Science and Law
24th October 2013

How An Industrial Hygienist Can Strengthen Your Case

If you’re embroiled in a case involving health complaints allegedly stemming from a chemical, biological or physical agent, an industrial hygienist may be just the expert you need to bolster your case.

How An Industrial Hygienist Can Strengthen Your Case

This article was authored by Peter Harnett, a certified industrial hygienist (CIH) who provides expertise in evaluation of environmental exposure assessments, consumer product health-based risk assessments, health and safety program development, toxicology assessments, occupational safety training programs, biosafety evaluations, compliance audits for laboratories and other workplace settings. Peter is the founding member of Counsel in Occupational and Environmental Health (COEH).

If you’re embroiled in a case involving health complaints allegedly stemming from a chemical, biological or physical agent, an industrial hygienist may be just the expert you need to bolster your case.

The plaintiff’s case is probably based on a physician’s diagnosis, which was most likely derived from information the patient provided about a new agent in their workplace or environment. The problem with this approach is that the physician often has no way of knowing for certain whether exposure to the chemical, biological or physical agent actually occurred. This is one area in which the industrial hygienist can be helpful.

Industrial hygienists are trained to perform exposure assessments for chemical, biological and physical agents, which can provide the information you need to build your case. An exposure assessment can determine valuable information including the following:

Who was or was not exposed

• Exposure route(s) (inhalation, dermal, ingestion)

• Frequency and duration of exposure

In an ideal scenario, the industrial hygienist will measure the actual levels of the chemical or biological agent in the exposure medium, such as the air. In some cases, the industrial hygienist will find that potential exposures were already measured and can evaluate the quality of the data and perform data analyses, e.g., statistics. In other cases, no exposure data exist. Many industrial hygienists are experienced in exposure assessment and exposure modeling and can estimate likely ranges of historical area and/or personal exposures.

Industrial hygienists can help limit a company’s future liability. If exposure to a chemical, biological or physical agent occurred, an industrial hygienist can assess the situation, enabling the company to take appropriate actions to reduce the potential for future exposures. Examples include substitution with a safer chemical, change in work practices, use of engineering controls when feasible, and use of personal protective equipment.

Companies often retain industrial hygienists to perform assessments on a regular basis. In addition to measuring levels of an agent, industrial hygienists are trained to anticipate, recognize, evaluate, and control workplace exposures, which tend to be significantly higher than exposures arising away from the workplace.

To illustrate how an industrial hygienist can help your case, let’s look at a case we were recently involved in.  A client was paying workers’ compensation to employees with complaints – such as respiratory irritation, headache, pain and nausea – due to alleged exposure to an alkaline aerosol. Prior to these initial worker compensation claims, we had collected about 500 personal and area air samples to assess personal workplace exposure concerns. The majority of the air sampling results showed de minimus or non-detectable levels of airborne alkaline chemical. The de minimus levels were well below any published exposure limit associated with health concerns.  At the 50+ locations where the affected employees worked, the levels of the alkaline aerosol were less than 10% of the occupational exposure limit and often less than 1% of the occupational exposure limit. It is highly improbable that such de minimus airborne concentrations could be causing health effects from inhalation or any other route of exposure. Although the chemical is hazardous, it does not pose a risk in the absence of an exposure.

Unable to find another cause for the employees’ symptoms, several  non-occupational physicians attributed the symptoms to alkaline aerosol because it had recently been introduced to the plants. The physicians overlooked the extensive air sampling data, which did not support the employees’ health claims. The physicians didn’t even ask whether employee exposure monitoring was conducted. If the physicians had reviewed the data, they would have realized these workers were not exposed to levels that could result in their alleged health complaints.

The plants began to direct employees with potential work-related complaints to occupational physicians. The air sampling data and reports were shared with the occupational physicians. As a result, the majority of the workers’ compensation claims for alleged health issues relating to the alkaline chemical were eliminated.

This case demonstrates the importance of having an air exposure-monitoring program in place, and communicating the results to all employees. It also demonstrates the importance of directing employees to occupational physicians, who are trained to inquire about the availability of exposure data.

 

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