Photos by Ashlee Wilcox / Documentary Associates
The key to knowledge is asking the right questions. At AIHce EXP 2017, which was held at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle June 4–8, presenters and speakers helped attendees identify many of the pressing questions that shape their profession, their careers, and even their own natures. Below are just a few of the questions that confronted attendees in Seattle.
Thirteen years to the week after his first appearance on the popular American game show
, Ken Jennings, best known for his 74-game
winning streak, presented “Life in the Form of a Question” to a standing-room-only crowd of industrial hygienists and OEHS professionals. Jennings wove anecdotes about his time on
into an engaging talk that demonstrated how “knowing lots of weird stuff” has greater value than just increasing the odds of winning a game show.
A common argument against knowing things, Jennings said, is that the Internet allows easy access to knowledge. But he worries about becoming reliant on computers and smartphones.
“What happens if we outsource all of our memory to our little glowing rectangles?” he asked. “Some stuff has to be in your mind, or modernity doesn’t work.”
“Knowing lots of weird stuff” has greater value than just increasing the odds of winning a game show, Ken Jennings said.
One example of “the power of the right fact at the right place at the right time,” Jennings said, is the story of ten-year-old Tilly Smith, who saved a beach full of tourists in Phuket, Thailand, when she correctly predicted that the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was about to hit. Seeing the tide quickly receding from shore, Smith recalled learning in school that this phenomenon is a tsunami warning sign and alerted her parents and the lifeguard. Perhaps, Jennings argued, there wouldn’t have been time to conduct an Internet search in that situation. Immediate recollection also has social value, Jennings said. “When you meet someone for the first time, people love that you know something about what they do or where they work or live. The immediate bonding when people share a piece of knowledge in common is almost magic.” After his keynote, Jennings participated in a Q&A session, fielding questions that ranged from “What’s Alex Trebek really like?” (a “surprisingly normal” guy) to deeper inquiries like “How do you entice people to be curious?” “Often, trivia itself can become a very good motivator,” Jennings answered. “It’s an accessible level of knowledge about everything.”
Opening Session attendees react to Ken Jennings’ presentation, “Life in the Form of a Question.”
When Andrew Maier trains emergency responders, he always asks them two questions. First, can they name the exposure limits available for use during an emergency response; and, second, can they identify which of those limits is most relevant for a specific scenario? As Maier explained at “Acute and Emergency Exposure Limits for Chemical Release Incidents,” an educational session held June 5, few responders can answer these questions. Their uncertainty indicates one area where industrial hygienists can play a vital role in emergency response situations. “There is this confusing landscape of alternative values we have at our disposal as industrial hygienists,” said Maier, who is an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati. To help ensure a successful response, industrial hygienists must understand how the various levels were derived and intended to be used. Several organizations and government agencies produce exposure limits for emergency response situations. A typical response evolves over time, Maier said, and the exposure limit appropriate when responders arrive at the scene of a chemical release may no longer apply as more information about the chemical becomes known. As remediation of a chemical release proceeds and the risk of high exposures dwindles, industrial hygienists might adopt risk management actions more consistent with occupational exposures. According to Maier, industrial hygienists should carefully read the documentation for various emergency levels so they can understand how different values apply to different parts of an emergency response.
“It’s really important to read the basis for these values if you’re going to be using them,” Maier said, “so you can apply them in an appropriate manner.”
The unusual bipartisan support for last year’s update to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is likely to remain strong despite Republican opposition to most forms of government spending and President Trump’s proposal for severe cuts to the federal budget, according to Neil Feldscher, an attorney who leads the industrial hygiene program for the New York City Department of the Environment. Feldscher offered his optimistic assessment at an educational session on June 5 that explained the impact of the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act on EPA’s approach to risk assessment, risk management, confidential business information (CBI), and other areas of TSCA reform. While President Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 would decrease EPA’s overall funding by approximately 31 percent compared to 2017 levels, it provides for increased spending to implement reforms required by the Lautenberg Act. These reforms are the only line-item in the agency’s budget that would receive an increase under the president’s proposal. Feldscher also cited new EPA administrator Scott Pruitt’s public support for TSCA reform and the agency’s progress toward meeting many of the ambitious deadlines in the Lautenberg Act as reasons why he believes the reform effort will survive despite the anti-regulatory stance of the Republican congressional majority. The Lautenberg Act changed how EPA reviews new chemicals, requiring the agency to make an “affirmative finding” on the safety of a new chemical, or a significant new use of an existing chemical, before it goes to market, Feldscher explained. The Act also changed the process manufacturers use to request exemption from the data submission requirements for chemicals. Previously, companies that claimed the data represented CBI were routinely granted exemptions. The Lautenberg Act requires companies to substantiate their CBI requests and limits the exemption to ten years.
NPR’s Howard Berkes, the latest reporter to present the annual Upton Sinclair Lecture for Outstanding EHS Investigative Reporting at AIHce EXP, addressed conference attendees via a state-of-the-art video link with NPR’s studio in Washington, D.C., on June 6. The 35-year NPR veteran spoke to a packed room about his investigative journalism, including his reporting on the 2010 Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in West Virginia that killed 29 miners. Berkes described how the language used by reporters, agencies, and company officials to describe workplace accidents often doesn’t capture what really happened to the workers involved.

“To me, they sometimes gloss over the horror and the responsibility,” Berkes said. “The word ‘killed’ didn’t adequately express what happened to those miners at Upper Big Branch. Police reports, coroners’ reports, agency reports—just about everything about these incidents is sanitized, bureaucratized.” Berkes and Frank Langfitt, a colleague at NPR, traveled to the “hollers” of West Virginia, where they knocked on doors and gathered names and phone numbers, trying to talk to people who worked at Massey Energy and at Upper Big Branch. They also set out to speak with former mine inspectors and mine safety regulators. “We were seeking the kind of information that people believed would get them in trouble,” Berkes said, explaining that some miners feared they or their family members might lose their jobs if they went on record. After gently persisting and appealing to the lawyers involved, Berkes was able to connect with some family members of the victims of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion, including Judy Jones Petersen, a physician who lost her brother. Convinced that the real story about what happened to those miners wasn’t being told, Peterson insisted on viewing her brother’s remains at the funeral home. When she looked, she didn’t recognize her brother, who was farthest away from the blast on April 5, 2010. “The blast could not have been that powerful, that far from its source, if there hadn’t been a lot of coal dust in that mine,” Berkes said, explaining that the dust acted as an accelerant, triggering a series of blasts that went back and forth, turning corners through the mine. Coal dust is supposed to be cleaned up after every shift, Berkes continued. But it wasn’t happening at Upper Big Branch. Berkes ended his presentation by urging the industrial hygienists and occupational health and safety professionals in the audience to let reporters know when they see trends that seem out of the ordinary. “The most important thing is to communicate with us,” Berkes said. “We can tell stories in ways you cannot, but you possess the knowledge and information, and you have the data and reports.”
In the 1970s, an epidemic of malignant mesothelioma decimated the populations of several villages in central Turkey. Subsequent investigations linked the disease to exposure to erionite, a naturally occurring fibrous mineral usually found in volcanic ash. In some villages nearly 50 percent of deaths were attributed to mesothelioma. On June 7, Andrey Korchevskiy, director of research and development at an industrial hygiene consultancy in Colorado, and Dr. Amin Elamin, professor of medicine at the University of South Florida, presented preliminary findings suggesting that erionite is significantly more potent than asbestos, which is also known to cause mesothelioma. “Some people call [erionite] the most toxic mineral on earth,” Korchevskiy said. Inhalation exposure to asbestos or erionite fibers can lead to mesothelioma, a thickening of the pleural lining of the lung, which gradually diminishes the lung’s ability to expand. People suffering from mesothelioma experience difficulty breathing, among other symptoms. While mesothelioma is usually an occupational disease, Elamin explained that the severity of the outbreak in the Turkish villages stemmed from the presence of erionite in the materials villagers used to build their homes. “Most of the time, mesothelioma patients are in their seventies,” Elamin said, while in the villages, “people were getting mesothelioma in their thirties. They were getting exposed every day.” According to one study, erionite exposure presents a greater risk than asbestos of pleural thickening, Elamin said. Korchevskiy said that data from a study conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer suggests that erionite “seems to be eight times more potent than crocidolite and 100 times more potent than Quebec chrysotile.” Crocidolite and chrysotile are two forms of asbestos. No regulations or consensus standards exist for erionite, and there are no occupational exposure limits for airborne erionite fibers, Korchevskiy said. OSHA’s permissible exposure limit for airborne asbestos is 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter of air.
John Medina, an author and developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine, delivered the first-ever closing session in the history of AIHce on June 7. By turns manic and contemplative, Medina summarized the state of knowledge in his abstruse field, particularly how scientists’ current understanding of the brain reveals certain traits of successful leaders. Medina began his presentation with a seemingly strange admission for someone with his professional pedigree: “We just don’t know that much about how the brain works.” What we do know, however, can potentially change the way we identify and groom leaders in our organizations. Successful leaders tend to exhibit high “executive function,” which Medina characterized as a facility for solving problems and maintaining composure in difficult circumstances. Research has shown that people with high executive function have a range of desirable qualities: they’re less moody, better at managing anger, less likely to commit crimes, less prone to alcohol and substance abuse, more creative, and have more satisfying relationships when compared to the rest of the population. Medina suggested that workplace health and safety professionals, whose jobs involve “life-and-death situations,” would do well to hire people with high executive function. Another characteristic of successful leaders is strong “theory of mind,” an ability to understand others’ intentions, beliefs, and desires. “People can’t read each other’s minds, but they can read each other’s cues,” Medina said. “People with strong theory of mind do this.” Although much about the brain remains unknown, Medina told attendees, the concepts of executive function and theory of mind “begin to make the case for bringing the power of neuroscience right into your world.”
At the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia, May 21–23, 2018. Professional development courses will be held May 19, 20, and 24. The submission portal for conference proposals is open through Sept. 6, 2017. Visit the conference
for more information.
is assistant editor of
The Synergist.
She can be reached at (703) 846-0737 or via
is editor in chief of
The Synergist.
He can be reached at (703) 846-0734 or via

The Search for Knowledge at AIHce EXP 2017

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