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Industrial hygienists in Puerto Rico fight to protect their role in worker safety

It’s been 15 years since worker safety advocates in Puerto Rico first began fighting against a proposal to dilute the qualifications associated with being a professional industrial hygienist. As part of their efforts, such advocates developed their own proposal to protect the livelihoods of those with the knowledge and experience to properly protect workers. And after years of work, they may finally cross the finish line victorious.

“We’re really hopeful it works out and we’ll see the light of day,” said Lida Orta-Anés, professor in the Industrial Hygiene Program at the University of Puerto Rico Graduate School of Public Health. “We feel like this is a solution that benefits everyone involved and finally gives employers a level playing field.”

The legislation that Orta-Anés is referring to would create a registry housed within the Puerto Rico Occupational Safety and Health Administration that would offer employers a list of vetted and qualified industrial hygienists. An independent committee outside of the OSHA office would review applications to participate in the registry, OSHA auditors would make the final decision on applicants’ inclusion, and employers could depend on the registry as a source for genuine industrial hygiene services.

The registry proposal recently passed through the island’s House of Representatives and is awaiting action in the Puerto Rico Senate. However, Orta-Anés noted that at the moment, everything is taking a backseat to Puerto Rico’s financial crisis, and time is running out for this year’s legislative session. So the registry may get shelved again or it can get fast-tracked by senators.

The registry idea goes back to 2001, when the island’s Society of Professionals for the Prevention of Accidents floated the idea of creating a new government-issued credential for Puerto Rico separate from the Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) credential of the American Board of Industrial Hygiene and the Certified Safety Professional (CSP) credential of the Board of Certified Safety Professionals. The new occupational safety credential would be exclusive to Puerto Rico — locally, such a credential is known as a “criolla.”

But according to Orta-Anés, the proposed credential had fairly low requirements — for example, she said someone with a high school diploma who ran a business cleaning up after floods could have qualified. Orta-Anés and colleagues saw the idea as a serious threat to worker safety and warned that it would allow unqualified individuals to practice the science of industrial hygiene. In response, she and fellow advocates proposed the OSHA registry.

“We saw the danger in bringing recognition to those who did not have the level of experience required to make a real assessment of the workplace, determine recognized hazards and know how to design controls,” she told me. “We felt it was very biased against those who had a formal education in the discipline and less rigid on those who didn’t have it.”

In 2001, the ideas went before legislative policymakers in Puerto Rico, but eventually got shelved. The issue got shelved again in 2006. But advocates are hoping this could be the year that the registry takes hold.

“They just wanted a free ride,” Orta-Anés said in reference to those who backed the local credential. “They wanted an easy way to get into a field that would give them a lot of power without the background required to make truthful and scientific workplace assessments.”

Lizmar Rodriguez, who recently received her master’s degree in industrial hygiene and represented industrial hygiene students in opposing the local credential, noted that today, just about anyone can pick up an OSHA checklist and purport to offer industrial hygiene services.

“We want to be recognized for what we do and for people to realize that it’s not something anybody with a checklist can accomplish,” said Rodriguez, who had to successfully gain 68 college credits covering a wide variety of risks in the work environment to receive her degree. “We’re looking forward to protecting our title as an industrial hygienist.”

Orta-Anés, who is also a past president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association Puerto Rico Section, said that employers in Puerto Rico don’t typically require professional credentials for safety inspections. At the moment, occupational health is almost entirely managed by engineers — “but just because you work in the industry doesn’t mean you’re qualified to assess for safety,” she noted.

The proposed OSHA registry would be voluntary — in other words, industrial hygienists wouldn’t be required to participate. However, those with either the CIH or CSP credential would automatically qualify. Orta-Anés emphasized that the registry could help level the playing field among employers by offering a one-stop shop where they can find authentic workplace safety services. Using the registry would also reflect an employer’s seriousness about protecting workers from preventable hazards, she added.

If the registry is approved, organizers will immediately begin accepting applications, with a goal of having the registry up and running by 2019. At that time, supporters will also launch a campaign urging employers to use it.

“This can bring peace of mind to employers and in the long term, help reduce pay-outs in workers’ compensation,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a win for all.”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for nearly 15 years.