With our collective attention still fixed on the COVID-19 pandemic at the end of 2021, you may have missed a sobering report released late last year by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) on the extent of occupational illness and disease in workplaces around the globe.
The study, entitled “Global Monitoring Report: WHO/ILO Joint Estimates of the Work-Related Burden of Disease and Injury,” found that approximately 80% of the roughly 1.9 million work-related fatalities that occurred in 2016 were attributed to “non-communicable diseases”1, diseases that cannot be passed between individuals. Researchers found that nearly 3 in 10 fatal illnesses (~450,000) were linked to occupational exposure to a particular matter, gases, or fumes. Similarly, the report cites that another 260,000 deaths each year are due to chronic workplace exposures to chemical agents including asbestos, silica, and arsenic.
All told, the report paints a pretty damning portrait of the state of occupational health & hygiene, and the degree to which organizations globally are failing to protect people from exposure to harmful agents present in their workplaces. But how did it get this bad?
The Stagnant Truth on Work-Related Illness Trends
The uncomfortable truth behind these figures is that the tell-tale signs of a growing problem have been apparent for some time. While non-fatal occupational injury rates have been steadily declining over the past decade, rates of work-related illness have remained relatively constant, even rising in some cases2. And the costs associated with these illnesses are significant. According to NIOSH, work-related respiratory illnesses cost U.S. employers nearly $3 billion USD annually3.
And yet, despite these rising costs, corporate investments in industrial hygiene do not appear to be trending at pace with the rate of workplace illness. According to Verdantix, only 16% of firms surveyed in 2021 indicated plans to increase their 2022 budgets for industrial hygiene programs. That’s significant, especially when compared to occupational health, safety management, and sustainability, which are expected to see budget increases of 40%, 33% and 32% respectively this year.4
If these trends weren’t concerning enough, many organizations are positioning themselves to have to fight the growing swell of occupational illness without expert resources. Surveys show that organizations are increasingly deciding against hiring industrial hygienists, looking instead to EHS generalists to manage their industrial hygiene programs. Even where industrial hygienists are on staff, they are spending more time on non-IH activities. According to a survey conducted by the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), certified industrial hygienists report spending almost as much time managing non-hygiene-related EHS duties including incident investigations, job safety analysis or case management, as on traditional IH tasks such as sampling and exposure mitigation.5
Whichever way you look at it, it’s clear that EHS professionals tasked to manage their company’s industrial hygiene program are being stretched to their limits, and they need help. So, what can organizations interested in reducing the risk of occupational illness do to better support their EHS staff, and make managing their industrial hygiene programs easier? Let’s take a look.
Leverage Best Practices in Industrial Hygiene with EHS Software
For those EHS professionals unfamiliar with industrial hygiene practices, the task of tackling common IH tasks including planning surveys, conducting sampling activities or even interpreting results can get pretty complex and overwhelming. It’s often difficult even to know where to start.
In response, many firms are turning toward software solutions configured around standard IH workflows and best practices to help guide EHS staff on what do to, when, and how. Leveraging industry best practices can help lessen the confusion around what needs to be completed, and guides practitioners on the next steps in the workflow to ensure that hygiene risks are properly anticipated, recognized, evaluated, and controlled in a timely manner to mitigate their potential impact. Some of these best practices might include:
- Pre-configured workflows to guide EHS professionals on specific agents to sample, number of samples required, and sample type to use
- Pre-loaded occupational exposure limit (OEL) tables against which to assess IH monitoring results
- Automated chain-of-custody forms and other documentation to support laboratory requisitions
- Out-of-the-box dashboards and reports to monitor common IH metrics and meet mandatory reporting and compliance requirements
Best practices can also help identify where the company should be bringing in external resources to supplement required IH skillsets. Best of all, taking advantage of best practices used by other leading organizations to manage your industrial hygiene program drastically reduces the time (and costs) to implement the software, reducing the overall time-to-value from your investment, and helping the business realize the quick wins that can help support further expansion of the program.
Improve Efficiency with an EHS Software Solution
We know that EHS professionals are stretched pretty thin and forced to wear many hats. So, anything that we can do to reduce waste and improve efficiency will help our EHS staff more effectively support the company’s industrial hygiene goals.
One of the most tangible benefits that digitizing your industrial hygiene program can offer is the elimination of tedious, error-producing manual data entry tasks. EHS software solutions provide the ability to import data directly into the application, eliminating any need for data entry or the errors it can create. With cloud-based applications, data is stored on the host’s server, making data generally less susceptible to loss or corruption when compared to local PCs.
Enabling your EHS professionals and/or hygienist to be able to seamlessly collect and record IH data from the field directly into a mobile device removes the need for transcribing field notes after-the-fact and can help speed up the transfer of monitoring data to external laboratories for analysis. As a result, the time lag between when IH data is collected and when you know you need to act upon it is significantly reduced, improving compliance and protecting your people from harmful exposures.
McKinsey Global Institute estimates that software adoption increases productivity, on average, by up to 25%, largely through efficiency gains realized from improved communication and knowledge sharing.6 Access to the right information at the right time can be the difference between managing a harmful exposure or having to deal with the fallout it creates.
Create a Culture of Accountability: Fixing Industrial Hygiene Problems You Identify
In December 2014, U.S. OSHA inspectors issued 19 citations totaling $42,800 against an Ohio-based employer arguing that the business “failed to implement engineering controls and maintain areas free of lead dust and accumulation” thereby endangering their employees7. It’s not difficult to find stories like these.
Many organizations find themselves in legal hot water concerning industrial hygiene not because they’ve failed to identify risky exposures, but because they fail to act in a timely manner to address those exposures. Businesses that lack tools to help their employees monitor progress to address identified IH problems can easily find themselves at risk of costly citations and fines, not to mention at risk of regulator-imposed production stoppages. Consequently, tools that help organizations monitor progress on IH-related actions in real-time and drive local accountability are of critical importance.
Software can help you create visibility to your IH data, which in turn can help leaders quickly understand where things are going well, and where improvement is needed. Digitizing your IH program ensures information can flow freely and quickly between key stakeholders. With automated notifications and task lists, employees will immediately know what they are responsible for, and can provide leaders with real-time updates on progress and task completion, directly from their mobile device. As a result, busy supervisors do not need to return to an office to provide updates and can therefore better utilize their time to manage health & safety issues in the field. Bringing all IH data in one place provides a “single point-of-truth” thereby giving leaders confidence in their data and the decisions made from it.
How to Evaluate an Industrial Hygiene Software Solution
Many software solutions are now available to help companies simplify the management of their industrial hygiene program.
And yet, while many organizations recognize the value that these solutions can offer, often the complexity of the tool, not to mention its cost and the time need to deploy it effectively makes the solution impractical, unaffordable and out-of-reach.
One of the biggest problems when scoping out a software solution is making the project too big; wanting to throw “everything but the kitchen sink” in for consideration, only to find it balloons the project cost and implementation timeline beyond what the business can manage. Instead of trying to find a solution that solves every problem you have upfront, it’s best to spend time prioritizing your needs. What issues are mandatory, and what can be pushed out? What features are nice-to-have, versus what features are non-negotiable?
It’s often best to start with a smaller scope, focusing on how to stand-up a solution that will help you support the more foundational elements of your IH program – things like sampling, assessing compliance, tracking actions, etc. Starting with the smaller scope not only reduces project costs and speeds up deployment, but it also increases the chances of user adoption success. By spending time to get your team on a smaller solution they can handle, and optimizing your most-critical workflows, you’ll find expanding a solution that your workforce knows and trusts will be much easier and cheaper in the long run.
But don’t forget expansion. While making sure the solution fits your current needs, make sure it can grow with you and support future challenges and where you’d like to take your program in the future.
All signs suggest that businesses will be forced to navigate some rather rough seas with respect to industrial hygiene in the years ahead. These shifts create a very practical challenge: How do you remain effective as investment slows and workloads increase?
The key is to look for ways to improve efficiency, how to leverage IH data to make the best decisions on where to prioritize your time, and where to focus limited resources. While not a panacea, software solutions are opening new doors to the effective management of industrial hygiene risks. Just remember, you don’t always need to “go big or go home”. Sometimes focusing on the essentials makes the most sense.
- World Health Organization (WHO). 2021. Global Monitoring Report: WHO/ILO Joint Estimates of the Work-Related Burden of Disease and Injury. Accessed at: https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@ed_dialogue/@lab_admin/documents/publication/wcms_819788.pdf
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 2020. Employer-reported workplace injuries and illnesses 2020. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/osh.pdf
- Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). 2020. Lung Diseases Affecting US Workers Cost Billions Annually. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2769738
- Verdantix. Global Corporate Survey 2021: EHS Priorities, Budgets & Tech Preferences
- ISHN. 2000. Will industrial hygiene disappear in the 21st century? https://www.ishn.com/articles/83745-will-industrial-hygiene-disappear-in-the-21st-century
- McKinsey Global Institute. (2012, July). “The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies.” Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/technology-media-and-telecommunications/our-insights/the-social-economy
- US Department of Labor. (2014, December 18). “OSHA investigation finds workers exposed to lead, copper fumes at Republic Metals in Cleveland”. Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/news/newsreleases/region5/12182014