All the World’s a Stage
AIHA Hosts Successful International Conference
By Kay Bechtold and Ed Rutkowski
In September, AIHA hosted the International Scientific Conference of the International Occupational Hygiene Association. It was the first time IOHA’s flagship event was held in the United States. More than 500 attendees representing 36 countries attended the conference in Washington, D.C. Below are highlights from a few of the conference’s 57 educational sessions. For more coverage of IOHA 2018, visit AIHA's website. OHS AS SOCIAL JUSTICE At the keynote address on Sept. 24, Nancy Leppink, a minister with the International Labor Organization, called on occupational health and safety professionals to be instruments of social justice. Throughout its history, the ILO has promoted social justice by calling for the abolition of child labor and setting hundreds of workplace standards. Over several decades, the ILO’s successes in helping establish workplace health and safety laws in developing nations contributed to uneven but measurable progress. But the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,100 workers, was a horrifying reminder that many parts of the world still lacked basic workplace protections. “Rana Plaza is an example of a globalization train wreck,” Leppink said.
The tragedy resulted in part from lax enforcement of building safety codes. In Rana Plaza’s aftermath labor rights organizations drew attention to the role of incentives within global supply chains, which too often inhibit, rather than encourage, workplace protections. In 2015, the ILO launched a program called the Vision Zero Fund to focus on those incentives. “There are many influences in the context of global supply chains that can drive change in occupational safety and health,” Leppink told IOHA attendees. She described an ILO study of a plantation in the developing world where workers often brought family members, including children, to work alongside them, exposing them to the same work-related hazards. ILO personnel discovered that the practice was driven by bonuses offered by the plantation owner, who was himself motivated by production-related incentives within the supply chain. Protecting workers in this context requires reorienting layers of incentives toward safety and health in addition to profit. To prevent tragedies like Rana Plaza, Leppink said, occupational health and safety professionals need to do  To prevent tragedies like Rana Plaza, Leppink said, occupational health and safety professionals need to do more than simply work for change from within their own companies. “For some time, we’ve thought we need to make the business case for OSH,” Leppink said, but Rana Plaza shows that the business case “quickly evaporates in times of crisis. In the end, I believe we must simply have the courage to stand up for it—to stand up for social justice, and to demand that courage from our leaders.”
MEASURING MENTAL FATIGUE Rustin Reed has seen firsthand how certain jobs can be both mentally and physically straining. When he worked in the mining industry, he knew employees who commuted by motorcycle from one to two hours away, worked 12-hour shifts driving haul trucks, and then drove themselves home. Now an assistant professor of safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., Reed helps develop approaches for monitoring worker fatigue. He shared some of his experiences in a session on real-time exposure measurement on Sept. 25. Reed’s presentation focused on real-time monitoring, which can be used to predict worker fatigue and prevent fatigue-related events such as industrial accidents. Research has demonstrated that fatigue can be measured by changes in the power of the alpha, theta, gamma, and delta bands of an electroencephalogram, or EEG, which records electrical activity of the brain. Reed described a small pilot study conducted at a mine in South America that sought to determine whether he and his team could accurately estimate workers’ fatigue using external physiology alone. Study participants wore a BioHarness—a monitor and strap attached around the chest—that tracked 14 physiological measures, including heart rate, respiration rate, and an electrocardiogram estimate. They also wore a device called a SmartCap, a headband that measures EEG on five channels. Reed explained that the device produces a fatigue score on the Oxford sleep resistance scale and provides real-time feedback, alerting individuals who score higher on the scale.  Reed and his team saw some improvement throughout the study. “We think simply by providing real-time feedback to these workers, they took steps and found ways to reduce their own [fatigue] scores,” Reed said. “It’s not a huge improvement, but I think it speaks to the power of real-time feedback for someone to adjust behaviors.” GAME-PLANNING EMERGENCIES For industrial operations, emergency preparedness often involves imagining worst-case scenarios in intricate detail. To help accomplish this task, some industrial operations are turning to a modeling technique called Computational Fluid Dynamics, or CFD. On Sept. 24, presenters from an industrial hygiene consulting firm introduced IOHA attendees to CFD and demonstrated some of its applications. A CFD model is a “mesh” of calculations that “wraps around” a virtual rendering of a three-dimensional space, said presenter Cassidy Strode, an industrial hygienist and CFD specialist at Chemistry & Industrial Hygiene in Wheatridge, Colo. The calculations are performed on a grid; a single room could be divided into millions of specific locations. Using CFD requires specialized software programs, some of which can be very expensive. The software can accommodate a multitude of variables. “The more complex the situation, the more data points you need” to develop a useful model, Strode said. One of the more complicated applications of CFD is modeling the dispersion of contaminants from an explosion. Strode described working on a CFD model for a wastewater treatment plant whose emergency planners needed to consider the potential effects of an accidental release of chlorine gas, which can cause severe health effects, including death by asphyxiation. Through CFD, Strode modeled the client’s worst-case scenario: the explosion of a one-ton chlorine gas cylinder. The CFD model demonstrated the likely coverage and direction of the gas plume. Differences in temperature and wind speed, which could drastically change the plume’s direction, were among the variables emergency planners could take into account when preparing for the unthinkable. Other uses of CFD are less dramatic but no less practical and have potential applications in several industries. Strode’s co-presenter, Daniel Hall, the head of engineering at Chemistry & Industrial Hygiene, said that an offshore oil platform concerned about production of diesel exhaust could use CFD to model the likely effects of redesigning the platform’s exhaust stacks, while a site that fabricates semiconductors could use CFD to understand the likely effects of an arsine leak. For all its promise, CFD, like all tools, has limitations. CFD software is exceedingly complex and requires expertise to use correctly; for that reason, the software is not often recommended within the industrial hygiene community, Hall said. He also cautioned that industrial hygienists need to keep in mind that modeling is not an exact representation of the real world. “One of the things we have to remember is that all models are wrong,” Hall said, paraphrasing an aphorism from the field of statistics. “But some of them are useful.” ADDRESSING GAPS IN OCCUPATIONAL HYGIENE CAPACITY  More than two billion workers lack basic access to occupational safety, health, and hygiene professionals, said Lydia Renton at an IOHA session on Sept. 24. Renton, who is a board member of Workplace Health Without Borders, and her co-presenters highlighted opportunities for volunteers to support occupational hygiene efforts around the world, especially in economically developing countries.  “Volunteering is one of the greatest forms of professional development,” Renton said. “We need more of you to help and participate in whatever way you can.” Steven Thygerson, an associate professor in the Department of Public Health at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, touted WHWB’s ability to match occupational health and safety professionals with volunteer opportunities abroad. Thygerson traveled to Nepal in 2016 under a Fulbright Specialist grant to analyze occupational hazards in the brick kiln industry and train instructors in the occupational health program. Earlier this year, Thygerson helped teach a one-time occupational safety and health foundations class in partnership with Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique. Thygerson said these international projects underscore the need for more funding in these areas, especially from multinational companies.  Thomas P. Fuller, AIHA’s representative to IOHA, discussed broader global needs related to occupational hygiene, including increased marketing of the profession. Expanding training and education programs is important to educate the public about occupational hygiene, Fuller said. “A six-year-old can tell you what a nurse does, but can’t tell you what an occupational hygienist is,” Fuller said.  One of WHWB’s core goals—which it shares with organizations like the Occupational Hygiene Training Association and AIHA’s International Affairs Committee—is to develop occupational hygiene capacity in economically developing countries. Many of these countries have extreme shortages in OHS training and education—a significant problem that’s getting worse, Fuller told attendees.  “We’re transferring our hazardous industries” to these areas, Fuller said. “They end up using our older hazardous equipment and systems, and on top of that they’re less experienced and tend to be younger workers.” THE PROBLEM OF CHILD GOLD MINING The price of gold is approximately $1,200 an ounce. This high value has dark consequences: the trickle-down effects of monetary incentives on artisanal gold miners in the developing world, where children often work in dangerous and unhealthy conditions. “The value of gold is so high today that it’s driving these small gold mining operations in many parts of the world,” said David Goldsmith, who spoke about the hazards of gold mining and its effects on children on Sept. 25. “It’s a way for many people from rural areas to support their families.” Approximately 1 million children younger than 16 work as gold miners throughout the world, Goldsmith said. These children suffer from overexertion, lung ailments, skin lesions, headaches, joint problems, hearing and vision loss, and other health problems. Goldsmith, a professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., based his presentation in part on his observations of children mining gold during a recent trip to the Philippines funded by the Fulbright Specialist Program. In the Philippines, Goldsmith said, children spend many hours a day diving in water and returning to the surface with bags of ore, which is dumped into buckets and dried to obtain gold. A Human Rights Watch feature on the Philippine artisanal mining industry in 2015 describes the use of children to process ore with mercury, a highly toxic metal. “Exposure to mercury fumes is a serious cause of neurological issues,” Goldsmith said. “It has a lifelong potential to damage pediatric brains and be a serious threat to learning capabilities.” The problem extends far beyond the Philippines. In Africa, children between the ages of 8 and 16 are used in dryland gold mining, Goldsmith said. In 2010, the Ministry of Health in Nigeria formed an international team of health experts to investigate reports of widespread child lead poisoning in the state of Zamfara. More than 100 children died of acute lead poisoning between March and June 2010. Investigators determined that the children were exposed to unsafe amounts of lead while mining gold. The problem of child gold mining resists easy solutions. The mining sites are small and therefore difficult to regulate, and simply outlawing child labor in gold mines won’t address the core problem of poverty, Goldsmith said.  His most immediate concern is to get more occupational health and safety professionals involved. “It’s dreadful that we have kids mining these things,” he said.    KAY BECHTOLD is senior editor of The Synergist. She can be reached via email.
ED RUTKOWSKI is editor-in-chief of The Synergist. He can be reached via email. Send feedback to The Synergist. metamorworks/Getty Images
Nancy Leppink of the International Labor Organization delivered the keynote address at IOHA 2018.