Month: March 2014

Mum, did you get me a gymnastics leotard yet?

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When I asked my two daughters if they wanted anything special when I went to Europe, they promtly demanded new gymnastics leotards.

Apparently when you are 4 and 7 you have an intimate knowledge of where good lycra comes from, and Europe must be it. So every night when I have Skyped my family at home, the question is always asked of how my search is going for their new leotards…and up until just now it had gone very poorly. Searching for something very specific in a country where you don’t speak the language is doomed to fail, and it had.

When I was lamenting about my search to Heiko from Dräger, he arranged to meet up with me this afternoon to help in my quest for said leotard. Heiko found a lovely little shop, which I never would have managed to find on my own. Even better was that shopping was followed by Lubeck’s best ice-cream. Win-Win.

I feel like this has been the most stressful part of my journey so far – so now when I call home in a few hours, I can finally answer the inevitable question with a yes!

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Inside Dräger HQ

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This is how my day started. Lying precariously underneath a 400kg boulder in Germany. I had pictured many things of the inside of the Dräger headquarters, however this was not one of them. The point of this was that it was a lesson in trust. Due to the nature of the items that Dräger develops and manufactures, a lot of people put their trust in Dräger. Today, they asked me to put my trust in them.

I actually think this is a great idea. As an occupational hygienist I’d like to take around my own portable boulder to work sites sometimes!

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Bernd escorted me for a tour around the Dräger factory which was amazing.  Even more amazing was that Bernd wanted me to feel at home, so he had purposely worn the shirt he got recently from Uluru – nice touch!

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The first thing that was apparent to me, was the fact that actual people are used in the making of sensors and gas detectors. No seriously, I honestly thought most of it would have been through a large production chain. The problem with that method (as I was quickly told) is that you begin to lose out on the high standard of quality you need, as quality assurance (ie: inspections) are performed along every single aspect of the process at Dräger.

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Over 700,000 electrochemical sensors were manufactured by Dräger last year, and even though the process is still very much man-made, they can churn these things out with incredible speed. Everyone was also very happy…this was something I also didn’t expect from within a manufacturing environment.

I saw the inner workings of an oxygen sensor, a carbon monoxide sensor, and even the process behind the sensors for breath alcohol testing. When Bernd realised how excited I got when faced with the inner workings of an oxygen sensor, he gave me my very own keepsake. Best. Day. Ever.

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The tour them turned to the various test and inspection process points that their equipment must follow in order to be let out to market. I can’t remember all of the processes….let’s just say that there are a lot!

We then went to see how the various items of PPE are manufactured. Everything from respirators, cartridges, and chemical protective clothing. I was to learn that Dräger  have a lot of top-secret ingredients and processes. For example, somehow they can dramatically  increase the surface area of carbon used in their respirators to make them more efficient using a special Dräger method. It’s sort of like KFC or Coke…only a handful of people know. I like the secrecy!

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From there I was treated to a guided forum tour…which wasn’t exactly your ordinary tour of a facility. It was like walking into a science museum, only that the subject matter was entirely relevant to me…and, once again, awesome. In addition to the things that I associate Dräger with (gas detectors, mines rescue, PPE etc), they also make a large amount of equipment for hospitals. From the equipment you see in intensive care, neonatal care, operating theaters, ambulances, and everything in between, they make it.

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I was then treated to a visit to the Dräger Test Centre. That place is a scientists dream. From radio-frequency, to acoustics, to chemical and biochemical testing it has it all, and then some. It’s also an amazing building filled with natural light and a great collaborative atmosphere.

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Today was truly a once in a lifetime experience, and one I will remember forever – thank you Dräger!

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Young Hygienist Snapshot: Alex Wilson [INTERNATIONAL EDITION!]

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Welcome to the international edition of Young Hygienist Snapshot!

A graduate of the University of Bradford and the University of Nottingham, Alex is currently the Manager for REACH and Chemicals Policy at Tata Steel. He is also the chair of the BOHS Annual Conference Committee, he was incredibly fortunate to be selected to attend the AIHA Future Leaders Institute in the USA in 2011, and he was just awarded the 3M Young Hygienist of the Year Award in the UK which means that he gets an all-expenses paid trip to the US version of the conference – the AIHce! Here is 5-mins with Alex:

Best location I have worked: Well as I am a steel industry boy I have got to say in a steel plant where you have ladles full of 300 tonnes of liquid steel being moved around like it was a meccano set. The sheer scale of it is amazing and from a hygienists perspective it is also a very interesting environment to be in.

The best thing about my job is: At the moment I have such a varied job. I get to network with a great number of people at a global level which is very enjoyable. I also get to work with people from different backgrounds, sectors, and organisations.

Career Highlight: This is a tough one. I guess there are different highlights for different things. I have had the opportunity to speak in the European Parliament, I have worked as part of a number of teams ensuring compliance for the company for a number of pieces of legislation, the latest one being REACH. From a development perspective I was fortunate enough to be accepted onto the AIHA Future Leaders Institute which was a fantastic experience for me.

If you want to be an Occupational Hygienist, you’d better get used to: working hard, learning hard, negotiating hard and continually progressing.

People normally think my job involves: cleaning toilets and inspecting food preparation and cooking establishments.

The best thing I’ve been asked to do was: Not an easy answer here. I am going to go with a profession aspect and say something I am currently working on, which is to chair the IOHA London 2015 conference organising committee. This is a massive international conference in occupational hygiene and worker health protection and I am determined to give it my all to make sure it is a massive success for the profession as a whole.

The worst thing I’ve been asked to do was: Make a decision to shut down a steel rolling mill due to an asbestos related incident. This cost the company a significant amount in loss of production but the risk to the employees was greater so that decision had to be made.

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Lovely Lübeck

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I am a bit overwhelmed today at the hospitality that Drager have shown me. They have gone out of their way to make sure that I have the best experience out of this trip, which is entirely unexpected. I was all ready to sit in the hotel last night and chow down on a pretzel, when Matt from Drager called me and took me out into the city for some German fare. He then gave me a guided tour of the city today…which is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen.

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I’m a bit of a church fan, which meant I was in luck today. The amount of care and attention to detail was amazing.

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I even got to hang with the devil for a few minutes. The story goes that when the first stones of St Mary’s church were laid, the devil believed that the building would be a wine bar. He liked the idea, because many souls had already found their way to him after frequently visiting such a place. So he mixed with the crowd and started to help the workers. No wonder that the building grew higher and higher amazingly fast. But one day the devil had to realise that the building would be a church. Full of anger he grabbed a huge boulder to smash the walls, when a bold fellow shouted at him, “Just stop it, Mr Devil…leave what has already been created! For you we will build a wine bar just here in the neighbourhood”. The devil was happy, and dropped the boulder beside the wall, where it is still lying to this day. Just opposite the church the workers built the wine celler of the town hall…and here is me with Mr. Devil!

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Pretty soon after a fair bit of walking, it was time for a sausage. As expected the sausages are awesome!

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Matt then took me around the town to explore the sights. As it turns out, not all Germans are tall. Take a look at this entrance into a courtyard of houses.

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After a few hours of walking, we hit the road to visit some local wildlife. Luckily for me, Matt drives in style. I admit that it was hard to go from the Barina to the Alfa Romeo, but somehow I managed to push through it. Even better was that we went on the autobahn!

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Then at the end, these guys were waiting for me to say hello.

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This fantastic day ended with a lovely dinner at Schiffergesellschaft. Try saying that three times fast.

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…almost impossible when a standard beer is double the size of your head!

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A very big thank you goes to Matt for putting up with me all day and showing me around such a lovely town!

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Next Stop: Gas Monitoring Heaven

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Tomorrow I am going to visit the equivalent of heaven for gas monitoring junkies – the Drager Headquarters in Lubeck, Germany. I have tried to explain to my non-hygiene friends (of whom of course I feel sorry for as they are not hygienists) just how awesome this will be. They think I am being sarcastic at first, and then when they realise I that I am serious they just give me that ‘look’ and then back away slowly.  For me this is like a car-lover getting to go to the mechanics for a day!

I have used lots of different pieces of monitoring equipment in my time, but I’ve always wanted to know how it’s made…and what does it look like inside? (they are built so tough they are hard to break open…not that I’ve tried of course!)

Take this little guy for example, the Drager X-am 5000. He may look tiny, but he is a 6-gas detecting machine with the ability to customize your gas sensors…’oooh’ I hear you say, ‘tell me more’…Well this is handy when you are dealing with gases outside of the typical confined space scenario, such as on remediation projects. To quote a fellow hygienist, ‘I love working here you guys have so many hazards’…yes we do! Some of the less-common gases that we monitor for include the oxides of nitrogen, ammonia, and hydrogen cyanide…and this little guy does them all!

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For those occupational hygienists who have worked underground, they will most likely be familiar with these oxy boxes too. These get handed to you before you go underground and will provide you with 30 to 60 minutes of oxygen in case of an incident if all of a sudden you are in an oxygen-deficient environment. They basically should give you enough time to run your butt off to the nearest safe zone (where there is more oxygen) or escape entirely.  That’s what I like about the underground. It’s such a comforting place.  I find myself routinely counting the metres between me and the nearest safe zone (just in case!).

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So stay tuned and I’ll report back on soon what it’s actually like deep inside the gas monitoring heaven that is the Drager HQ!

What’s Occupational Health like in Germany?

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This is what I thought to myself when I once again woke up at 4am. So in a slightly jet-lagged state I set about to find out the answer.

The WHO reported in 2012 that Germany had a total workforce of over 40 million (nearly half were reported to be women!), the majority (approx.. 60%) of which, were employed by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

As I understand it, Germany’s OSH legislation is harmonized with EU directives, with health and safety at work administered by the Ministries for Labour and Social Affairs.

In terms of occupational hygienists – specialised training in occupational hygiene is available for medical specialists only (usually occupational physicians), with postgraduate occupational hygiene courses no longer in existence (how terrible!)..

Employers by law are obliged to seek the advice of specialists in occupational health and safety. This may include occupational physicians and safety professionals – who may be internal to the company (in large organisations), or alternatively contracted in by the hour. The overall responsibility for H&S rests with the employer, with legislation enforcement provided by over 6500 government inspectors.

The most common occupational disease in Germany recorded in 2010 was reported to be noise induced hearing loss (> 5,700 cases), followed by asbestosis and silicosis. That looks pretty similar to the situation we have in Australia. Also similar is that health surveillance is obligatory for employees exposed to hazardous substances, with employers also obliged to measure exposure, assess risk, and take preventative measures to avoid or reduce the risk of the hazard eg: noise and vibration.

When the EU Framework Directive was adopted, Germany apparently experienced a paradigm shift with the way that health and safety was managed. The Directive sought a holistic and risk-based approach to ensure the health and safety of workers.

So there are a few similarities between our health and safety systems. The differences become apparent however, when I started to delve into the details surrounding hazardous substances and carcinogens.

The German equivalent of the Australian workplace exposure standards (WES) are the AGW (Arbeitsplatzgrenzwerte). The differences between the WES and the AGW however are huge. Australian WES’s are designed to protect ‘nearly all workers’, which by definition means that some risk still remains. Our WES also include both carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic chemicals. By contrast, the AGW are health-based limit values which are used to regulate non-carcinogenic substances only. It is stated that if the AGW limits are met, then no health risks are expected. Coming from a risk-based background I think it’s brave to say ‘no-risk’, but who am I to criticise the Germans!

Germany used to have technical guidance concentrations (technische Richt-Konzentrationen, ‘TRKs’), to regulate carcinogenic substances, although these were abolished in 2005. TRKs were determined in accordance with the ‘best available’ technology or ‘state of the art’ and only marginally reflected health criteria. They reported to provide no information about the extent of the residual risk or about the probability of incurring cancer through exposure at the workplace, thus according to the Germans, they lacked transparency.

The new approach (although still in its trial period as I understand it), is the ‘Risk Concept for Carcinogenic Substances’, commonly known as the Risk Concept. This is a graduated approach where the higher the level of exposure to a carcinogen, the higher the pressure to minimise exposure.

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(picture courtesy of, ‘The risk-based concept for carcinogenic substances developed by the Committee for Hazardous Substances’ (BAuA, 2013)

The ‘acceptable risk’ (where the green ends) relates to the point where statistically 4 out of 10,000 persons exposed to that substance throughout their working life will develop cancer. That number corresponds to the risk of cancer outside of the workplace. The result is that the ‘tolerable limit’ is very very low. Therefore I wonder if this practical given the technology we have today?

John Cherrie commented on this late last year when he asked the question, ‘this sounds like a good idea but it does produce limits that are much lower than can probably currently be achieved…is this a practical approach? Will it promote greater reduction in exposures in the future? The answers I’m sure will come in good time.

What does seem like a positive approach within this Risk Concept, is the idea of ‘individual measures’, which are obligatory to be applied, dependant on the respective risk area. These measures are classified into 5 categories (administration, technology, organisation, occupational medicine, and substitution)…similar in a way to our hierarchy of controls. So in a sense – this Risk Concept is both based on risk, but then has mandatory elements that follow that must be applied in certain situations. In a way this is similar to some aspects of Australian legislation (eg: a risk assessment must be performed, but in the case of asbestos there are mandatory elements that must be applied upon discovery of that hazardous substance).

In the end, the real test of whether legislation has a positive effect on occupational hygiene issues is to follow the numbers of reported occupational illness and disease over time (I’m going to assume that it’s reported accurately…which is probably a discussion for a separate blog post!).

Disclaimer: This blog post was written whist jet-lagged and has used thisthis, this, and this reference to provide a commentary on a very complicated topic!

En Route to Luebeck

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Stage 2 of the tour of Germany involved getting to Luebeck. Before leaving Hamburg however, I needed to go for a swim as I knew you’d be disappointed in me if I didn’t blog about it. It’s a tough life but someone has to do it I guess. It was rough, but you’d be glad to hear I survived.

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I’m celebrating today as I managed to find the train station, the right platform, and the right carriage to take me to Luebeck. I did end up sitting in someone else’s reserved seat on the train…but that’s not too bad considering how bad it could have turned out!

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I also managed to find the most useful invention I’ve seen for a while. Here are my new gloves that both keep my hands warm AND that I can use my iPhone with. Now I have seen it all.

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There is a downside in travelling by yourself, in that it can be a bit lonely. On the plus side, when I got to the hotel I got two peices of marzipan to myself! I have a feeling that I’m going to love Luebeck.

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In preparation for 2 weeks of intense travelling and excitement, I decided to use the rest of my travel day for laundry. Here are the instructions I was greeted with on the wall. Simple right? 20 minutes later I was very thankful that a kind bilingual stranger walked in. Now that I have clean clothes…the world is my oyster. Or perhaps, given the menu’s I have seen lately, ‘the world is my herring’.

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