Sunday, January 19, 2014

Modeling and the Industrial Hygienist in the Real World

I have gotten a number of comments recently suggesting that I advocate modeling as an isolated intellectual pursuit, typically characterized as an office and desk-bound activity in favor of getting one’s hands dirty as an IH in the field.   Indeed, one reader recently wrote:

“Getting one's hands dirty in a workplace is only for pump jockeys, right?
 "Your blogs are starting to sound like only schmucks actually take air samples."

My first reaction was shock and dismay by the comments; however, on further reflection they only shows that I have not been clear relative to some important aspects of what I am trying to convey with these blogs. 

Of course, everything we do as IH practitioners should be aimed at understanding the reality that drives worker exposure.  That definitely means getting one's hands dirty while being there in their world and living and experiencing that environment. 

It is clear to me that any IH who does this without invoking any formal modeling framework still does so within an informal modeling framework.   From their intimate experience in the workplace (i.e., getting their hands dirty) I believe that they run subliminal models that unconsciously crunch the exposure numbers in their brain to conclude:

·         This is a safe environment that does not need to be monitored
·         This may not be a safe environment and needs to be evaluated.
·         This is definitely an unsafe environment and needs to be managed.

This is sometimes called Qualitative Risk Assessment born of Expert Judgment.    It is a time-honored approach that has worked for many years to keep workers safe.   The IH folks with more experience or with somehow better brains get better and better at this and become experts.

All that my colleagues within the Exposure Assessment Strategies Committee ( and I am are trying to do in all this is to introduce a more formalized and scientific approach of using models to provide a blueprint for what may be happening in any workplace.

Using this more conscious and formalized approach helps us to see what is driving the exposure and to quantitatively predict (within uncertainty bounds) what the exposure potentials might be.    It organizes all the information into a coherent form that can be tested,  modified and improved using the basic scientific method.   It enables us to become experts much sooner and it allows us to teach the coming generation more quickly to be expert.   Finally, it provides accountability and transparency to our actions so that our clients can see the basis for our decisions and recommendations.  

The necessary part about sitting at a desk and using a computer is not the essence of what is being proposed as the modeling approach.    The models are simply constructs of the workplace reality and they need to be fed with good inputs that reflect that reality and that means truly understanding and experiencing the workplace.   That includes getting our hands dirty.   We can best learn about the parameters of contaminant sources, transport and contact with those sources by being there in the work place and also by talking with the workers. 

This blog is not meant to denigrate traditional IH expertise and efforts.  Our intention is just the opposite, the traditional drive inherent in this activity and the resulting expertise offers the perfect example of professional focus.  Our efforts are simply designed to provide folks with the technical tools and opportunity to substantially enhance their power as professionals.

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