Getting Back to Work is Possible But Be Safe, Says the AIHA [Share Your Story]
Staff posted on May 28, 2020 |
American Industrial Hygiene Association all about safe work environments since 1939.

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(Picture courtesy of AIHA.)
(Picture courtesy of AIHA.)

By Bernard Fontaine, Jr. CIH, CSP, FAIHA

The SARS CoV-2 pandemic is another infectious disease that has no political, social or economic boundaries.  But this is not the first rodeo, there have been many historical outbreaks from 430 B.C., which was the earliest recorded pandemic during the Peloponnesian War. After the disease passed through Libya, Ethiopia and Egypt, it crossed the Athenian walls as the Spartans laid siege. As much as two-thirds of the population died. The bubonic plague, or “Black Death,” spread across Europe during the 14th century.  In recent times, history has shown us other repeated outbreaks of cholera, measles, influenza, smallpox, polio, tuberculosis, malaria and many other bloodborne pathogens. 

Until the mid-1950’s, the field of industrial hygiene and occupational health was relatively unknown. The American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) was established in 1939 to address some of the legacy hazards like asbestos, lead-based paint, mercury, and other occupational health hazards. Today, most market segments rely on the scientific principles and practices to keep the workforce, public and environment healthy. We are the detectives that identify workplace exposures to harmful chemicals, biological and radiological agents and environment hazards. Much of what we do crosses disciplines like toxicology, epidemiology, public health, engineering, human factors, ergonomics and indoor air quality. Our profession looks at work processes and operations to identify the hazard and quantify the level of risk where possible. A hierarchy of controls includes design of mechanical exhaust ventilation systems to proper selection and use of personal protective clothing and respirators. With the advance of technology and innovations, industrial hygienists have used other tools such as occupational control banding and occupational exposure banding to make a risk assessment and manage the control of these hazards. While microbial growth in the built environment has been a recent focus of our attention, there are many biological agents that cause infectious disease. These occupational exposures are crossovers from public health and epidemiology and they have relevance to the workplace in every market segment.

The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (2003) and the 2012 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) were both outbreaks of the coronavirus, which was originally discovered in a lab in 1964. These outbreaks were limited in scope and never led to a pandemic like the SARS CoV-2 virus which has caused more than 4.8 million cases of illness and over 320,000 deaths worldwide to date. As administrative controls are used to help “flatten the curve”; it requires complete transparency and cooperation by governments and global citizens. We are in a global economy which allows commerce and transportation to move beyond country borders. Hence, the virus can easily spread in close contact with infected workers and the public. Universal precautions have been suggested to include the use of respirators for high risk workers and face masks for the general public along with gloves, cleaning surfaces and clothing, and physical distancing. Supplies of respirators have been limited so Industrial Hygienists along with colleagues from other disciplines have figured a way to use vaporized hydrogen peroxide, specific wavelengths of ultraviolet light, elevated levels of air temperature and relative humidity to sanitize these devices without significant degradation of the respirator. Respirators can be used several times before being discarded, saving money.

While these efforts have been beneficial, there has still been a political and economic impact. Businesses have been shuttered and workers furloughed. There appears to be no end in sight if people fail to follow established guidelines. If history repeats, there could be a more deadly second wave, if not a third wave that could extend the crises to 2024. Governments are considering all options to try to get the economy back to a “new normal.” But that is reshaping the way business is being done. More businesses are using online ordering, contactless delivery, virtual and remote operations to service their customers and bring new products to market. Essential workers in healthcare, public transportation, prisons, meat packers, sanitation workers, emergency medical services are still answering their calls of duty, saving lives and making lives easier. Industrial hygienists are using engineering controls to sanitize disposable respirators for reuse because of the supply shortage.  Our collective knowledge and understanding of the current crisis are useful tools to help prevent future waves of the pandemic and economic recession.

With the political and economic pressure to reopen American business, Industrial Hygienists are needed to explore all options to keep everyone safe. We are concerned about properties that have been unoccupied for months, which may be affected for lack of maintenance or storm damage. Water cooling towers may have bacterial growth of Legionella that require treatment before use within the built environment. Mechanical exhaust ventilation systems need testing and calibration to ensure the capture velocity meets engineering design. We are also concerned about the workforce. Training and education must be provided so everyone understands the risk, operating procedures, and use of engineering and administrative controls. Testing must be done to evaluate the interior workspace and building surfaces to prevent contamination of workers and manufactured products.

Every industry is considering options to reopen their business during the SARs CoV-2 (COVID-19) pandemic. However, a comprehensive risk-based strategy is needed to ensure the protection of workers, public and the environment. This is not a “one size fits all” but rather a set of specific guidance instructions for each business owner and property manager to consider. Each business plan to reopen must be customized to the specific industry. AIHA has constructed a preliminary set of guidance documents to get help America get “Back to Work Safely™”.  More documents are in the pipeline for publication. Other ancillary documents were generated for public service industries and venues by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. If you need to know more about how Industrial Hygienists can use engineering and administrative controls to protect your business, contact AIHA at:  AIHA is the one source for more information about the profession to help get business reopened while protecting the workforce, public and the environment.

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