Investigating Industrial Hygiene at Salt River Project
At Salt River Project, a large utility based in metropolitan Phoenix, there are a great variety of jobs, situations, risks and exposures that must be addressed, assessed and controlled. Journeymen lineworkers labor in heat approaching 120 degrees on the desert floor, while hydrologists trudge around in near-zero-degree weather to examine snowpack on the mountainous Mogollon Rim. A pressman needs a hearing assessment to judge the impacts of a six-color press, while electronics technicians must be evaluated for radio-frequency exposure from telecommunications equipment. A warehouseman at a power plant in the high desert prairie requires education about hantavirus exposure from deer mice, while a call center representative needs an ergonomic evaluation to guard against back and joint issues.
So, while the term “industrial hygienist” may conjure visions of a W. Edwards Deming-like technician scrutinizing manufacturing processes, nothing could be further from the truth at SRP. Industrial hygiene encompasses scores of jobs within the water, power and telecommunications utility that serves much of central Arizona. Employees work in and around dams, irrigation ditches, power plants, high-voltage lines, state-of-the-art facilities and legacy buildings dating back to the Truman administration. Industrial hygienists assess risks for jobs that didn’t exist a year ago as well as occupations that have been in existence since SRP was founded in 1903.
What is Industrial Hygiene?
Simply put, industrial hygiene is the science of protecting and enhancing the health and safety of people at work and in their communities. Recognized as early as the fourth century B.C., modern industrial hygiene uses strict, rigorous scientific methodologies to anticipate, recognize, evaluate and control physical, chemical, biological and environmental hazards. Through environmental monitoring and analytical methods, hygienists detect the extent of worker exposure and employ a variety of controls and methods to mitigate potential health hazards.
Through their work, industrial hygienists perform a critical function in business and industry. Good occupational health and safety practices are important aspects of company management. Assessing and controlling risks from hazardous substances and work practices is more than just another obligation for employers. Organizational focus on a safer workplace can have a positive effect on productivity, workforce retention and competitiveness. Not only that, but it can improve worker health while lowering health care costs, which is no small feat. According to the International Labour Organization, accidents and illnesses annually cost the global economy an estimated $1.25 trillion.
Employee Exposure Controls
Today, more than 40 percent of the OSHA compliance officers who inspect America’s workplaces are industrial hygienists. They play a major role in developing and issuing OSHA standards to protect workers from health hazards associated with toxic chemicals, biological hazards and harmful physical agents. They also provide technical assistance and support to the agency’s national and regional offices.
When making a site visit, a hygienist has the ability to:
• Identify workplace health and safety problems.
• Conduct work site sampling for exposure levels related to chemicals, lead, asbestos, silica, mold and noise.
• Develop and recommend corrective measures.
• Assist in developing health and safety programs.
• Consult on the design of engineering controls and work practices.
• Interpret safety data sheets.
When occupational hazards are exposed, industrial hygienists – including those at SRP – use engineering, work practice and administrative controls as the primary means of reducing employee exposure. Engineering controls minimize employee exposure by reducing or removing a hazard at the source or isolating workers from the hazard. Examples include eliminating toxic chemicals and substituting nontoxic chemicals as well as installing general and local ventilation systems. Work practice controls alter the manner in which a task is performed, while administrative controls are used to help ensure that workers perform tasks in ways that minimize exposure levels. For example, an employer might schedule operations with the highest exposure potential during periods when the fewest employees are present.
But what happens when these types of controls are not feasible to reduce or prevent employee exposure? In those types of situations, good industrial hygienists will recommend the use of appropriate personal protective equipment, such as gloves, safety glasses, respirators, protective clothing and/or hearing protection. To be effective, PPE must be individually selected, properly fitted and periodically refitted, properly worn and regularly maintained or replaced as needed.
As indicated earlier, SRP’s industrial hygienists must patrol myriad situations to inspect for a wide variety of potential hazards, including air contaminants and poor air quality.
Air contaminants are generally classified as either particulate or gas and vapor contaminants. The most common particulate contaminants include dusts, fumes, mists, aerosols and fibers.
• Dusts. These are solid particles generated by handling, crushing, grinding or heating organic or inorganic materials.
• Fumes. Fumes are formed when material from a volatilized solid condenses in cool air.
• Mists and aerosols. Mists are liquids suspended in the atmosphere. Aerosols are a form of mist characterized by tiny, highly respirable liquid particles.
• Fibers. A fiber – such as asbestos – is a solid particle, the length of which is several times greater than its diameter. Asbestos products were especially prevalent in the early design of electric generating plants and power distribution centers. Transformer stations contained similar asbestos products. SRP’s electric facilities have undergone arduous testing and scrutiny to ensure that asbestos, lead and other exposures have been eliminated.
• Gases and vapors. Gases are formless fluids that expand to occupy the space in which they are confined. Vapors are the volatile form of substances that are in a solid or liquid state under ordinary conditions.
The air quality inside a specific space – which may be affected by air contaminants as well as temperature, humidity, poor ventilation, mold and exposure to chemicals – can negatively impact a person’s health, comfort and ability to work. OSHA currently has no indoor air quality standards, but the agency does provide guidelines about the most common indoor air quality complaints and issues (see www.osha.gov/Publications/3430indoor-air-quality-sm.pdf).
Biological and Chemical Hazards
Biological and chemical hazards across SRP keep industrial hygienists very busy, and for good reason. Exposure to hazardous chemicals is one of the most serious threats facing American workers today, according to the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Labor.
Biological hazards typically include bacteria, viruses, fungi and other organisms that can cause illness and/or acute and chronic infections by entering the body either directly or through breaks in the skin. Examples include:
• Hantavirus. This virus is transmitted by the deer mouse, a rodent found throughout Arizona. Hantavirus causes severe respiratory distress that can be fatal. SRP field and shop employees receive awareness training on how to minimize their exposure at work and at home.
• Legionella. This bacterium causes Legionnaires’ disease, which can be contracted through aerosolized waters from cooling towers, including those common at power generating stations. SRP has a comprehensive program to monitor water quality at generating stations.
• Histoplasmosis. This infection is caused by breathing in spores of a fungus often found in bird and bat droppings. SRP’s Facilities Services and Hydrogeneration employees receive training on the proper removal of droppings and how to clean contaminated areas.
• West Nile virus. To help combat this virus that is endemic to Phoenix, SRP monitors county reports during mosquito breeding season and offers employees awareness training.
Chemicals – which can take the form of solids, liquids, gases, mists, dusts or fumes – may be inhaled or irritate the skin on contact. They can also be toxic if ingested or absorbed through the skin, as well as corrosive to living tissue. Information about chemical hazards can be obtained from the safety data sheets (SDS) that OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard requires all hazardous materials manufacturers to supply. An SDS summarizes the important health, safety and toxicological information related to a chemical or mixture’s ingredients.
In an effort to assure employees understand how to keep themselves safe from chemical hazards, SRP delivered training in 2013 that addressed changes to OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard. The changes were intended to make chemical safety information easier to understand and more practical to apply. All SRP employees underwent this training, including those who do not regularly handle chemicals. In 2015, SRP also updated several SDS documents pertaining to byproducts of coal combustion, such as fly ash that is used in cement products.
Ergonomic and Physical Hazards
Ergonomics encompasses a full range of tasks, including lifting, holding, pushing, walking and reaching. Some ergonomic problems, such as repetitive motion, excessive vibration and noise, eye strain and heavy lifting, arise from poorly designed job tasks. Improperly designed tools and work areas also can create ergonomic hazards. All of these issues can be avoided or mitigated by using more effective job design, better lighting, well-designed tools and equipment, appropriate engineering or administrative controls, correct work practices and/or better work station design and chair adjustment.
Physical hazards – which are the most common types of hazards and are present in most workplaces at some point in time – include extreme levels of ionizing and nonionizing electromagnetic radiation, illumination and temperature. Other examples in this category are frayed electrical cords, unguarded machinery, exposed moving parts, tripping hazards and working from ladders, scaffolding or heights.
Over the past year, SRP has experienced an increase in the number of work-related hearing loss incidents. Industrial hygienists have worked to reduce noise exposure at the utility by encouraging employees to turn off unnecessary equipment, avoid high-noise areas and wear hearing protection at all times. Workers are also encouraged to follow these principles at home by wearing hearing protection while operating lawn equipment, using power tools and engaging in other noisy activities.
Radio-frequency (RF) safety is another issue that SRP takes quite seriously. The utility has a policy in place to protect employees from hazards associated with RF sources, ensure that employees have the information and equipment needed to identify RF sources and hazards, and inform employees of proper work procedures to minimize RF exposure. The policy applies to all employees who may be exposed to RF sources, such as cellphone arrays associated with transmission towers; various RF arrays around metropolitan Phoenix; microwaves and microwave dish antennas at substations and hydro sites; and wireless applications, including noncellular applications and radio controls at substations. The policy complies with OSHA regulations, Federal Communications Commission regulations and other federal and state regulations as applicable.
A Core Value
Safety is a core value at SRP. Industrial hygienists are available to assist all employees in providing and maintaining a safe and healthful work environment that is free from recognized hazards. The overall goal is to conduct all business and operations with the highest regard for the safety of employees, contractors, customers and the public. SRP earned its award-winning reputation because of our people – our employees, our customers and those who live in the communities we serve. They are our greatest resource, and keeping everybody safe is job No. 1.
About the Author: Randi Korte, CUSP, is a senior industrial hygienist at Salt River Project. She also oversees the utility’s Department of Transportation program for commercial motor vehicles. Korte holds a bachelor’s degree in geology from Boston University and a master’s in soil science from the University of Arizona.