As a young employee at electroplating company M&T Chemical in Hamilton, Ont., Lorraine Shaw developed a rash on her hand. Apparently she was allergic to the nickel she worked with every day. But the rash didn’t only tell her something about her body, and the way she reacts to certain material – it also told her something about her projected career path.
The rash would be a kind of signpost pointing away from chemical engineering, and towards occupational hygiene – investigating health hazards in the work place, and developing strategies to control or eliminate the risks. Today, Shaw is the manager of McMaster University’s Occupational and Environmental Health Laboratory, which offers education and research into hazardous material such as asbestos, and exposure issues such as the effects of smoke and heat on firefighters. She’s also president of the Canadian Council of Occupational Hygiene (CCOH), a national organization helping occupational hygienists come together and meet with people in related fields.
“I get to meet a lot of interesting people in a lot of professions,” Shaw says, pointing to firefighters as a group she finds particularly rewarding to work with. “They put their lives on the line, and sometimes it feels like no one is helping them.”
Occupational hygiene – sometimes called industrial hygiene – has always been a matter of helping people who otherwise wouldn’t necessarily receive help. According to Dan Strand, vice-president of the Canadian Registration Board of Occupational Hygienists (CRBOH) and manager of health and safety at the Vancouver Airport Authority, the profession is rooted in ancient history, when Hippocrates realized lead toxicity caused sickness among metal workers.
Things really got rolling in the 20th century, when Dr. Alice Hamilton recognized a correlation between worker illness and toxins, and provided suggestions for eliminating unfit work conditions. Today, occupational hygiene combines the talents of engineers, doctors, toxicologists and other related professionals to answer why – and how – toxins affect workers, and to develop strategies to eliminate the problems.
“It’s quite a wide range of people who contribute to the success of the profession,” Strand says. “Knowing a little bit about a lot of things is how we conduct ourselves.”
Today there are about 400 registered occupational hygienists (ROHs) and registered occupational hygiene technologists (ROHTs) in Canada. ROHs usually have a post-graduate university education and focus on safety strategies and programs. ROHTs often come from college-level courses and specialize in collecting the information that the ROHs need to formulate their programs.
Although relatively young as a widely practiced profession, occupational hygiene has changed substantially over the years. For instance, occupational hygienists and technologists used to spend plenty of time collecting baseline data in the 1970s (some assessments were akin to full-scale research projects), today more time can be focused on managing programs.
“There’s a body of literature at our fingertips, so we can spend more time on fine tuning, emerging issues and better design,” notes Jason Hoffman, health specialist at Hamilton, Ont. -based steel manufacturer ArcelorMittal/Dofasco, and president of the Occupational Hygiene Association of Ontario (OHAO).
But along with less research come higher expectations. Occupational hygienists “need to be on their game a bit more, have answers and research all of the potential problems in a workplace,” Strand says, adding that it’s important to stay abreast of the latest research and learn about the long-term effects of exposure to various workplace hazards.
For Shaw, one major change is the fact that more women are entering the profession. “I used to go to the provincial meetings and there’d only be one or two women. Now there are many more.... There’s a lot more acceptance of women in science.”
David Jarrell is the president of the CRBOH and an ROHT at Calgary-based energy infrastructure operator TransCanada Pipelines Ltd. In his estimation, occupational hygiene has grown to be an even more expansive profession than it was in the beginning. “Occupational hygiene has gone from being perceived as specialized, to being an integral part of safety management.”
Along with a growing trend, the profession also faces a number of challenges. For instance, while there are provincial and territorial organizations like the OHAO that help occupational hygienists come together in specific parts of the country, the CCOH is working to bring all of those individual groups together. Doing so hasn’t been easy, Shaw says.
“I think Canadian industrial hygienists have an identity crisis. If you ask them about the CCOH, they’re not against it, but they don’t feel very strongly about it.”
Part of the problem: many of the provincial bodies already belong to the American Industrial Hygiene Association – a U.S. organization. The provincial groups don’t always see the value of joining a similar Canadian organization. But Shaw points out that it’s particularly important when it comes to influencing national policy. “I say, ‘How are you going to lobby the Canadian government? How are you going to have Canada represented internationally?’”
Education seems to be in flux as well. While many occupational hygienists like Jarrell attended college to get their start, schools have been closing their occupational and industrial hygiene programs.
“The program I came from no longer exists,” says Jarrell, a graduate of Mount Royal College in Calgary. “And there was another program at Lambton College in Sarnia (Ont.) cancelled as well.”
In many cases, the courses have been merged into other programs – but it doesn’t bode well. “The profession hasn’t done a good job of promoting itself, so not everyone understands what occupational hygiene is,” Jarrell says.
On the other hand, universities have stepped up. The University of British Columbia (UBC), University of Toronto and McGill University in Montreal offer post-graduate courses in occupational health and safety, says Shaw.
Meanwhile, her own lab at McMaster University was almost closed when its primary academic leader retired, and it wasn’t clear who would take over. A new leader did come aboard – but even so, the lab isn’t what it used to be. Students can attain diplomas in occupational health and safety there, but they can no longer attend the full-fledged occupational health and safety program the school used to run.
The right stuff
Despite the challenges, our sources all say occupational hygiene is an exciting profession with growing prospects. In this safety-conscious age, organizations aim to do all they can to protect their workers from long-term hazards. Occupational hygiene plays an important role there.
So what does it take to become an occupational hygienist? These professionals took all sorts of routes to their positions. Shaw studied chemistry at McMaster before going to work for M&T and Firestone.
Strand attained his bachelor of science at the University of Alberta and his masters of occupational health at UBC. Day to day at the Vancouver Airport Authority, he focuses on occupational hygiene, health and safety, as well as construction safety. He’s also in charge of developing the wellness and disability management program.
Jarrell at TransCanada began his career as a mine worker. “There was a boom and bust cycle I found discouraging. I didn’t mind the work, but after a while I didn’t see a long-term future.”
He went back to school as an adult, and settled down to choose one of two Mount Royal programs: environmental technology and occupational hygiene technology. The environmental technology program had a waiting list and a 35 per cent success rate when it came to placing students in jobs. The occupational technology program had no waiting list and a 90 per cent success rate with job placement. “It was a no-brainer.”
Hoffman got his masters of health science at the University of Toronto, and did the cooperative portion of his program at Dofasco, where he works today.
There are a few things most occupational hygienists have in common:
Science degree: It’s important to have a solid scientific background, and for many post-graduate OHS courses, students are expected to have had a science education.
Compassion: “If you’re not doing it because you really care about people, you’re not going to have the drive to do it really well,” Hoffman says.
Curiosity: “You have to be analytical and curious,” Jarrell says. “You need to be able to look at something and think, ‘What could be behind this?’”
Those considering a career as an occupational hygienist, should contact organizations like the OHAO (www.ohao.org), CCOH (www.ccoh.ca) and CRBOH (www.crboh.ca).
“If you’re looking for something that changes day to day, this is the career for you.” Strand says.
Stefan Dubowski is a freelance writer based in Ottawa. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.