A 'safe' career choice: Industrial hygienists use science to reduce risks

When Holly Geiger Zimmerman of Alaska Airlines thinks of mold, she thinks of Frank Riordan.

The airline's director of occupational and operational safety also thinks of Riordan and Seattle-based A.R.C.H. Consulting Group partner Cynthia Cozza when Alaska Airlines wants to measure the risk of everything from excessive noise and chemicals to dangerous "ergonomic" physical movements.

Armed with an arsenal of scientific gadgets and gauges, Riordan is one of the country's 12,500 certified industrial hygienists (about 400 in the Pacific Northwest) — health-and-safety professionals whose detection skills are the front line of defense against physical, chemical and biological agents in workplaces, schools and homes.

"There are some differences in what they call themselves. Most people think of them as occupational or environmental health and safety workers, but the bottom line is they keep workers alive on the job and keep communities safe," said Julie Holland, spokeswoman for the American Industrial Hygiene Association.

While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports nearly 35,000 occupational health-and-safety specialists or technicians working in this country, only about one-third of these workers are the higher-skilled certified industrial hygienists. Certification requires a college degree in engineering, biology, chemistry, biochemistry or microbiology plus at least five years of full-time work in the occupational health-and-safety field. About 62 percent have master's degrees, as well.

A hybrid that melds science and business, certified industrial-hygiene jobs are expected to grow about as fast as the general employment base at least through 2010, according to labor forecasts.

About half of these experts work for large companies; many of the rest work as consultants, for government agencies, for insurance firms or in research.

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It's a field, Holland adds, ripe for science-minded students.

"We're looking for young people ... because about two-thirds of our work force are people in their 40s or older. About 75 percent are male," she says. "It can be very interesting work and it's not just sitting at a desk all day."

Riordan can attest to that.

One day, he says, he and his partner may be climbing atop a business roof and crawling into ventilation systems to take air samples for testing. A few days later, they'll be writing a report that defines the ventilation problem, advising a client on how best to improve air quality.

In the past couple of months, Riordan and Cozza have tested aircraft drinking water, ammonia in the air of one Eastside high-tech firm and diesel-exhaust fumes in a truck yard, and assessed a handful of toxic mold concerns.

"Our work changes every day," he says. "There are new things all the time."

Most recently, pesky mold problems have garnered attention around the country and some 9,000 toxic-mold lawsuits were filed in the United States and Canada over the past decade.

While mold — linked to allergies, asthma and other possible illnesses — continues to attract headlines, other potential dangers create threats for industrial hygienists to investigate, Riordan says. Locally, industrial-hygiene work involving ergonomics will heat up during the next two years as the state phases in new regulations requiring companies to design, adopt and begin enforcing an ergonomics plan.

"The bottom line is you have to gain the confidence of your client and their employees because they're the people affected," says Riordan. "They have to accept you so you have to be able to communicate — know the score of last night's game, ask about their kids or their pets. You have to gain their confidence, convince them you know your stuff because you're in their personal space."

In fact, some scientific instruments and monitors industrial hygienists use to sample and test air are attached directly to workers. Writing, Riordan adds, is another vital facet of the job, "otherwise you remain a technician because you can't generate a report."

"A company loses money if it takes you too long to write or if the report doesn't make sense. If you can't translate science into English then no one reads the report. It has to be accessible to people so they can understand why they have a problem and so they can understand what needs fixing. It has to spell out facts that back up any conclusion or recommendations."

Many occupational health-and-safety specialists work in the field for years before they attempt to pass the national test for certified industrial hygienists. Before taking the one-day exam, applicants must prove they have a science- or math-related degree and have performed a broad amount of tasks while working full time in the field for at least five years.

Only one-third of test takers pass the exam. Once certified, industrial hygienists must take continuing-education courses and re-certify every five years.

With certification, industrial hygienists bump to the top of the salary ladder among occupational health-and-safety specialists, where the most make about $32,000 to nearly $55,000 a year. Certified industrial hygienists can earn more than $67,000 a year.

"I like this work because I don't have many bad days," says Riordan. " I don't like routine and as a consultant you see a variety of work."

The downside, he says, is that after identifying a problem and recommending a fix, certified industrial hygienists often "don't see the final product. You're there to make a recommendation, but not to implement it."

Mixing science, safety

Job title: Certified industrial hygienist

Pay: Roughly $55,000 to more than $67,000 a year.

For more information:

On industrial-hygiene careers, call or write the American Industrial Hygiene Association. Request AIHA CareerWorks brochure; 703-849-8888; 2700 Prosperity Ave., Suite 250, Fairfax, VA 22031.

• On the Certified Industrial Hygiene credential, contact: American Board of Industrial Hygiene, 6015 West St. Joseph, Suite 102, Lansing, MI 48917 or: