From Air Monitors to Apps, the Public’s Use of Technology Challenges IHs Inside and Outside the Workplace

In 2015, an employee at CSX Transportation filed a claim alleging harm from exposure to excessive noise levels. As one of the largest transportation companies in the country, with 34,000 workers in 23 states, CSX is no stranger to claims. What made this case unique, according to Billy Bullock, the director of industrial hygiene for CSX, was its supporting evidence. The worker had used an app on his smartphone to record noise, and then he had analyzed it with software he’d purchased for his personal computer. Bullock knew something wasn’t right. The company’s hearing conservation program had not documented excessive noise in the employee’s workplace: the data collected by CSX showed he was exposed to noise below 80 dB as a time-weighted average, and the employee’s audiograms did not reveal noise-induced hearing loss. An investigation eventually found that the app and software the employee had used to record and analyze noise was intended for bird calls.
“He misinterpreted the results because the software in this package was not really designed for workplace noise,” Bullock says. “It actually amplified bird sounds to a specific decibel level so you could evaluate it as a bird enthusiast. If a bird was in the distance, the software would make it louder.” The employee had mistaken the playback noise level reading for the recorded level. Although his claim was dismissed, he presumably gained an appreciation of the intricacies of noise measurement and analysis.
The CSX employee’s story is just one example of how easy access to technology can complicate the work of industrial hygienists and occupational health and safety professionals. Every day, millions of workers bring their smartphones to work. As the capabilities of these devices improve, they can potentially be used—or misused—to capture all manner of data in the workplace. And some of these tools are surprisingly accurate. According to Mark Rollins, a consultant and member of the AIHA Computer Applications Committee who has written for
The Synergist
about common technologies that can be used for EHS purposes, the right combination of app and microphone can turn a smartphone into a sound level meter that rivals much more expensive instruments. “There are sound meter apps that are as accurate as a traditional Type 2 sound level meter,” Rollins says. “They don’t meet the standards for traceability, but they’re as accurate because the programmers know the microphone specs, and you can calibrate them. But basically, right out of the box, you load the app up, and it’s going to be within plus-or-minus two decibels of a sound level meter.” Consumers can also obtain accurate Geiger counter apps, Rollins says. In addition to the ever-expanding universe of smartphone apps, wearable devices are available that purport to measure an individual’s exposure to PM2.5, background radiation, and other substances, but the accuracy of these instruments is in question. “A lot of these devices are okay, but not great, as far as accuracy and repeatability” are concerned, Rollins says. Nevertheless, over the next few years, more IHs will likely confront a situation like that of the CSX employee, where workers become concerned about something their personal device is telling them. Although the technology available to workers won’t be as sophisticated as instruments designed for professionals, IHs will be challenged to explain the differences to workers who have learned to trust their devices.
As the capabilities of these devices improve, they can potentially be used—or misused—to capture all manner of data in the workplace.

“One of the concerns I have is [workers] misusing a specific sensor or software application to either file a claim against the company or voice concerns,” Bullock says. “We have to be ready to respond and be fact-based in explaining that these [devices] are not going to be as sensitive and specific as the monitors we use that meet the NIOSH criteria for doing employee or workplace monitoring.” Bullock’s concern isn’t limited to workers, apps, and wearables. Watchdog groups and other organizations have begun orchestrating community-based monitoring of factories and other work sites. In one example documented online, an organization provided air monitors to members of a community concerned about emissions from a nearby railyard. At one four-hour session, the organization trained several people on how to use the monitor, including set up, quality control, procedures for logging results, and storage and shipment of the filter. Although the target of the monitoring was not a CSX railyard, the description of the training alarms Bullock. “I’d be very leery that in four hours I could train a degreed environmental technician” let alone a group of laypeople on proper use of the monitor, Bullock says. “This is scary to me that a group is going out and giving citizens a highly technical piece of equipment. [Maybe] it’s not calibrated properly, the filter’s not loaded properly, [or] it’s not done in a controlled environment where you’re not getting other particulate to cross-contaminate the filter.” Rollins wasn’t familiar with the railyard monitoring project, but he has similar concerns about members of the public using complex equipment designed for professionals. “There’s a litany of stories that you can find online where people have done this,” he says. “They’ve taken the wrong type of sample on the wrong type of media, the wrong sample container, the wrong sample handling, and get wrong information from a lab. And they call the newspaper and say, ‘Look, we’ve found all this stuff,’ and a big investigation happens, and you find [out] this is the wrong analytical method or the sample containers were contaminated. That can happen. And [current technology] makes it, unfortunately, easier to happen.”
Enlisting the public to collect scientific data is not new. For decades, volunteers have tracked stars and planets in the night sky or documented the breeding habits of birds and provided their findings to researchers. The term for this phenomenon is “citizen science,” and it has proven to be an effective way for researchers to gather data for large-scale projects. Recently, technological developments have converged with other societal trends to produce a new variant of citizen science that isn’t solely concerned with scientific advancement. According to Tom Culver, a researcher and advisor at RTI International, this new form of citizen science is a kind of advocacy that taps into general distrust of institutions, including corporations and the government. Advocates are emboldened by easy access to technology, that technology’s apparent simplicity, and the ability, through social media, to immediately broadcast their findings. For others, reading about chemical exposures in the environment, in food, in products, or in their homes may lead them to question the safety of their workplace, too. “It’s going to bubble up in places like factories as people become more aware about the pollutants and chemicals in their lives, because they’ve heard about it in some other sphere, like the consumer marketplace,” Culver says. “They know to be worried about BPA or lead or whatever, so they become more cognizant and ask more questions at work.” Both the lone worker on the shop floor who takes noise measurements with his phone and the organized community monitoring of a facility are examples of citizen science that IHs may confront over the next few years. Culver compares the challenges citizen science presents to the IH community with the situation many multinational companies found themselves in when consumer groups started drawing attention to chemicals in consumer products. “On things like BPA, there’s been a huge outcry, and companies have to be really careful,” Culver says, though he’s quick to point out that not every chemical that’s been the focus of consumer discontent is necessarily harmful. “So [companies] have taken a strategy to go out and engage and educate their consumers. They’re doing full disclosure of their ingredients list, which used to be unheard of. “The whole market for decades was built that way, that you would never disclose anything. Well, that’s changing, because there’s been such pressure from consumers to want to know what’s in the products that they have in their homes and that they eat. The government is starting to look a lot more closely at these things. And the companies have figured they better get ahead of it, because they would rather be disclosing and showing what good stewards they are of the environment and show that they only have healthy or natural products than be regulated by the government.”
Imagine a situation where an employee’s wearable says that she is exposed to ten parts per million of carbon monoxide, and the IH’s monitor detects zero parts per million.

As the example of the CSX employee shows, one consequence of technology in the workplace is the amount of additional work it can create for IHs. Investigating a workers’ claim takes time and energy, and even in cases where a claim isn’t filed, IHs might find themselves competing for workers’ trust. Imagine a situation where an employee’s wearable says that she is exposed to ten parts per million of carbon monoxide, and the IH’s monitor detects zero parts per million. Convincing the employee that her device isn’t necessarily telling her the whole truth could be difficult, especially in an age where people use their phones for all sorts of tasks such as locking their cars, monitoring their home security, finding lost keys, and turning appliances on or off. “There’s going to be disparities in the results between [professional equipment and consumer devices],” Bullock says. “So I think it’s going to be key to be able to explain that to a layperson in a way that they can understand and not think that we’re being dishonest.” Bullock also worries about the potential for lawsuits. In most industries, the workers’ compensation system serves as a general bar to litigation from employees alleging injury against their employer. (This is not the case for railroads, which are covered by the Federal Employers Liability Act, a law that allows workers to sue their employers directly.) But even for employers covered by workers’ comp, communities could bring civil suits based on measurements obtained by laypeople using air monitors near a facility. According to Neil Feldscher, a lawyer and industrial hygienist who is a member of AIHA’s Legal Issues Committee, a company facing such a lawsuit would probably rely on expert witness testimony to argue that a plaintiff’s evidence doesn’t represent the type of evidence routinely used by IH professionals—and to present the company’s own data. Ultimately, Feldscher says, a company that has a good IH program is well prepared to defend itself. “I think the best defense is essentially a good offense, which is, ‘I’ve got accurate data from my facility with good IHs using good machines and good methods,’” Feldscher says. But trials, too, cost time and money, and distract IHs from the ultimate goal of protecting workers, the community, and the environment.
How can IHs get ahead of the tech tide? The first step, as Bullock alluded to, is to educate workers about the differences between professional equipment and the technology in their pockets or around their wrists. He suggests using whatever communication tools IHs have at their disposal—training sessions, a company newsletter, even facility-wide TV—to explain the capabilities of properly maintained IH monitors and to begin discussions about the limitations of widely available technology for measurement of occupational exposures. Rollins emphasizes that part of educating workers is encouraging them to express their concerns. “The mantra I’ve had for decades where I’ve worked [is], if people are concerned about something, we will evaluate it,” he says. “There’s no penalty for asking questions.” Culver suggests that IHs consider going a step further and figuring out how to use workers and their technologies as a first line of defense against occupational exposures. The medical and healthcare fields offer a useful analogy, he says. Medical professionals, realizing that they can’t monitor patients all the time, provide them with simple take-home instruments such as devices for measuring blood pressure or insulin. Even the common household thermometer can be seen as a device for conducting a personal form of citizen science. The analogy isn’t perfect: as Rollins points out, take-home medical instruments have to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Nothing like this regulatory vetting exists for, say, the traceability and calibration of consumer devices for measuring VOCs and their companion apps. Still, the medical profession has taught patients to participate in their own care through use of simple devices that provide ballpark indications of health. And most people know to call a doctor once their measurements are outside certain parameters. “Do the people at home who are taking the measurement think that they’re professionals now?” Culver asks. “Are they under the illusion that they’re now the doctor? No. They recognize once things are out of normal that they need to reach out and get professional help.” Could a wearable device someday serve the same purpose for industrial hygienists that thermometers serve for doctors? Culver isn’t sure, but he thinks that such a development would be a boon for the profession. In his view, IHs have a choice: either they enlist the help of workers and their technologies, or they wall themselves off by declaring that only professionals using specialized equipment can participate in the monitoring of workplace exposures. “The challenge is educating people on the difference between a monitor and a real measurement instrument, one that is actually measuring something reliable with precision and accuracy, what appropriate use cases are, etcetera,” Culver says. “Do you set up a dichotomy where you’re basically challenging [workers] that they’re not qualified? Or do you engage them and train them and make them your partners to achieve something?”
ED RUTKOWSKI is editor in chief of
The Synergist
. He can be reached at (703) 846-0734 or
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The Synergist thanks Billy Bullock, DHSc, CIH, CSP, FAIHA; Tom Culver; Neil Feldscher, CIH, CSP, Esq.; and Mark Rollins, CIH, CSP, for their help with this article.

AIHA Guideline Foundation: “The Future of Sensors: Protecting Worker Health through Sensor Technologies” (
, April 2016).
Citizen Science: A Developing Tool for Expanding Science Knowledge and Scientific Literacy
” (December 2009).
Global Community Monitor: “Argentine/Turner Diesel Exhaust Air Pollution Monitoring Final Report” (June 2015). “
With Wearable Devices That Monitor Air Quality, Scientists Can Crowdsource Pollution Maps
” (March 2015).