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Workplace Wellness

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“Being an industrial hygienist means you have to be able to measure stressors to show that you have a safe and healthy environment.” — Dr. Shane Que Hee

ASK DR. SHANE QUE HEE, FSPH professor of environmental health sciences, about the impact of the UCLA Industrial Hygiene Program and his answer is emphatic: “It saves lives.”

So why don’t industrial hygienists — the scientists and professionals who help to protect the health and safety of workers — make regular headlines? Probably because, like many public health practitioners, their work is focused on preventing people from getting sick or injured in the first place.

Que Hee, who directs the FSPH-based training program, explains that industrial hygienists traditionally worked in factories, where they assessed whether workers were exposed to unsafe levels of toxic chemicals and other hazards, and trained them to follow procedures and wear protective equipment. The field has evolved to include oversight of non-factory settings, where industrial hygienists might be responsible for verifying that air filtration and ventilation systems are properly functioning and not exposing workers to polluted air, or that desks, spaces, chairs and work environments are not ergonomic stressors. Industrial hygienists work for large companies, governments, insurance carriers, unions, universities and consulting companies. They often collaborate with epidemiologists, physicians, nurses, safety specialists and toxicologists. They anticipate, identify, evaluate, control and prevent factors that affect worker health, including physical factors (noise, heat, cold, radiation); airborne particles and chemicals; biological exposures such as airborne microorganisms; mechanical stressors such as those causing carpal tunnel syndrome; and factors affecting psychosocial health, including job stress and workplace violence.

“Being an industrial hygienist means you have to be able to measure stressors to show that you have a safe and healthy environment,” Que Hee says. “You need to know how to do a risk assessment to confirm that whatever guidelines or regulations are applicable are obeyed.”

The UCLA Industrial Hygiene Program’s curriculum includes hands-on training using monitoring and safety equipment, field trips, and courses in biostatistics, epidemiology, general environmental health and other scientific fields. Students are taught, for example, not only how to take air samples and submit them to a lab, but also the methods the lab will use to analyze the samples. The program, based in FSPH’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences, was established in 1983 and is part of the UCLA Center for Occupational and Environmental Health. It is supported by the Southern California NIOSH Education and Research Center, one of 18 multidisciplinary occupational health centers of excellence in the U.S., which provides students with some financial support for tuition and living expenses. Students receive MPH, MS and doctoral degrees; currently the program includes 10 students, four of whom are doctoral students.

Nadia Ho entered the program while pursuing dual degrees with FSPH’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences (EHS) and the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. After Ho’s first year at FSPH, she did a summer internship within the environmental health and safety department of defense contractor Northrop Grumman.

“With heavy manufacturing you get exposed to all the aspects of industrial hygiene,” Ho says. “This site [where I interned] makes propulsion and power generation systems and launch platforms for U.S. Navy submarines and aircraft carriers. The process included welding of stainless steel, as well as painting and sandblasting. We had a facilities team that did construction, painting and sandblasting. I was there, absorbing everything. I realized this was really what I wanted to do. It involved worker safety and environmental programs and touched upon everything EHS students learn at UCLA.”

Dr. Niklas Krause, director of the Southern California NIOSH Education and Research Center and FSPH professor of environmental health sciences and epidemiology, says industrial hygienists are in great demand. “All organizations have safety and health concerns, so they need to have a supply of well-trained industrial hygienists,” he says.

Second-year MPH student Jack Arouchian is familiar with the many forms of practice that industrial hygiene can take. Before enrolling at FSPH, he worked with a consulting company where he assessed safety at foundries, bakeries, factories, airports and many other settings. He currently works as an industrial hygienist with the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, where he helps to ensure the safety of lineworkers, individuals who construct and maintain electric power lines. Arouchian recently was asked to investigate a volt explosion, determined that it occurred due to methane gas leaking, and asked the workers to clear the site.

“What I’ve learned [at UCLA] has helped me train an average of 20-30 lineworkers weekly,” he says. “I teach them how to eliminate or minimize exposure to hazardous agents such as asbestos, lead, respirable crystalline silica, noise and heat stress, and what the health effects of contaminants are.”

One of the courses offered by the program explores the health effects posed by physical agents, sources of energy such as noise, vibration and electromagnetic radiation that may cause injury or disease. That course inspired second-year MS student Cynthia Blackman to focus her research thesis on the effects of whole body vibrations experienced by U.S. Navy aircrew and how they relate to back pain. “A lot of the literature says that after a certain amount of time, helicopter pilots experience chronic back pain, but most of those papers were written in the ’80s and ’90s, and they were focused on pilots,” Blackman notes. “I haven’t found a lot of literature focused on aircrew.”

Blackman enrolled in the UCLA Industrial Hygiene Program while serving as a surface warfare officer with the U.S. Navy. Upon graduation, she plans to return to military service, but as an industrial hygienist.
“On one ship, two doors down from where I was working, there was a door that was taped off,” Blackman recalls of her time as a surface warfare officer. “It turned out there was potential lead exposure and we needed to have our industrial hygienist come in and evaluate the space. It made me think, these are the people who are protecting the United States. Who’s protecting them? I want to be the one protecting them.”