KATHERINE MARTIN is a senior scientist, asbestos subject matter expert, and support lead for the industrial hygiene department at the Nevada National Security Site. She is also past chair of AIHA’s Student and Early Career Professionals Committee.
MARGRETTA MURPHY, CSP, CIH, CSO, is a safety manager at SEAM Group, the chair of AIHA’s Student and Early Career Professionals Committee, and part of the Future Leaders Institute Class of 2022.
SEURI TARURU, CIH, is the manager of the industrial hygiene department and the beryllium subject matter expert at the Nevada National Security Site.
This work was done by Mission Support and Test Services LLC under Contract No. DE-NA0003624 with the U.S. Department of Energy. DOE/NV/03624—1507
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How “Professional” Is Professional Judgment?
Professional judgment is a common and somewhat nebulous term used in the occupational and environmental health and safety field. The use of professional judgment is a fundamental aspect of OEHS professionals’ work, especially when we must make far-reaching decisions with limited data and resources. When asked what professional judgment means, however, one early-career OEHS professional responded that the term is used by professionals who make decisions about health and safety issues based on limited evidence and mainly on prior experience. This answer simplifies an intricate, widely-debated professional challenge: we recognize that it is impossible for us as individuals to measure and sample everything, everywhere. Therefore, we rely on our professional judgment to fill in gaps in our data. However, without documented assessments that utilize sound, recognized, quantitative or qualitative resources and references, professional judgment may lead us to unfortunate results such as litigation, harm to employees, and loss of trust.
Using a framework inspired by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s definition, professional judgment may be characterized as agreeing with a profession’s technical or ethical standards while exhibiting courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike conduct at work. Following the high standards set forth by the American Board of Industrial Hygiene (ABIH), AIHA, and other accreditation bodies, many OEHS professionals exhibit a high level of ethical behavior and integrity. Judgment can also be described as either a process of forming an opinion through discernment and comparison or a formal announcement of an authoritative opinion. The first kind of judgment implies that some specific evaluation has taken place, while the second indicates that an authoritative opinion could be considered judgment by itself. This is cause for concern in our profession. An authoritative opinion may be effective in other professions and skill sets, such as leadership, but it is not adequate when using the hierarchy of controls to prescribe health and safety solutions.
When we make decisions using professional judgment, the outcome is not always what we expect. There have been many cases where OEHS professionals’ judgment has turned out to be incorrect.
THE NEED FOR DOCUMENTATION OEHS professionals live by the five fundamental concepts of anticipating, recognizing, evaluating, and controlling hazards, and confirming protection from risks. These concepts include the expectation that we anticipate potential hazards in the workplace and routine activities, even those that may seem innocuous. However, our recommendations and prescribed controls can be faulty if they are not accompanied by thorough evaluations or assessments that include supporting data.
Often, professionals recognize hazards, but their evaluations are based almost solely on past experiences instead of current conditions and information. Evaluations such as these, which are based on professional judgment, may be performed mentally, within a single professional’s own thought process, or verbally, in conversation between OEHS team members, employers, or workers. These evaluations may be inadequate—for example, by failing to account for peer review. Mental and verbal evaluations are problematic for professionals and employers as they lack documentation and sound judgment.
In some cases, professional judgment can be a tool for dealing with hazards being recognized for the first time and for which no regulatory, consensus, or research data is available. Many instances of this occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic response. For OEHS professionals working in fields unrelated to healthcare, the pandemic was a new challenge that required significant use of professional judgment to protect employees from a hazard that was poorly understood, at a time when relatively few resources were available to use against it. But the pandemic has also highlighted the necessity for thoroughly documented decisions vetted by other OEHS professionals. Feedback within the profession was necessary to answer questions such as: is any face covering sufficient for craft personnel working indoors or do they need a higher level of protection? Do face coverings add a significant heat stress burden to employees working outdoors, and how can OEHS professionals predict ideal work-rest cycles and take other proactive measures to protect these workers? Is the ventilation in a classroom or workplace sufficient to protect those within it, and are the filters sufficient to remove contaminants from the air?
Not all OEHS professionals agree on the exposure assessment or recommended controls for the same hazard, but by documenting the decision-making process, it is easier to adjust OEHS determinations and the reasoning behind them as more knowledge is obtained and information evolves.
When we make decisions using professional judgment, the outcome is not always what we expect.
Regulatory standards require initial or negative exposure assessments to be completed and documented. But how many OEHS professionals have initial exposure assessments documented for all recognized or identified activities in their areas of responsibility? A decision without documentation is a potential liability. From a legal standpoint, employers cannot prove that they did their due diligence to protect their employees from harm if there are no documented exposure assessments and no evidence that evaluations ever occurred. In these cases, employers must bring in other professionals to offer their professional opinions—their judgment—to prove that the employers did everything correctly. Therefore, it is not enough to have exposure assessment documentation for only a few activities.
OTHER WAYS TO AUGMENT PROFESSIONAL JUDGMENT Usually, exposure assessments are completed for high-risk activities, but low- and medium-risk activities often go overlooked. This may lead to outcomes such as janitors and maintenance personnel being omitted from health and safety protocols and thus ending up at high risk for negative health effects. For example, vinyl asbestos floor (VAT) tile removal is usually classified as asbestos class II work; that is, it involves the removal of asbestos-containing material that is not in insulation or surfacing material.
However, very rarely do OEHS professionals implement asbestos controls for janitors performing routine cleaning of VAT floors. For the most part, janitors will sweep, vacuum, and mop VAT floors just as they would for normal-wear, high-traffic floor areas. Another example is related to the potential presence of heavy metals on the floor. Without measuring air and surface contamination, you may not know if janitorial staff or other workers are overexposed.
It is easy to assume that some activities have no associated health hazard concerns when we are confident that employees will not be harmed, but we must make sure that this assumption is supported by evidence, all possible sources of exposure are accounted for, and this process has been documented.
To compound the problem of overlooking risk, little to no personal exposure sampling data is taken at regular intervals to reinforce and support these professional judgment calls. For example, many OEHS professionals are of the opinion that removing one intact asbestos-containing floor tile via manual and amended water methods would not, under normal conditions, result in employee overexposure. Litigation related to asbestos exposure and related health and safety issues has been ongoing for decades; therefore, sufficient exposure assessments by various OEHS professionals have been conducted to support this assumption. However, without documentation for this assessment, the employer would not quickly or easily be able to establish proof that they had adequately evaluated the risks associated with removing an asbestos-containing floor tile.
Peer review is also a necessary, albeit sometimes difficult to source, part of the evaluation process. Without discussion between professionals who have conflicting opinions, employees would face different and likely worse health outcomes. Many free resources are available for data analysis, collection, and sharing that can serve as frameworks for sound professional judgment. AIHA’s Apps and eTools Resource Center offers free, regularly updated tools, some of which are available in multiple languages. Please note that these resources are for personal, noncommercial use only.
MOVING THE PROFESSION FORWARD Why have OEHS professionals not been documenting exposure assessments and sharing them since the beginning of the profession? Is it because these assessments come with inconvenient paperwork? Or is it because of a cultural norm asserting that OEHS professionals are full of knowledge and experiences and therefore empowered to use these as the sole basis for our assessments of what will happen to employees? If it’s because documentation is inconvenient, then it’s time for us to reevaluate our contribution to the profession. There is no excuse for not documenting our decisions when in fact it will help employers, employees, and other professionals become more efficient at evaluating hazards. If it’s because of a cultural norm that holds professional judgment to be infallible, then it is time to change that norm. There are many young professionals entering this profession who need to be guided and encouraged to do better than we are. Recently, there have been many discussions and articles written regarding this topic that indicate the need for documented exposure assessments is being more readily accepted and recognized within our profession. Now is the perfect opportunity to shift our mindset away from professional judgment and toward professional decision-making.

This article was updated on April 10, 2023, to reflect the five steps of the industrial hygiene process of anticipation, recognition, evaluation, and control of hazards, and confirmation of protection from risks.
AIHA: “Apps and eTools Resources Center.”
The Synergist: “Faulty Judgment” (November 2021).
The Synergist: “How to Improve Exposure Judgments” (December 2021).
The Synergist: “New Tools for Exposure Judgments” (April 2022).