A Holistic Approach to Occupational Safety and Health

Supervisor and worker talking in factory

Comprehensive Industrial Hygiene: Fundamentals for Health and Safety Professionals is a five-day program that has existed—in one form or another—for over 50 years, explains Louis J. DiBerardinis, M.S., Program Co-Director and instructor in industrial hygiene in the department of Environmental Health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The program, intended for those who are responsible for industrial hygiene or manage the health and safety function, teaches participants how to “anticipate, evaluate, prevent, and control” workplace hazards, ultimately helping protect people, improving safety, and increasing productivity; after all, work-related injury and illness significantly impact productivity and profit.

Learning From Harvard Faculty and Industry Experts

DiBerardinis has co-directed the executive education course with John M. Price, Ph.D., a retired instructor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Northeastern University Departments of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, for about 10 years. But he will be the first to tell you that it’s not just them whom class participants learn from.

“We bring in a lot of experts, for lack of a better word, or professionals in other areas—faculty members or practicing professionals,” DiBerardinis says. “Most have been in this business for decades.”

Guest lecturers are a part of an overarching strategy of the entire course that feeds into, what DiBerardinis calls, a “holistic approach” to occupational health and safety.

The Four Cornerstones of Occupational Safety and Health

“In occupational safety and health, we use the terms ‘anticipation, recognition, evaluation, and control’; they’re the four cornerstones of occupational health and safety,” he explains.

After all, just as is true in the field of medicine, you don’t want to wait until people are sick or get injured at work to problem-solve. “The crux of the whole occupational health and safety field is to prevent injuries and illnesses.”

The field of occupational safety and health is also large and complex; some 30,000+ chemicals have known toxicological effects (and of those, only about 1,000 have safety standards or regulations), he explains. So anticipation, recognition, evaluation, and control—plus ensuring you’re getting the best available information—are all keys to a safe and healthy workplace.

Here’s what these four cornerstones of occupational safety and health may look like, broadly, in a workplace setting:

  • Anticipation: having an overall sense of what the workplace looks like and what the hazards might be
  • Recognition: doing research to recognize what hazards exist (“they’re using chemical X, and that is a problem at certain concentrations,” for example)
  • Evaluation: taking air samples, exposure assessments, or measurements in a workplace and comparing them to regulatory limits or safety standards
  • Control: figuring out how to control issues; this might look like implementing a specific ventilation system, for example

A Comprehensive Outlook on Safety and Health

Some courses or instructors in occupational safety and health may hone in on just one of these elements, DiBerardinis explains. Comprehensive Industrial Hygiene teaches all of them, incorporating different esteemed professionals as guest lecturers throughout. Lecturers may specialize in one of the particular cornerstones. Physicians or toxicologists, for example, may lecture about the health effects of various chemical compounds (anticipation and recognition). Those who execute exposure assessments for a living (exposure) speak to their work. Those who build ventilation systems (control) lecture on various aspects of controlling environments.

Other course speakers include those who specialize in big-picture health and occupational safety issues such as radiation hazards, noise, or ergonomics and can speak holistically to anticipation, recognition, evaluation, and control.

Course speakers also include those who work in a variety of different professional settings where workplace hazards are particularly important, such as hospitals.

Anticipation, recognition, evaluation, and control—plus ensuring you’re getting the best available information—are all keys to a safe and healthy workplace

The Ever-Changing Occupational Safety and Health Landscape

“A 50-year history means that the course has been built upon and adjusted over the years to reflect important changes in the workplace, the environment, and the regulatory agenda,” reminds DiBerardinis. After all, occupational safety and health is an ever-changing field.

Today, technology has changed many aspects of the way evaluations are done, for example. DiBerardinis notes that when he first started in the field, in order to measure carbon dioxide levels, he had to collect a sample in a plastic bag, bring it back to the lab, and run it through a machine that wasn’t portable. Handheld machines and battery-operated carbon monoxide detectors now measure the chemical directly.

Yet while keeping up with evolving technologies is certainly a critical part of the field, so is sorting through a seemingly endless amount of information that’s more available and accessible than ever. “One of the things I say, when I lecture, is, ‘You have to be careful; there’s too much stuff out there.’ You have to make sure what you’re looking at is reliable,” DiBerardinis says.

The Importance of Reliable Resources and Peer Learning

Learning about established and trusted resources such as the Society of Toxicology, regulatory agencies, and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health is important. All of this comes together with another aspect of this all-encompassing approach: real-time learning and communication, too.

“One of the things we stress in the course is the power of the exchanges that happen and the ability to informally interact with faculty and also with other students,” says DiBerardinis. “The key to all of this is to understand that there’s a whole process and a holistic approach that you have to go through from beginning to end to solve a problem.”

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Executive and Continuing Education offers Comprehensive Industrial Hygiene: Fundamentals for Health and Safety Professionals, an online program designed to help you protect employees from workplace health hazards, improve employee safety, and increase productivity.