Health and Safety Matters Magazine throws the spotlight on one of our own by talking to Rupert Balfry about the challenges and rewards of working as an occupational hygienist.
How early do you rise?
I am not a morning person so I find the early starts for site visits really hard. The flip side of this is the more leisurely 9am start when I am office based. My colleagues know that if we have to go in to assess a backshift I am first in the queue.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Despite being a self-confessed night-owl, the opportunity to observe and engage with workers in a wide variety of work environments has me leaping out of bed in the morning – even if that day’s visit is to a sewage works.
What do you do?
Most of my workload consists of client focused occupational hygiene projects - these are largely studies which assess worker risk from exposure to noise, airborne contaminants and vibration. Usually a project starts with a site visit so I can observe worker activities, and assess exposure. I take this opportunity to engage with workers to improve their awareness of the health hazards present. For the second half of a project I will be office based, writing up my findings and recommendations to reduce worker exposure.
Where do you work?
Viridis Safety is an independent health, safety and occupational hygiene consultancy based just outside Edinburgh. Most of our customers are in Scotland, though Viridis covers the whole of the UK, including offshore installations, so I can find myself pretty much anywhere. Recent projects for one of our fish farm clients have sent me to some of the more attractive parts of Scotland, which has been great.
What does a typical day entail for you?
One of the many things I love about my job is that there is no such thing as a typical day. If I am carrying out field work I could be: assessing exposure to respirable crystalline silica on a building site; looking at fish farm worker exposure to fish protein; assessing forestry worker exposure to hand-arm vibration. With such diverse working environments and industries, each day is atypical. Things that are typical include: “You should have been here yesterday, the [enter health hazard here] was much worse,” and “I have never seen him without his [enter specific PPE here] before!”
Days in the office are similarly varied as you never know what type of enquiry is going to come in. Every day a whole new area of occupational hygiene can open up in front of you. “For a nosey parker it is an interesting job,” – interesting and fantastic.
What is your favourite piece of work equipment?
Occupational hygienists are a bit renowned for having lots of clever gadgets, but the most useful bit of kit I carry in my pocket these days is one of these swanky LED torches. This is ideal for spotting and showing workers dust in the air during dust exposure studies, or finding my way between buildings if I happen to be working a night-shift. The previous torch I had was huge and, although it had a lot of comedy value often leading to ‘Carry On’ style remarks - which were good for breaking the ice - it wasn’t very practical.
What would you be lost without in work?
Many of the sites I visit are sprawling and complex, so I find a site plan a very useful tool - without this I would certainly be lost more often. Time on site is usually very precious so I prefer not to waste any of it drawing floor plans for marking out measurement points, workstations or noise sources, and clients are usually happy to email out a floor-plan in advance of my visit.
What is the best part of your day?
That moment when you suddenly get buy-in from a worker, their having just realised that, rather than being just another clipboard-wielding box ticker, you are of a different breed whose sole purpose is to keep them healthy in the workplace, to make sure that they reach retirement and that their quality of life when they reach retirement is worth having.
What advice would you give a person thinking of becoming an occupational hygienist?
If you have an interest in chemistry, human health, engineering, health and safety or manufacturing process design, you should seriously consider a career in occupational hygiene. But don’t take my word for it: my colleague Helen Pearson recently uploaded a presentation onto SlideShare with more information. Search for ‘Badly Drawn Stickman’s Guide to why should I become an occupational hygienist’. When this has convinced you to find out more, get in touch with those nice people at BOHS and find out when the next regional meeting is in your area, as this is an excellent opportunity to meet occupational hygienists and find out what it is really like.