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October 2013

Going The Distance

Meet a leading Oregon health and safety professional

Kermit McCarthy

Organization: Oregon OSHA

Lab manager: Kermit McCarthy

Analysis: Provide assessments on lead, asbestos, metals, silica, and other chemicals.


What is your industrial hygiene background?

I started here in 1980 in the Accident Prevention Division's Occupational Health Lab. I didn't know what OSHA was or what industrial hygiene was so I got a lot of on-the-job training. I had a bachelor's degree in chemistry and a master's in organic chemistry and spent time in graduate school running gas chromatographs and liquid chromatographs so I was hired because of my analytical experience. I worked on a couple of construction jobs and doing farm work for several summers. I was a quality control supervisor in a gypsum wallboard plant where I was in an industrial accident. I got my arm caught in an unguarded roller. Fortunately, the circuit breaker flipped and the machine stopped before I was seriously hurt. There was no training, no accident investigation, and no guarding of the roller after the accident.

The first few years here, I did analytical chemistry full tilt. When the industrial hygienists dropped off samples, I would discuss where they came from and what the processes were. I accompanied them in the field on many occasions and got to know what they were up to. Sampling for personal exposures in the field is tedious and time consuming. It became evident that the industrial hygienists need as much support as they can get to ensure the samples that are collected will provide useful data. I developed a guide to help them select the correct sampling media for the compounds of interest and have accompanied them in the field. Over the years, my focus has been on customer service so that we can obtain useful data to evaluate critical exposures. I always told the industrial hygienists no question was a dumb question and that I was here to help. In the lab, my focus has been on providing good, quality data.

In the early 1980s, the industrial hygiene field was burgeoning and there was a big influx of new industrial hygienists into the Accident Prevention Division (the precursor to Oregon OSHA). Most of them had master's degrees in industrial hygiene and this was their first job out of graduate school. It was exciting to work with these highly educated and motivated new employees as we learned together. Over the years, 169 industrial hygienists have worked here in my tenure. Some of them are professors, some work in research at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, some are corporate industrial hygienists with major corporations, some have had their own consulting firms, and several have gone on to federal OSHA. I feel fortunate to have worked with all of them and spent 33 years working in a field where the results really matter in protecting the safety and health of workers.

What is your role at the Oregon OSHA lab?

I have been the lab manager for the past 12 years. Previously, I was an industrial hygienist in the lab where my duties included interacting with and advising industrial hygienists as well as analytical chemistry. Before that, I analyzed all types of samples received by the lab.

Oregon OSHA's lab is one of a few full-service industrial hygiene labs in the country. There are only six others states that have accredited labs and only Iowa and Washington provide full service with the ability to analyze all types of samples.

The lab's role is to provide analytical services to the roughly 40 compliance and consultant field staff members. We analyze welding fume samples for metals and hexavalent chromium; electroplating fumes for acids and hexavalent chromium; painting processes for organic solvents and diisocyanates; sawing and grinding operations for particulates; crystalline silica during concrete cutting, grinding, or demolishing; and particle board manufacturing and hair straightening for formaldehyde. We look for metals, wax fumes, and cristobalite in samples from foundries; lead, cadmium, and other metals in colored glass manufacturing; and methylene chloride in paint stripping operations. We determine the amount of asbestos present in bulk materials, or the exposure to asbestos during asbestos removal processes. We analyze for many other exposures too numerous to list.

We also provide technical advice on a wide range of issues. It may include advice on what to sample for during a specific operation and how to sample for it, or helping interpret what the results mean.

What are some of the unique samples that have been brought in or cases that you were instrumental in?

Years ago, we got a lung to analyze for toluene. That would not happen anymore. We don't have the appropriate licensing to handle body tissue. We attempted to sample the lung using a syringe and injected into the gas chromatograph and we didn't see any toluene. We also analyzed a hat for metals and have looked for acids in pants.

One of the places the lab stands out is in the analysis of diisocyantes. Diisocyantes are used to make polyurethanes that are used in auto body paints, truck bed liners, foam rubber, hard polyurethane foams, and adhesives. Oregon OSHA is the only place in the world to have PELs for some diisocyantes used in paints due to the hard work and forethought of Mike Rodia and my former boss, Marija Janko. We are also one of the few places to still use impingers – a much more efficient sampler – for sampling. Because of this, we have analyzed several thousand samples for isocyantes, published papers, and have given several presentations. We have found exposures up to 30 times the permitted exposure level and still find a large percentage of samples over the PEL. Diisocyantes are sensitizers and affected people cannot be in a building where diisocyanates are being used, let alone work with them. Usually, sensitized workers must leave the trade they are working in to avoid further exposures.

You have analyzed samples from construction sites, hair salons, auto shops, and more. Have any of the results surprised you?

I have done more than 58,000 determinations in my time here. The lab has done several times more than that. For the most part, the samples are routine, but I was involved in the investigation of a fatality where a salesman was demolishing a thermospray device that was being used to recoat turbines in a hydroelectric power plant. Our investigator devised a system where the thermosprayer could be operated remotely so we could simulate the exposure and assess it using several direct-reading instruments and sampling media with pumps. Two types of wire were used with the thermospray. When the chromium wire was used, we could see smoke and our instruments registered some exposure. When nickel wire was used, there was no smoke and the room looked fairly clear. But all the instrumentation stopped a couple of minutes into the test. At first we thought there was something wrong with the instrumentation, but on closer look, we found they were all plugged up. Evidently, the nickel wire produced such fine particulate that it was not visible in the air. Analysis of filter samples showed nickel exposures at about 400 mg/m3 – which is huge and right at the Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health (IDLH) level for nickel.

We analyzed a hair-straightening product that was supposed to be formaldehyde free and found about 10 percent formaldehyde. That result surprised me and we also ran the sample using four different methods. Three of the methods agreed within a couple of percent. The fourth method gave a low result, but the amount of formaldehyde was over range for that method. These methods used completely different principles and analytical instrumentation and each analysis was performed by a different analyst. This analysis generated a lot of media attention. Fortunately, we have spent years analyzing bulk samples from the wood products industry for formaldehyde and have learned a lot from them on issues around formaldehyde analysis. When the hair straightening products showed up, we were ready.

What advice do you have for other safety and health professionals hoping to make a difference?

I encourage you to question assumptions. This is harder than it might appear. Assumptions are often hard to ferret out. Be open to information from all kinds of sources. Learn what it is to really know about an issue. It can be really important to have a thorough understanding of the technical issues. You are not always finished when you think you are. Sometimes, the real solutions require digging for more information and trying different approaches. In the lab, we are constantly looking for better analytical methodologies. To keep up, you have to look for ways to improve processes.

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