In the days when Industrial Hygiene became a recognized scientific discipline, smoke stacks belched black smoke in River Rouge, MI and Pittsburgh, PA. Men worked in clouds of coal and asbestos dust and labor was hard, physical and usually dangerous. Personal protective equipment was rare; its use, even rarer and its protective effect marginal.
Today, the face of manufacturing has changed dramatically from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. New technologies, newer materials and newer products have spelled the demise of smokestack industries, at least in the United States. Along with this visual improvement, a new attitude has arisen concerning employee exposure. Since many, if not most, manufacturing sites today are clean, well lighted and require much less direct physical labor, it becomes easy to believe that there are no longer any serious employee exposures. How can there be? It’s a clean room!
Actually, all we have done is to change the exposures. Fifty or sixty years ago, no one had ever heard of Gallium-Germanium Arsenide, without which there would be no computer chips and no Intel. We still used leaded gasoline and hadn’t begun to think about MBTE the gasoline additive that has caused so much recent controversy. We have controlled or eliminated many of the old exposures and air contaminants, but in their place we have introduced new ones to take their place. Today’s worker may no longer be covered with soot or dust, but he or she may be exposed to contaminants that were unheard of just a few short years ago, but may be just as hazardous as the old ones.
Today’s industrial hygienists must continuously update their knowledge of manufacturing processes and equipment, along with their knowledge of the potentially adverse human health effects resulting from exposure to newer feedstocks, intermediates and finished products. Today’s industrial hygienist cannot assume there are no potential exposures, just because people are working in a clean room.