ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – One of the advantages of working in an organization like the Defense Centers for Public Health – Aberdeen are the synergies created by having professionals from multiple disciplines working together to support service member and government civilian worker health.
A good example of this can be found in DCPH-A’s Occupational Medicine and Industrial Hygiene specialties. Members of these teams work together to understand what issues Department of Defense civilian and military staff are facing in the various workplaces, and to create ways to keep these workers safe and healthy.
DCPH-A defines occupational health as promoting excellent physical health, mental health and well-being of Department of Defense workers by monitoring employee health and identifying and eliminating or mitigating chemical, biological, physical, psychological and other workplace hazards in operational and non-deployed environments.
“As an integral member of the OH team, Occupational Medicine professionals focus on preventing and managing work-related injury, illness and disability,” said Renita Shoffner, a certified occupational health nurse specialist with DCPH-A. “Occupational Medicine also provides clinical services, including medical qualification examinations, medical surveillance examinations, and, when necessary, potential exposure evaluations and diagnosis and treatment of work-related illness and injury.”
Within the public health discipline, the industrial hygiene program plays a crucial role in promoting and maintaining a healthy and safe workplace, said Jennifer Mancini, an industrial hygienist with DCPH-A. The industrial hygiene staff often work under Preventive Medicine Services at military medical treatment facilities and provide support to all tenant organizations on an installation. Some of the larger commands, such as the Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, Army Futures Command and Army Materiel Command have their own dedicated industrial hygiene staff.
“Industrial hygienists and technicians gather workplace exposure information from onsite assessments and personal sampling, analyze the data, and compare these data to occupational exposure limits, known as OELs, and/or guidelines to determine what measures, if any, are needed to keep the workers safe,” said Mancini. “The industrial hygienist makes recommendations on the best way to control any hazards. The recommendations often include using engineering controls, such as exhaust ventilation, or personal protective equipment, such as gloves, protective suits, or respirators, to keep any exposure levels below the OELs.”
Interacting with service members provides the biggest job satisfaction for Rebecca Hughes, an industrial hygienist working in DCPH-A’s Field Services Division.
“This is especially important when you are doing field work with junior service members who might be at their first duty station, and you have an opportunity to encourage them to use safe work practices,” said Hughes.
Hughes describes one field mission she conducted at an outdoor firing range where she was monitoring for lead and other heavy metal exposures.
“The XO [Executive Officer] had come out to take photos for their end-of-day ‘good news’ story and shared that she was seven months pregnant. She asked if she was ‘safe’ from the lead exposure at the range while standing with us in our staging area,” said Hughes. “She was really concerned because she’d had a previous miscarriage and didn’t want to do anything that might harm her baby. I told her that we were there to learn what levels of lead the troops were being exposed to on the range because the ammunition had lead in the primer.”
Hughes further explained to the XO that standing where they were on the range, they were likely exposed to less lead than those on the firing range; however, there is no safe level of lead.
“These interactions really hit home on the importance of our work and the people we are striving to protect,” said Hughes.
Mancini says it’s important for the industrial hygienists and occupational medicine specialists to work together.
“When I talk about what I do, I say I’m like a workplace detective. If something is going on in the workplace, we investigate to identify the problem and share this information with our occupational medicine specialists so we can assess and control the hazard.”
Occupational medicine conducts medical surveillance based on an individual’s present exposure to specific hazards. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration mandates and enforces safety and health standards for workplace hazards, said Mancini.
The DOD OM and IH programs collaborate to ensure that DOD complies with OSHA regulatory requirements and other OELs such as those published by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists and other professional societies who constantly update their exposure limits and guidelines, said Mancini.
Industrial hygienists record workplaces, workers, hazards, and controls in the Defense Occupational and Environmental Health Readiness System – Industrial Hygiene, or DOEHRS-IH, based on quantitative and/or qualitative personal sampling in workplaces.
“The IH and OM programs work together to ensure accurate documentation of workers’ exposures and hazards in the DOEHRS-IH system,” said Shoffner. “The OM staff reviews the sampling data and recommendations provided by the IH and determines if personnel should be enrolled in medical surveillance.”
Shoffner says medical surveillance allows OH and IH to monitor individuals for adverse health effects and determine the effectiveness of exposure prevention strategies.
“Having all this information in DOEHRS-IH ensures that complete records follow each service member or employee as they [change duty stations] or take on different roles across the DOD,” said Shoffner.
The respiratory protection program at the installation level is an excellent example of OM and IH collaboration, said Mancini.
The process starts when the industrial hygienist performs an assessment and/or sampling in the workplace to determine if there are any respiratory hazards for workers. Based on the assessment, sampling results and regulatory requirements, the industrial hygienist will determine who in this group of workers needs to be in respiratory protection, also known as RP.
Next, occupational medicine clinicians will evaluate workers to determine if they are medically cleared to wear the specific type of respirator selected by the IH, said Mancini.
“After being medically cleared, and before they wear any RP, workers must be fit-tested for the specific type of RP (brand, type, size) and be trained to use and maintain their RP,” she adds.
All this information is entered into DOEHRS-IH to provide complete records for employees.
Every year, the industrial hygienist performs a workplace assessment to see if any changes in the workplace, tasks, etc., have impacted the need for RP or the type of RP needed, said Mancini. Changes in the workplace can easily be overlooked, so it’s important to have an annual update to ensure all of the hazards have been identified and controls are in place.
Occupational medicine clinic staff also perform an annual medical clearance for the workers and check in with Industrial Hygiene to make sure there aren’t any changes to the workplace or PPE, said Shoffner.
She adds, “The IH and OM programs will work together to ensure that any changes are reported, new workers in that area are put into the RP program, and workers are kept safe from these respiratory hazards.”
Together, local installation OM and IH programs work hard to ensure that everyone can complete their mission and stay safe and healthy.
“Public health is a team effort and works best when everyone is involved,” said Mancini.
OM/IH Workplace Health Resources
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