STEVEN LACEY, PHD, CIH, CSP, is AIHA president and chair of Environmental Health Science at the Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He can be reached at (317) 274-3120 or
Big Data and Sensor Technology: AIHA’s Role
At AIHce 2014 in San Antonio, NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard dedicated part of his keynote to a discussion of technological progress. Howard mentioned Google’s development of contact lenses that continuously monitor glucose levels in tears. If it succeeds, this product could radically change how diabetics manage their disease, and its widespread adoption could make insulin needles—a $2 billion industry—obsolete. Could such a radical change occur within our profession? The ever-expanding capacities of sensors, and their ubiquitous placement in everyday objects and devices that monitor personal health and the environment, suggest sensors will have significant influence on the practice of industrial hygiene. In San Antonio, Howard envisioned a time when the automatic, constant transmission of data from sensors to a central repository replaces what we now know as IH sampling. When that time comes, he suggested, the future practitioner will look a lot more like a contemporary data scientist than a field hygienist.

Most IHs work with very limited data points—many of us would be happy with, say, six measurements of a worker’s exposure. Now think of a future with six measurements per second.
A STEEP CURVE Big data has been on the profession’s radar since AIHA’s Content Portfolio Management Team flagged it as a research priority a few years ago. Part of the impetus behind last summer’s Sensor Technology Summit was for AIHA to begin to grapple with the implications of a world where sensors and data play a greater role in the work we do—download our future of sensor technology report (PDF).
As several Summit participants observed, we face a steep learning curve in this area. Most IHs work with very limited data points—many of us would be happy with, say, six measurements of a worker’s exposure. Now think of a future with six measurements per second. To increase our knowledge of and abilities with big data, we need to identify partners that are further along the curve. The healthcare and insurance industries both generate and rely on vast amounts of data to deliver better care and to optimize their services, and I suspect much has been learned and developed that is translatable today. Potential partners also include companies that currently produce IH equipment and software systems; OSHA, NIOSH, and MSHA; academic institutions; and other technology developers.
Summit participants were also asked to identify activities that AIHA could help define and develop the IH competency of big data analysis and management. For example, AIHA could establish relationships with new partners to provide members with educational opportunities related to big data. Our role would be to determine the state of the science regarding big data, and, working with AIHA’s Exposure Assessment Strategies and Real-Time Detection Systems committees and others, establish the standard of practice. PREDICTIVE ANALYTICS How might IHs interface with big data? One possibility is that “dashboards” would allow us to see the outputs of multiple data streams, facilitating our ability to make decisions to protect worker health. Think of an airplane cockpit, where two or three people manage an exceedingly complex system that generates millions of bits of information. To the extent that such systems exist for IHs today, they are largely concerned with alerting us to acute threats. This is surely beneficial, but to fulfill the promise of big data, we need a system that allows us to make predictions about future exposures and act on them. Imagine a work environment with integrated monitoring of industrial processes and resulting exposures, and rapid feedback to assess intervention.
It’s exciting to consider the possibilities of big data for occupational hygiene, but we must also continue to serve less advanced industries and the small and medium-sized enterprises that will be slower to adopt these technologies. And while sensors are part of the future of health protection, they are not the future. Protecting worker health, as always, will rely on one group of people looking out for the health and well-being of another.