce) in San Antonio, Texas. It was my first time at this event and it was a great experience.

This year is the 75th anniversary of the American Industrial Hygiene Association so this was an opportunity to look back on what the organisation has achieved. But they didn’t just rest on their laurels. it’s important to keep an eye on the future too, and this is what they did. Two of the keynotes in particular looked at what is happening in society and the world of Industrial/Occupational hygiene and at developments that are already starting to happen and which are likely to change the way we live and work in the not too distant future.

The first Keynote speaker, on the Monday morning, was Peter Leyden, former Managing Editor at Wired Magazine, CEO of the Reinventors Network and a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. His talk focused on how big technology paradigm shifts are changing our world. First, he took a look at other periods, such as after the Great Depression in the 1930’s, that faced similar changes. He went on to discuss  the major transformations that are taking place in the 21st Century – the digital revolution, the future of video, demographic changes, global shifts, cleaner energy and politics

“To understand the technological changes that are happening around us, we have to put them in an even bigger context. We’re talking about rhythms of national history, or even world history. We are going through a very rare global transformation. From an American perspective, it’s something we’ve gone through only a handful of times,”

He was optimistic that the “brightest minds” will use the available technologies such as new technologies such as bio tech, nano tech and clean tech industries, to bring innovation forward to solve global problems such as climate change.

People will look back on our time period and say, "That’s when the world went digital, that’s when the world went global, and that’s when the world went sustainable" .

Although he didn’t specifically address what was happening in industrial/occupational hygiene, or how these changes would directly affect it,his talk provided an overview of the context in which we are working and a lot of food for thought.

Some of these ideas were developed the next morning in the Keynote by John Howard. He started by looking back at the development of the Industrial Hygiene profession in the USA and it’s achievements. He then went on to discuss the health effects of emerging manufacturing technologies and how technological innovations in sampling practices will change the profession over the next 75 years.

There have been relatively few changes in how occupational hygienists have measured worker exposure to dust, vapours and other hazardous substances since the development of the personal sampling pump by Jerry Sherwood in the UK in 1957. However, Dr Howard suggested that developments in computer technology and miniaturisation could mean that exposure assessment in the near future could involve continuous sensing of the working environment and that it will be possible to directly monitor chemical loads in workers’ bodies and determine how those exposures have altered them. He suggested that personal direct-reading instruments may be developed that would allow workers to control their own exposures, and that occupational hygiene sampling could even evolve to incorporate the use of sensors that continuously send exposure data to a central database.

His predictions echoed a number of the points made by John Cherie at the British Occupational Hygiene Conference in Nottingham in March. He also suggested that relatively cheap sensors and monitors that connect to devices such as mobile phones, tablets and the Internet, that are already being developed (and in some cases are already available) would change the way that sampling and exposure assessment is carried out by occupational hygienists.

These devices may be less accurate than the traditional sampling methods used to assess personal exposures. But this would be more than compensated for by the massive increase in the amount of data.

I have no doubt that there will be major changes in exposure assessment methodologies in the future. The important thing to remember is that occupational hygiene is about protecting worker health and that understanding exposure is an important step towards ensuring that it is controlled and that we achieve a healthy working environment. Anything that improves the validity of what we do is to be welcomed. Exciting time ahead!

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