Are industrial hygienists heading for extinction?


Alex Pollock

When I joined the Industrial Hygiene family in 1980 I felt like I was chosen among millions to join. Did you experience this feeling? I was surrounded by seasoned “IH Professors” who invested themselves in me to develop my knowledge and skills to be effective on the shop floor, in the Board room and at the ABIH examination desk. Over the years I’ve seen the reduction in IH staffs, the advance towards reliance on “EHS generalists” and the graying of EHS technical professionals. A few weeks ago I was with a group of senior EHS leaders from numerous large global enterprises as we discussed the reshaping in EHS organizations that’s underway in response to numerous factors including budget pressures, shrinking of North American markets with corresponding growth in the Asia/Pacific region, dominance of the “E” in EHS, and potential retirement bubble courtesy of the Baby Boomers. They suggested that these factors will contribute the demise of the Industrial Hygiene profession as we know it….and love it. Are they right? What needs to be done to “save” the profession? What are the harsh realities we need to quickly understand and adapt to if their prediction is true? And finally as the trend towards EHS generalists grows, are there other areas of technical expertise that we are gradually loosing as a profession?

About Alex Pollock

Alex Pollock has been studying leadership effectiveness for more than 30 years. A former leader in environment, health and safety, and public affairs at The Dow Chemical Co., he learned that we all have leadership roles to play. He enjoys discussing new ideas and sharing practical ways we can all become better leaders.

View all post by Alex Pollock »

  1. Rich Fiore

    November 10, 2008

    I’m a headhunter in Houston who has specialized in EHS and regulatory affairs placement since 1986. I believe the next future of the IH profession lies in the product safety/stewardship arena. As you may know, many IH professionals have already made this transition, and with the advent of ReACH, a strong market for product safety and stewardship professionals is ensured—at least compared to the current IH market.
    Rich Fiore

  2. Jim Lime

    November 10, 2008

    I am one VP, EHS that appreciates the value of IH. I will never give up the IH we have on our staff and if he leaves, he will be replaced.
    We could never accomplish what he brings to the table without his specialized expertise.


  3. Ryan M. Livengood

    November 10, 2008

    I am in the process of getting my MSPH and hopefully soon my CIH. I have also been told by many people, Industrial hygienists included, that the profession is seeing a decline in new talent. I however don’t see a decline in the need for them regardless of the economy, or recent trend in outsourcing. Though the environmental side of the profession is gaining strength, the technical knowledge that industrial hygienists have is still a major requirement for any EH&S position. Perhaps my views are tainted because I am getting my Masters in this and I need to start paying off school debts soon, however the reason I decided to was because I saw to many untrained people conducting IH work. Sadly I feel it comes down to a lack of exposure for the profession. When I tell people that I am in the process of becoming an Industrial hygienist, they ask me how long I have enjoyed cleaning teeth.

  4. Bob Brayley

    November 10, 2008

    I don’t think that the IH profession is going to disappear. However, it is true, as it has always been true, that those who are able to broaden their skills will be more successful. Large companies are increasingly outsourcing for their IH needs. The staff they retain, the EHS generalists, are usually skilled at developing and driving improvement processes across an entire organization. In order to do so they need to be able to stand toe to toe with their peers in middle and senior management. Even in a relatively pure technical environment such as an IH consulting firm those who eventually end up running the place possess management skills that compliment and eventually trump their technical skills. Bottom line; if you want to be a technical specialist your entire career there will always be a need for you, but you probably won’t be the best paid person in the place.
    PS. Hopefully this comment will get your blog going!

  5. Anne Peters

    November 10, 2008

    I don’t know, I left a meeting last week at an electronics recycler and one of the most important action items was “hire an industrial hygienist” to do a hazard assessment here. E-cycling, as it’s known, is a huge growth industry; electronics contain many hazardous substances that when shredded, broken, or dismantled improperly, can cause all kinds of problems. The IHs of the world need to come to the e-cycling conferences! SEe for more of the problem and for the big e-cyclers’ conference. It would be great if an IH presented details for this audience.

  6. D. Gary Brown

    November 11, 2008

    I agree we are losing new blood and graying. I believe there are three main areas we are losing traction: visibility, lack of professors who have practiced and declining student enrollment.

    I would love for the AIHA, ACGIH, ASSE, HPS, and NEHA get together and become the American Society of Environmental / Occupational Health and Safety Society. You would than have sub specialties, IH, EHS, Safety, Health Physicist, etc. This would give health and safety bigger numbers in one organization, save resources and increase political pull. Everyone knows a nurse is a nurse. There are pediatric nurses, oncology nurses, surgical nurses, etc. Everyone knows what a nurse is, very few know what an IH is. I think the visibility of our profession is not even on the radar of high school students. I doubt this will ever happen because each organization will protect their own turf instead of looking at the greater good.

    I am a Certified Industrial Hygienist who teaches Environmental Health Science at Eastern Kentucky University. Our students could also receive a bachelors in industrial hygiene, but we have chosen not to deal with ABET. The EHS program is considered the benchmark program in the US and has approximately 150 majors.

    I am a rare breed among faculty in that I had over 10 years real world professional experience before coming to academia. I am also at a teaching institution so I do not have the publish or perish pressure. I believe we are the only program in the US where all faculty members have at least 10 years professional experience before coming to teach. In order to find faculty with 10 years experience we have grown our own, hired people with a masters and supported them getting their doctorate.

    People ask me what my research interests are and I state getting students into the field. I believe this will be a greater contribution in the long run than publishing 1,000 papers.

    We have a number of faculty who receive their doctorates and become faculty without ever having practiced. In addition, there are numerous faculty who have related science degrees who get on our bandwagon because of the income potential. If they have practiced it has been after they have received their doctorate and have not done the usual IH tasks. Major Universities place a much greater emphasis on grants and publications than terminal degrees or professional real world experience. If you haven’t done it how can you teach it. In addition, they have other pressures so student recruitment is low on their priority list.

    I am what you would consider a non traditional faculty or IH. Myself and my fellow faculty members are continually recruiting students, I ask the pizza delivery person what is your major, do you like science, come and check us out. The Association of Environmental Health Academic Professionals realized this trend and is currently recruiting new programs into EHS. I am the National mentor coordinator for new programs. In the last several years 5 new programs have been accredited which is a different approach to increasing numbers.

    I feel a huge area that we are losing is in getting new young blood into the profession. I just presented at the American Society of Safety Engineers Future Leaders Conference. There were 200 students who came. This conference was for them. The students paid nothing only their travel to get their. They were put up for two nights in the Louisville Marriott, provided all meals and treated like gold. I have taken students to the AIHCe and NEHA and by far this is the best the students were treated. This is the only professional organization that I know that does this. This is another way we are losing students.

    Speaking at the Future Leaders Conference students from several Universities were asking how to get more practical IH experience. The majority takes one or two semesters of IH in their program, but never use equipment. At EKU we have an air quality and health and advanced IH class that have labs where the students utilize equipment. Our student love using this equipment. They love these classes. They use air sampling pumps (SKC, Gilian and Buck), sound level meters (CEL and Quest), Noise dosimeters (Metrosonic and Quest), Heat stress equipment (sling psychrometer and meat stress monitor), IAQ ( TSI IAQ clac, ventilation ( anemometers, etc.) and colorimetric tubes. In addition I just recently got a PPB Rae PID I am developing a lab for. Also we have a rad health class in which they use rad equipment. When I came we had only a fraction of this equipment, but my specialty is hustling free equipment.

    Another way of getting students experience is myself and my fellow CIH faculty members take 2 students with us whenever we consult.

    In addition we recommend the students get the OSHA 30 hour general industry standards, Hazwoper and a Mold class which makes them more employable. Employers today want someone who can handle multiple uses and tasks. I believe the day of major corporations hiring IH’s just to do traditional IH is fading fast.

    We teach our students enough theory but they need to know how to do a job. If you are an employer who needs a health and safety person and you have two choices to hire. Yu have a safety grad who can do the job but doesn’t really know IH or you have an IH who knows theory but doesn’t know how to do the job who would you hire? In addition, if you cannot find someone with IH training employers will hire a person with a science degree and feel they can train them.

    I am sorry this is so long, but this is something I have been seeing for quite a while. What scares me is I am considered young at 41 for IH. My e-mail is or 859-622-1992.

    Gary Brown

  7. John

    November 14, 2008

    I agree with the trend to EHS generalists, but I think the background of those folks depend more on the industry segment, and company itself. In our EHS world (about 150 world wide) the number of Env folks is < 10 %, IH a few more, and Safety the balance. Certainly there is also a trend in industry to outsource specialties, so I would think there is some give and take between consulting and industry in terms of where specialists are employed. In my exerience it takes at least 10 years for generalist to really have general knowledge, and they almost always have a strong E or H or S.

  8. Heather Carias

    November 15, 2008

    Do young high school and college students know about the field of IH? As a high school teacher I try to expose my students to a variety of different careers that involve the content that we are learning about in class. I’ve had genetic counselors, doctors, nurses, and radiologists speak to my students about their professions. Now when I hear my students talk about what they want to be I hear them talking about the careers that they know about. Perhaps getting students excited about IH would preserve the field.

  9. Walt Rostykus

    November 17, 2008

    Alex, if we agree that the IH profession is in decline (or even if it is just evolving), there seems to be two key priorities:

    1 – Break the old paradigm of isolating ourselves into single professions. Be broad based in your areas of expertise. Pursue multiple certifications. Integrate the management of E, H, and S. The sciences and technologies behind the professions may vary (some) but the management of them is similar (compare the similarities between Environmental and Safety Management System models.).

    2 – Demonstrate the value you bring to your employer/organization. IH’s have a challenge, to apply the sciences (toxicology, physiology, ventilation, etc.) to diagnose and improve the workplace. To survive in any organization, a department or function must somehow add value and contribute to the bottom line. IH’s and EHS professionals must be able to demonstrate their value (i.e. Return on Investment of programs and services). This is best accomplished by modeling their program and processes after the process and terminology used by the businesses (speak their language).

    • Tony Uliano

      December 30, 2009

      I agree wholeheartedly with Walt’s comments and, in fact, have been saying that for many, many years. Not only should be define ourselves more widely, our venue should be well beyond the workplace and into the community as many have been heading in the past number of years. There is also the persistent problem of weekend wonder, taking specialty courses and claiming expertise.

  10. Alex Pollock

    November 19, 2008

    Thanks for the thoughtful dialogue. Thinking of ourselves in the “Value Driven Service” business forces a change in paradigm. Not only do we need the technical skills to be “EHS solutions providers” but we must augment those with the perspectives and language of those we “serve”. As we demonstrate value we create compelling stories that we can share with others and get them excited about what we do and how we do it.

  11. Mark Spence

    November 19, 2008

    The very first posting (Rich Fiore) makes a key point that I’ve noticed over my 30-year career as an IH at a major chemical producer. The exposure assessment, simple exposure risk communication, and practical exposure control solution skills that are central to IH practice in the workplace are EXACTLY the skills needed for effective product safety / product stewardship efforts.

    Thanks in part to the success of the IH profession over the past decades, many of the major workplace health threats are widely recongnized and controlled. At the same time, concern about risk (or risk perception) from consumer exposure seems to be increasing. I find that toxicologists are often the ‘go to’ authorities on the subject, but are often ill equipped for the practical communication and problem solving that’s needed to address consumer exposure issues. I see an expanding niche for IH practice if we actively embrace product stewardship / consumer exposure as a key skill in the IH profession.

  12. Air Hygiene

    June 22, 2010

    Thank you for a very informative and well written article

  13. industrial health

    February 1, 2011

    Nice information that states that Industrial hygienists found that mold, rot, and corrosion are dangers that must be accounted for when builders construct energy-efficient homes. Recycled materials used in this type of construction are likely to absorb more water than new materials. Air quality can also become an issue because of a heightened focus on insulation which, in addition to reducing heating and cooling costs, can limit the movement of water vapor and potential pollutants.
    industrial health

  14. Tim Parkinson

    May 29, 2011

    The role of the industrial hygienist is becoming increasing blurred with other compliance disciplines as service providers seek to maximise the bang for their IH bucks. The commercial imperative may be strong but it often means that the quality of the service is diminished as expertise is diluted. In the area of water treatment hygiene and legionella control this is particulary the case as this specialisation often gets lumped together with air hygiene, fire risk assessment and electrical safety.
    Whilst the service provider may benefit from increased profitability the customer gets a second rate service.

  15. alex d

    November 3, 2011

    Occupational health professionals must manage the complexities of medical surveillance. They have to record employee health data from workplace injuries and illnesses, clinic visits, immunizations, audiometric exams, flu clinics, wellness programs, and lab tests. And, it’s not enough to just collect the data: They must be able to report on it in multiple formats. OHS software is essential to a company.

  16. Health, hygiene and sanitation go together at the workplace and also elsewhere since they are inter-related and are complimentary to each other. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” in not cited in vain. There is lot of value in it.

    Industrial Hygienists contribute their worth in keeping the workplace and work areas clean, orderly and conducive to work, adding efficiency, productivity and even aesthetics to work situations. As such, there is no denying the fact that Industrial Hygienists are required for the workplace and workers’ habitation areas.

    So far as, the declining trend of their deployment is concerned, it would be advisable and correct to suggest that Industrial Hygienists should not only keep themselves up-dated and rich in contents of Industrial Hygiene Profession, but also take-up and adopt adjoining subjects related to Industrial Health which is mandatory and legal duty of the Industrial Managements. It will maintain them in the list of Industrial Requirements.

Leave your comment