On a cool evening in September, a small group of retirees in London, Ontario, share a pizza with occupational hygienists. The retirees all worked at the local Westinghouse plant in the 1960s and 70s, manufacturing electrical transformers and capacitors.
They’re reminiscing. They’re also trying to reconstruct, both verbally and in a drawing, their old workplace. The hygienists hope to determine whether health problems reported by other Westinghouse retirees might be due to long term exposure to PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) at the old plant.
John Oudyk is one of those hygienists. This sort of detective work is what makes his job “quite unusual” as far as occupational hygienists go. Studying diseases in groups falls in the realm of epidemiology, a science he added to his arsenal when he was hired at the Hamilton office of the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) in 1989.
OHCOW clinics are funded by the prevention branch of Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. Clinic staff specialize in occupational medicine and work with workers and retirees to evaluate whether their health symptoms, or a disease such as cancer, might be related to their job. Oudyk says they always have about 10 projects going at once.
“We don’t advertise a lot…we’re absolutely at the limit of our capacity.”
If Oudyk feels any stress, it doesn’t show. He speaks softly and looks completely relaxed, even when addressing a large audience.
A bit of a jack-of-all-trades, Oudyk works in all industrial sectors. Being an occupational hygienist requires a good knowledge of biology, chemistry, toxicology, physics and some familiarity with the psychosocial sciences and local OH&S laws.
The hygienist’s job at OHCOW also spans epidemiology and medicine. Oudyk feels lucky to be working closely with physicians, ergonomists and nurses. “It’s a great environment to do hygiene in.”
When the Canadian Auto Workers Union (CAW) had a fatality in one of its workplaces in 2002, the union was frustrated with the traditionally accepted way of measuring heat stress. That method used “web bulb globe temperature,” which is as complicated as it sounds. A WBGT machine costs thousands of dollars. To interpret the results, there’s a formula that combines ambient temperature, web bulb (humidity) and radiant energy, as well as how much energy the worker expends on the job.
“A lot of hygienists make mistakes at it,” Oudyk laughs. “I know I have.”
The CAW asked if there could be a simpler process using humidex. Oudyk and his colleagues worked out a new formula theoretically, and tested it in a plant with the help of three hired students who did nothing but measure heat stress every 10 minutes for a whole summer. A GM plant in Oshawa piloted the measurement with management’s support and negotiated a form of it into their contract.
The formula worked, and OHCOW posted it on its website.
To this day, Oudyk gets calls from all over the country about the new way of measuring heat stress. “It has been adopted in workplaces I’ve never been in,” he says. “That one worked really well.”
Years after asbestos was big in the news, it’s still an ongoing occupational health issue. Oudyk recently visited a long-term care facility where staff often hang signs and streamers from asbestos ceiling tiles.
“One woman had been poking away at something, and the thing crumbled and fell in her face,” he says. “So we went in there to explain the long term implications of asbestos exposure.”
Meanwhile, he is invited to visit the Baie Verte Asbestos mine in Newfoundland as part of his volunteer work at McMaster University’s Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics program. Retired miners are getting sick, so the group has taken about 5,000 measurements. Oudyk will quantify the exposure based on those measurements.
(Next: Busy volunteer)
If he sounds too busy to be volunteering, he probably is. When he isn’t solving an occupational hygiene mystery, he writes reports for research journals, speaks at conferences or tutors students at McMaster. On occasion, he is subpoenaed to testify at the appeals tribunal for a worker’s compensation case.
“I have to defend how I came to my conclusion that they had this amount of exposure and whether that exposure might be related to the person’s disease.”
That part of the job can be draining. OHCOW has a “thank you file” of letters from happy people who won their cases, but recently lost a case they’ve been working on since the 90s. “To have it finally fail was pretty disheartening.”
Many projects Oudyk works on involve indoor air quality (IAQ). If people in an office complain about headaches and fatigue, for instance, OHCOW staff will look at seven different aspects: ventilation, thermal comfort, exposures to chemicals, biological issues like mold and allergens, ergonomics, stress and personal factors. Employees complete a log every hour to keep track of the symptoms they are experiencing and rate various aspects of their work environment.
“We try to see correlation between perceptions and symptoms, and actual measurements. That way, we can pinpoint problems.”
The culprit often turns out to be an old HVAC unit on the roof. Those units are built to last 15 to 20 years, but many office buildings can’t afford to replace them.
“So you’ve got HVAC units now that are getting on to 30 years old,” says Oudyk. “You open these thing up and they’re chock full of dirt and debris and are in bad shape. That stuff gets blown around.”
IAQ is one of those elusive, intangible workplace hazards that H&S committees have difficulty handling on their own. Oudyk is good at intangibles. Another one is noise, which he also hopes to demystify.
“What I’m trying to do is get people more active into noise control,” he says. “Lots of people use meters – some worth up to $3,000 – for measuring decibels in the workplace, but the result of that is usually trying to stick stuff in people’s ears as a stopgap solution.”
Sometimes, a scientist’s job is to stop people from being so damned scientific.
“We suggest if you’re this far away from someone and you have to yell, then it’s too loud. You don’t need a meter to prove that.”
That’s why he created an easy worksheet for people to use in the workplace, Doing Something About Noise. It explains how to evaluate noise, outlines the basics of noise control and includes a checklist of various ways to reduce noise directly at the source.
Where it all happens
In an industry where dynamic leaders and spokespeople are the faces of occupational health and safety, real change often happens at the shop floor level, with the help of hygienists. Name any significant issue that has affected Ontario workers and Oudyk has probably worked on it.
“There’s always something new and interesting. But it’s so busy, you’re just glad to get something off your desk when you’re finished. There’s no time to dwell on the impact.”
Still, it’s nice when someone phones to say they’re using the solution he recommended, and that it’s working.
Occupational health problems sometimes return if the workplace doesn’t keep up with the recommended controls.
“We try to build up the capacity of the H&S committee and other parties in the workplace to handle these things,” says Oudyk. “We’re a small group. So we try to help them over the bump and hope that because of our intervention they’ll be better able to solve the problem on their own.”
His hours are officially nine-to-five, but he often takes a memory stick home with him. Oudyk admits he is especially in his element with a spreadsheet full of numbers.
“This morning at home I was playing around with data,” he says with a smile. “I love playing with data.”