Beyond Risk Assessment
Integrating the Risk Sciences into the Profession of Industrial Hygiene
Risk: it is that four-letter word used extensively in today’s society to discuss everything from the dangers of operating a vehicle to uncertainty in the economy to the perils of certain lifestyle choices. Risk is inherently personal in nature and varies greatly between individuals, organizations, and businesses. For this reason, risk can be a divisive topic. What one person or group deems as an acceptable or “safe” behavior, another will judge as “dangerous” or too risky. The one thing that most of us can agree on is that risks are all around us, regardless of the setting.

The modern work environment is no different. The American economy has shifted since the mid-20th century from a focus on manufacturing to one based on the service industry. In response, a substantially greater number of workers can be found in office buildings compared to factories. New technologies, such as nanomaterial-enabled products and processes, are found in every industrial sector alongside traditional hazards, such as noise and lead. As the work environment continues to change, are we prepared to address the challenges that these potential risk factors represent for both workers and their employers?  RISK AND INDUSTRIAL HYGIENE  Analyzing and controlling risk in the work environment have long been recognized as core competencies for industrial hygienists. Whether we are discussing a specific hazard (chemical, noise, radiation) or topic (product stewardship, cumulative risk assessment, hazard banding), risk is at the center of the conversation. During these discussions, we often ask: 
  • Is there a universal definition of risk that we should be applying? If so, what is it? 
  • Should occupational risk assessments focus on characterizing exposures or managing hazards?
  • How do we communicate risks to our intended stakeholders? 
  • As industrial hygienists, are we exposure assessors or risk assessors?
The responses to these questions are often diverse, separating us into different camps based on our experiences, areas of focus, and opinions. Regardless of how you personally answer these questions, the importance of risk to the profession of industrial hygiene cannot be denied.  AIHA is actively engaged in integrating the topic of risk into our profession. Several risk-based initiatives are currently underway, such as the Risk Body of Knowledge and efforts to demonstrate the value of industrial hygiene as a component of enterprise risk management. These initiatives demonstrate not only that our understanding of risk is expanding beyond traditional risk assessment approaches but that the roles of industrial hygiene professionals are changing. Risk in the workplace is no longer being defined by occupational exposure limits or the application of the hierarchy of controls as the standard for risk management. Instead, our profession is expanding into new areas of expertise, and we are becoming more reliant on increasing our understanding of risk to meet these new challenges. RISK BEYOND THE WORK ENVIRONMENT Health professionals in allied fields, such as environmental health and public health, are expanding the knowledge and application of the risk sciences. Through their efforts, we are gaining an increased awareness of the scientific basis of, and novel approaches to, risk assessment. Over the last forty years, the field of risk science, which includes risk analysis, assessment, and management, has grown dramatically and is recognized as a critical tool for addressing complex public and environmental health issues. Numerous organizations, such as the National Academy of Sciences, EPA, and the World Health Organization, have developed different components of the risk sciences. Some of the publications that have shaped our understanding of the risk sciences are listed below.  For example, the NAS “Red Book” published in 1984 first outlined the risk assessment and management paradigm that serves as the basis for other approaches, such as those from EPA and WHO. The NAS “Silver Book” expands on the original paradigm and incorporates new elements intended to improve the risk analysis process such as problem formulation and scoping, risk-based decision making, and cumulative risk assessment. Although these efforts may have been created for public and environmental health purposes, the principles and concepts they present help readers understand risk in the work environment and serve as the basis of occupational risk analysis.

G. SCOTT DOTSON, CIH, is managing health scientist at Cardno ChemRisk in Cincinnati, Ohio, and chair of AIHA’s Risk Committee. He can be reached via email.