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Integrating occupational hygiene into your H&S program: a success story

Like most workplaces, THK Rhythm Automotive Canada doesn't have or need in-house expertise to assess worker exposure to chemical, physical or biological agents. The task requires rigorous scientific methodology, best left to specialists like WSPS occupational hygienist Ilma Bhunnoo.

When a manufacturing change at THK raised air quality concerns, environmental and security coordinator Mike Cocco asked Bhunnoo to take a look. She worked collaboratively with THK, reviewing workplace processes and goals before devising a sampling strategy and preparing recommendations.

This approach was on display in a session at WSPS's recent Partners in Prevention 2016 Health & Safety Conference & Trade Show. Cocco, Bhunnoo and Larry Riediger, the certified worker member of THK's joint health and safety committee, shared the thought process leading up to conducting occupational hygiene monitoring, the sampling strategy, and actions taken.

What triggered THK's call to WSPS

THK has two plants in St. Catharines: a forging complex, and a machining, assembly and electrostatic coating facility. When the forging complex began machining a larger diameter steel, the process required more coolants and lubricants, which generated more smoke.

What THK already had in place

"We conduct occupational hygiene monitoring bi-annually using outside consultants," Cocco explained to attendees. "The test areas are determined by our joint health and safety committee. Every two years we sit down with the safety captains - we have 10 safety captains on the committee, each representing a different department - and ask, 'What areas are giving you heartburn? Is anyone complaining about odours that we're unaware of? Is there anything else we should be aware of'"

Once monitoring and analysis are completed, the results are shared. "If they're out of spec," said Cocco, "the joint health and safety committee puts a plan of action together."

What Ilma Bhunnoo did

After a briefing from Cocco and Larry Riediger, Bhunnoo took a number of steps, including

  • walking through the plant to observe the production process and talk to workers
  • reviewing existing information, such as injury stats, previous monitoring results, and controls already in place
  • identifying, assessing and prioritizing risks
  • determining what to test for, where, how, and for how long

Cost is something Bhunnoo is always mindful of. "For example," she said, "there are often many cost-effective options, such as improving what's already there."

In this instance, Cocco and Riedeger supported Bhunnoo's recommendation to conduct sampling in both the plant and office. "We tested the plant for carbon monoxide, because there are many sources of combustion products, and for welding fumes and metals," explained Bhunnoo. "We also tested the office area for carbon monoxide. There are doors that open into the plant, and carbon monoxide seeping in was a possibility."

Testing took place between November and February, when the plant's doors and windows remain closed, because Cocco and Riediger wanted a worst-case scenario. "If we can control the worst-case scenario, we're that much better for other scenarios," said Cocco.

What Bhunnoo recommended

"To get the biggest bang for your buck, look at the hierarchy of controls. For example," said Bhunnoo, "what can you engineer out of the processes? Can you substitute a less hazardous solvent?"

"THK has good process enclosure and ventilation but there was room for improvement, such as more dust collectors and preventative maintenance of lint traps in gas heaters. I also made recommendations regarding work practices and personal protective equipment (PPE)."

With the report in hand, the joint health and safety committee organized meetings with key personnel to determine the best course of action. "We met with everyone from the guy who cleans the machines to the plant manager," said Riediger.

"We let everyone know the results of the testing and the steps already agreed to. Employees at that time were made aware of additional PPE options, and how to schedule fit testing for half mask respirators, etc. We also used Bhunnoo’s report as our guide for recommendations to the company."

One was to provide heat in the winter months. "For years our facility had been heated by process heat alone," noted Riediger. "When we were operating 24/7/365, this worked well. But over the last few years we became more of a 2 shift, 5-day a week operation. To retain heat, people were shutting off ventilation or blocking air intakes. By installing radiant heat throughout the plant, we allowed our ventilation system to do its job."

Additional committee recommendations included:

  • upgrading exhaust fans, many of which were old and inefficient. This is now being phased in.
  • introducing new air filtration systems. "The company involved the joint health and safety committee with initial meetings with the sales rep, and eventually a group representing management and hourly employees looked at a new system in a similar environment. We're now waiting for this system to arrive."

Summing up the experience to delegates, Bhunnoo noted that "Mike, Larry and their team had a very robust health and safety program. Occupational hygiene was part of it, but this experience brought it back to the forefront."

How WSPS can help you

  1. WSPS offers technical consulting services in occupational hygiene and four other essential areas: ergonomics, safeguarding, warehouse safety, and preparing health and safety manuals.
  2. WSPS can develop customized courses and on-site training materials to address the specific technical needs of your organization.
  3. With a Ministry of Labour chemical handling inspection blitz taking place September 19 to October 31, we can help you prepare.

Find out more about what our technical consultants can do for you.