KAY BECHTOLD is assistant editor of The Synergist. She can be reached at or (703) 846-0737.
Finding Fertile Ground AIHA Past President Sees Risk Management as Part of IH’s Future BY KAY BECHTOLD, ASSISTANT EDITOR, THE SYNERGIST
Editor’s note: The individuals featured in this series were selected from responses to a survey that AIHA conducted in 2014. For background, see "The IH Hero Gap" in the January 2015 issue. Jim Thornton graduated with a degree in aerospace engineering in 1969, just in time for the burgeoning space program to bottom out. “It was booming, and then, six months later, priorities shifted and we had rocket scientists literally pumping gas,” Thornton says. He graduated from Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., only about 200 miles away from Huntsville, Ala., where a heavy concentration of rocket scientists made their living at the Marshall Space Flight Center, located on the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal. Unable to find a job in his chosen field, Thornton found work doing “a little bit of everything” as an engineering associate in Muscle Shoals, Ala., for Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a federally owned corporation that provides electricity generation, fertilizer manufacturing, and a number of other industrial operations. THE ROAD TO IH After about a year, Thornton was ready to move up. TVA management liked to promote from within, and Thornton was the first one in each Monday when the new job postings came out. One morning he saw an opening for an industrial hygiene technician. He had no idea what that meant—some kind of disinfecting job?—but as he read on, he became intrigued. He decided to throw his hat in the ring, went in for the interview, and ultimately got the job.
“We’re seeing a lot of maladies out there in the world today—buildings collapsing, boats capsizing, and people being exposed to various agents and becoming sick, injured, or killed,” Thornton says. “There’s even a greater need for IHs now, and I’m wondering if we are creating sufficient talent and leadership to address those issues.”
Thornton worked for about another year before going back to graduate school at Texas A&M University to earn his master’s degree in industrial hygiene. He returned to TVA a junior industrial hygienist, where he built a background in the field by working on TVA’s variety of operations. “They did some tunneling projects associated with hydroelectric power, so I even worked underground doing some sampling,” he recalls. “They would blast a hole right through rock and I would go in, take samples, and make sure it was safe for people to come in. I was the canary—but I was appreciative and learned a lot.” But when TVA began planning to move Thornton’s office to Chattanooga, Tenn., he decided to see what else was out there. He joined the operations analysis division of the Research Triangle Institute in Raleigh, N.C., where he directed contract research programs for OSHA, NIOSH, and others. At the time, NIOSH was developing criteria documents on hazards such as asbestos, carbon monoxide, and cotton dust. Part of Thornton’s duties involved him in the evaluation of occupational health statistics regarding chemical hazard exposures and biological agents for the agency. But being the hands-on, “field guy” he is, he quickly grew tired of research and literature reviews. One Sunday in 1976, he saw an ad in the local newspaper for an industrial hygienist at the shipyard in Newport News, Va. “I got the job, started as an IH, and the rest is history,” he says.
39 YEARS OF SHIPS For much of the course of 39 years, Thornton has been the Director of EH&S at Newport News Shipbuilding, a Division of Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII) and the largest private nuclear shipyard in the U.S. with approximately 550 acres of manufacturing and construction facilities. He maintains that there’s “no better industry” for industrial hygienists to fine-tune their skills, citing the many hazards associated with the construction and repair of ships. Shipyards harbor chemical hazards such as heavy metals, paints and solvents, as well as physical hazards such as temperature extremes, confined spaces, radiation, and noise. Biological hazards, including communicable diseases, are also a concern. Thornton’s “ultimate job” in industrial hygiene allows him to step right out of his office and into the field, where he can walk up to any employee and have a conversation. And his team doesn’t have any trouble getting things done: the lack of bureaucracy at the shipyard means that once they identify a change necessary to protect workers, they can put it in place and receive instant feedback on its effectiveness. Thornton’s career at the shipyard hasn’t taken any sharp turns; he’s only gotten more deeply involved in certain aspects of the business. Early on, he worked out of the shipyard’s occupational health clinic alongside a medical physician who taught him about the effects of chemicals on people. The physician showed Thornton X-rays and explained the appearance of siderosis, an environmental disease of the lung often caused by exposure to iron oxide present in welding material, versus evidence of asbestosis. “He’d also teach me about dermatological conditions, skin rashes,” Thornton says. “We would get in new product lines where we used different chemicals and materials, and we’d see the effects of those. Then we’d go out and design programs to eliminate them.” For the last several months, Thornton has been busy in an additional role, directing the design, construction, and operation of two major employee and dependent family health centers and wellness initiatives for HII. One center will be located in Pascagoula, Miss., near a different facility, and the other is being built in Newport News. Health and wellness centers like these are a growing trend among medium- and larger-sized companies that see the opportunity to ensure that people take care of themselves and are able to enjoy a long, productive retirement, Thornton says. The company has approximately 60,000 covered lives, including employees and their dependents. Employers are learning that the home environment can have a sizable effect on the work environment. When workers go home, they’re still employees, and if they have a bad habit like smoking or don’t exercise regularly, employers often end up paying for their workers’ poor health choices through benefits programs. And sometimes the price is higher than that: worker safety can take a hit.
James R. Thornton, CIH, CSP
Until recently, health and safety professionals have had to adjust their protections to workers’ varying conditions, which can include varying states of malnutrition or simply being out of shape. Workers in poor health are more prone to accidents or to potentially develop occupational illnesses because their immune system is in a weakened state. Thornton sees health and wellness initiatives as the next frontier of occupational health and safety as IHs and other professionals continue working to protect and improve worker health. MOVING THE NEEDLE For all his years in shipbuilding, Thornton has spent even more time in the industrial and occupational hygiene profession and as a member of AIHA. July marked his 41st year of membership in the association, and he has held numerous leadership roles over the years. He was president of the Tidewater Local Section in 1982, and served for many years on the AIHA Board of Directors—first as a director, then in the different leadership positions to become president of AIHA national in 1999. Thornton also served as president of the American Academy of Industrial Hygiene in 2005. “I’ve always felt an obligation to give back to that which has been good to me,” Thornton says. “And the industrial hygiene profession has been very good to me.” During his time on the AIHA Board, Thornton was interested in “moving the needle” for how the industrial hygiene profession was perceived. Industrial hygiene, often thought of as a technical, even “geeky” profession, needed increased awareness among employers and the public. “It’s always been a valuable profession; I just don’t know that we’ve done a good job of revealing or communicating that,” Thornton says. Industrial hygienists anticipate, recognize, evaluate, and control hazards in the workplace, and Thornton believes it’s the anticipation aspect of that risk management decision-making framework that sets IHs apart. “We can look around the corner or over the next hill and say, ‘Hey, this is an emerging issue and we’re seeing higher levels of risk. Let’s do something about it,’” he says. Thornton and his Board also worked to increase the value of certification by promoting the Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) credential and educating employers and others about the importance of having credentialed professionals in the workplace. But the challenge extended beyond communicating the value of the profession; industrial hygiene was in need of a higher profile, period. “The old joke was if you went to a cocktail party and someone asked what you did, it was very difficult for an IH to tell people what they do,” Thornton says. “So that was my vision, to not only increase the perceived value of the profession, but to make sure that it was known.” Thornton helped lead communications campaigns with the Board and AIHA staff that featured articles on various facets of industrial hygiene in a variety of publications to help educate the public and employers about the role of the industrial hygienist. It was important for industrial hygienists to be able to tell someone about their job in a way that communicates its value, and it was even more vital to be able to do that succinctly. So what’s Thornton’s “elevator speech”? “I protect people from the health hazards that they work with on the job,” he says. “And when they ask, ‘Like what?’ I use familiar examples of workplace hazards like asbestos or chemicals.” Thornton is still active in numerous professional and trade associations, including the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) and the Virginia Self-Insurers Association. He also spends much of his time on technical and professional committees, and he currently serves as chair of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce Workers Compensation Committee; chair of ASSE’s Government Affairs Committee; and chair of OSHA’s Maritime Advisory Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. Thornton recently finished a stint as president of his local chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). Previously he taught at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., and Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, Va. Involvement in professional and trade organizations not only strengthens the profession; it also sharpens individuals’ leadership and communication skills. “At the end of the day, industrial hygiene is about people, and you need great people skills,” Thornton says. “The newest ideas are brought to professional and trade organizations, and being involved keeps you current. It also teaches you how to market: in industrial hygiene, it’s one thing to get the samples and the results, but it’s another to take that and be able to sell an idea or a need for the employer to do something with those results.” ENSURING GROWTH Thornton has watched industrial hygiene move away from older sampling methods that required days to see results. But even in the age of direct-reading instruments and nearly instantaneous sampling results, IHs continue to discuss communication as it relates to the future of the profession. Like other veteran industrial hygienists, Thornton is concerned about how industrial hygiene will fare in coming years. “We’re seeing a lot of maladies out there in the world today—buildings collapsing, boats capsizing, and people being exposed to various agents and becoming sick, injured, or killed,” Thornton says. “There’s even a greater need for IHs now, and I’m wondering if we are creating sufficient talent and leadership to address those issues.” Thornton believes the fertile ground of industrial hygiene’s future lies in risk management, and he wants to see IHs continue to “push the envelope” of that aspect of professional practice. He explains that risks are often assessed in “stovepipe” fashion: industrial hygienists look at chemical, physical, and biological hazards, while safety engineers look at hazards from another angle. Environmental engineers examine hazards through yet another lens. “I believe there is a place for a discipline called ‘risk management’ that looks at the comprehensive risks of an organization, an employer, a municipality, or another entity,” Thornton says. “I think there’s room for the emergence of some consolidation of these risks into perhaps a larger and more singular discipline.” AIHA has recognized Thornton’s contributions to the profession and the association on multiple occasions. In 2003, he received the Distinguished Service Award for his service to the advancement of industrial hygiene. And in 2012, his contributions to the improvement of the public’s welfare earned him the Henry F. Smyth, Jr. Award, which was established in the name of the dedicated teacher and researcher whose projects enhanced the profession. During his Smyth Award Lecture at the 2012 AIHA Fall Conference, Thornton issued a challenge to attendees to think about the future for IH. “Do we really know who we are yet?” he asked. “Are we making a difference for people— sending them home healthier? I submit to you that we have a responsibility to make sure that people are really healthy before they come to the workplace.”
JIM THORNTON, THOUGHT LEADER Jim Thornton was featured in AIHA’s “Thought Leaders” video series, which was launched in January 2013 as part of the association’s 75th anniversary celebration. The series highlights snapshots of a profession and an association constantly adjusting to new challenges, new occupational hazards, and new technologies for protecting workers. In the short video, Thornton discusses his beginnings in industrial hygiene and talks about the future of the profession:
DURING DOWNTIME On the weekends, Thornton can be found in an old pair of jeans, a sweatshirt, and a John Deere hat, getting his hands dirty while gardening and landscaping. And if you’re lucky, you might find him singing karaoke.
Opposition to the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam was part of my motivation to move from chemistry to toxicology, and the insecticide parathion was part of my post-doctoral project. And I claim expertise (or at least experience) in this process by serving on two IARC working groups, and on National Toxicology Program (NTP) peer review groups for bioassay reports, the criteria for evaluating those bioassay reports, and the Report on Carcinogens (ROC).
- Frank Mirer
IARC Monographs Volumes 112 and 113 address insecticides and herbicides. They classify lindane as known to be carcinogenic to humans (Group 1); DDT, malathion, and diazinphos as probably carcinogenic (Group 2A); and 2,4-D, tetrachlorvinphos and parathion as possibly carcinogenic (Group 2B). Although few IHs work in agriculture, we are likely to get questions about pesticide use in homes and, regarding glyphosate, on our lawns.
- Frank Mirer
Editor's note: California followed suit in September, announcing its intention to list glyphosate as a carcinogen under Proposition 65.