Defining an Industrial Hygienist

Industrial hygiene is a term designed to evoke a simple view of what the practice means. However, it comes from a time when the words had a different interpretation to them. Industrial seems clear enough – practicing in a work or factory setting, but even that gets blurred these days when defining a problem in an office setting. Hygiene comes from the area of practice relating to cleanliness, sanitation, or health. Therefore, as initially determined, an Industrial Hygienist (IH) is a professional who is dedicated to the health and well-being of the worker. Typically, this would have an IH evaluating the health effects of chemicals or noise in a work place. This has been expanded a bit by the changing of our society from an industrial/agricultural base to more of a service economy to address issues of productivity (we must include the buzz-words of today such as a “value added” effect). It also now relates to an expansion of workplace to areas of the community outside the traditional place of employment.

The IH professional traditionally has gained knowledge by some combination of education, training, and experience. Ideally, this knowledge is used to anticipate when a hazardous condition could occur to cause an adverse health effect on a worker or the environment. Failing that, the IH must be able to recognize conditions that could lead to adverse health effects to workers or a community population. Still, there would be no real meaning to defining hazards if an evaluation of the probability and severity of a recognized adverse effect and some realistic control means would not be forthcoming to remove or reduce the impact of the situation.

Traditionally, since the term “industrial hygienist” has not been restricted by law, anyone who feels they have some capability to act in the realm of advising on the health and well-being of workers could label themselves as an Industrial Hygienist. They may be newly installed in an organizational position calling for such knowledge, therefore, by default, they become an Industrial Hygienist. One can always push to gain the necessary knowledge to function effectively, but there is still some doubt as to how to demonstrate that “competence” to the outside world. In the mid-1950’s, a group of Industrial Hygienists from a national organization recommended that a voluntary certification program be established for industrial hygiene practitioners. In 1960, an independent corporation was established from the two national membership organizations, AIHA and ACGIH, to establish a national examination process to certify a minimum level of knowledge in industrial hygiene.

Because the program was voluntary, it did not restrict the practice of individuals calling themselves industrial hygienists. Indeed, today there are many competent persons practicing the profession of industrial hygiene who have not even sought certification. However, the program has, since its establishment, shown itself to be a hallmark of achievement that provides an indicator of success in the field. It measures to a defined standard the knowledge of a practicing Industrial Hygienists in sixteen rubrics, or technical areas, of practice.

Areas of Practice

The technical knowledge of industrial hygiene practice has been divided into sixteen areas: basic science; biohazards; biostatistics and epidemiology; engineering controls; non-engineering controls; ergonomics; ethics and management; analytical chemistry; sampling, monitoring and instrumentation; noise and vibration; ionizing radiation; nonionizing radiation; regulations, standards, and guidelines; thermal and pressure stressors; toxicology; and general IH topics including community exposures, hazardous wastes, risk communication, indoor environmental quality, and others (unit operations, process safety, and confined spaces).

Still, there are means of applying this knowledge that differ in many situations. Application is seen in the recognition of a hazard, the evaluation of the stressors, in the actual control of the situation, and in industrial hygiene management. These “domains” of practice differ as one advances through ones career. Recent efforts to create reasonable standards of practice have led to the development of a code of ethics for the practice of industrial hygiene. While it does not in itself define competence, it certainly becomes recognizable when it is absent.

Defining Qualifications for an Industrial Hygienist

Because the practice of industrial hygiene encompasses such a wide variety of knowledge areas, it was felt that, initially, there would need to be separate evaluations made of persons who restricted their practice to narrow areas. Aspect examinations were created to certify a minimum standard of knowledge short of a comprehensive test of all areas. These aspect examinations have been dropped, except for that of analytical chemistry, in favor of a comprehensive evaluation of an applicant’s knowledge. However, recently, a sub-specialty examination has been offered to provide a test of specific knowledge in the area of Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ). It allows an already certified individual to demonstrate added depth of their knowledge in IEQ.

Because the tests evaluated technical knowledge and not actual practice, it was felt that some minimum time in actual performance of industrial hygiene duties would be essential for entry into the process. Therefore, a period of five (5) years experience is necessary before a person may take the examination. An intermediate level examination (a CORE examination) was developed to recognize persons who were undertaking this voluntary certification, but who did not yet have the five years experience, and to ensure that those testing in the former “aspects” maintained a core knowledge in all areas of practice. Also, an allowance was made for graduate education, recognizing the contribution that education has toward developing a mature practitioner. The contribution of education has been further recognized in that currently an appropriate Bachelor’s Degree is required to qualify to take the examinations, and the ABIH is considering a requirement that a Master’s Degree be a prerequisite for sitting for the examinations in the future.

However, rote knowledge is not the sole quality that identifies a competent Industrial Hygienist. There is an “art” to applying the technical principles in a manner that provides a reasonable solution for a workplace health issue. This is the real value behind the experience requirement for certification. A relationship with a practicing “Certified Industrial Hygienist” (CIH) is the key to learning the nuances in applying knowledge to work out the best solution. A “mentor” to show a new IH how to apply the book knowledge in the real world is valuable. Also, experience in as wide a practice as possible is imperative when you must demonstrate your knowledge in these sixteen rubrics. This has become extremely difficult for “specialists” or those who practice in narrow areas. Limiting your experience to indoor environmental quality, or lead abatement, or confined spaces control can be a disadvantage when trying to demonstrate competency in other areas only known through a textbook or an “examination review course.”

However, you can never discount individual drive. After all, that is what motivates an individual to participate in a “voluntary” certification process. Because the field has been seen as lucrative to some, there has been a push by some governmental entities and private businesses to require “certified” professionals to ensure the minimum knowledge and experience is available on their projects. This tends to drive provider organizations to propel individuals into the certification process, whether they want to go or not. But, individual motivation is the key to successful completion and garnering of the title “Certified Industrial Hygienist.” The process has, through the demonstrated success of its diplomates, attained a “brand” recognition that gives a CIH a foot in the door that might otherwise be standing in line with the others in the crowd. It has even spawned imitators, but time will tell whether its reputation holds up under this intrusion. Several states have recognized the trademark and capabilities of those displaying the “CIH” and have enacted legislation to protect the title of “Certified Industrial Hygienist”.

Certification Process

How do you go about becoming certified? First, there is the obvious need for technical knowledge. Everyone has their own method to gather this, but data have not been gathered to support the effectiveness of any one system. “Review Courses” seem to be plentiful, and computer systems to prepare the aspiring applicant appear on many journal and trade magazine pages. Conventional wisdom tends to support knowledge gained through experience and the watchful guidance of a competent mentor. Many individuals take the examination to find out where they are weak with the intention of taking it again until they manage to pass. It is left to the individual to decide what is best for them.

The professional reference questionnaire (PRQ) is important as well. The Board’s requirement for experience is based on activity on a professional or journeyman level. This causes a sticking point for many who find they are in a position that has them named as Industrial Hygienist, or Project Manager, when their scope of practice relies on strict adherence to a regulatory interpretation or exercise of very little independent judgement. Others, with titles of IH Technician or Specialist may be acting totally independently and practicing with a scope of extreme variability and many unknowns. This should be portrayed in the PRQ to be fair to the applicant. Details are important to the Board in making their evaluation of an applicant.

The ABIH also has a process it follows to review each application and prepare each examination. Examinations are prepared in minute detail. Each question is evaluated by a group of practicing CIHs to ensure it is correct and relevant to the practice of IH. Each item is rated on difficulty for its target audience – CORE or Comprehensive, and this is used to set the passing score for each test. Each question is also rated by professional testers to ensure its validity as a question for an examination. Questions are selected for use on an examination based on the latest survey of the practice of industrial hygiene, in both rubric areas and domains of practice to achieve a balance indicative of the current practice and some historical knowledge. And after each presentation of the examination, questions are again reviewed for validity.

The examination itself is the subject of an effort to ensure that it adheres to the standardized evaluation method. The passing score has remained within a narrow range, but the percentage of those passing have gone from 62.7 of all those sitting for the Comprehensive examination in 1979 to 46.4 percent in 1997 (with a similar drop in the CORE rates). Reasons for this drop are not easily documented, but there are many offered. Specialization of practice, lack of mentoring, taking the exam before being truly ready – these have all been proposed.

Certification Maintenance

And just because you manage to achieve your goal and demonstrate that you have met the established standard for certification doesn’t mean that you can rest on your laurels. In 1979, the Board required that all diplomates demonstrate that they have been active in the field and have continued to improve their knowledge. Seven categories of practice are noted for the accumulation of “points” toward the forty required every five years. Some portion of these points are gathered for active practice, technical committee work, publications, education and meetings, teaching, retest, or other work. This requires that some program of continuing education be pursued to increase your knowledge of industrial hygiene.

Value of Certification

Is it worth it? For some the rewards are immediate and financial. For others, it is the satisfaction of knowing you have pursued a goal and made it. There is no hard and fast rule. The fact is indisputable that the earning of the designation as a “Certified Industrial Hygienist” is recognized as a mark of professionalism.

For Further Information…

For more information, view the home page on the World Wide Web at http://www.ABIH.org/ or contact the American Board of Industrial Hygiene at: 6015 West St. Joseph, Suite 102, Lansing, MI 48917 3980 or by phone at (517) 321 2638.

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