What is EHS engineering?
What does it mean? Where does it fit into the engineering picture of health and safety?
EHS stands for ‘environmental health and safety. It is a term that has first appeared in an ISO standard, from which one can assume that EHS engineering can be defined as a process, but not as a profession. This is the area covered by this article, including some references to related disciplines such as occupational hygiene. In many countries, there are still considerable problems with the training of engineers to understand what constitutes EHS, let alone how they should manage processes that bring about compliance with regulations or other requirements. A major reason for these difficulties lies in the fact that almost all professional engineering degree courses omit any form of environmental science education. Indeed, the subject is too often taught only in colleges of further education.
History of EHS engineering:
From a UK perspective, it might be said that EHS engineering has its foundations in a historical situation where health and safety were mainly handled by building control officers or tradesmen who themselves would have been exposed to adverse conditions at work. In the early years of this century, this led to several individual initiatives arising from what one might call a meeting of minds’. In other words, people recognized that there were aspects of process design that needed to take into account what we now know as EHS issues. These included things such as flue-gas treatment for power stations, ventilation for mining and tunnel construction, dust suppression for materials handling systems, and noise levels associated with machinery. The first organized attempt to bring these various groups together was under the auspices of what is now IEMA, with lectures given by H. V. Coates in 1956 on ‘Industrial Hygiene. Another landmark event was an International Symposium held at Imperial College, London, in 1960 sponsored by the UK Government and UNESCO.
Is EHS engineering is a field worth choosing?
An EHS engineer is involved in the design of processes or products that are safe for people who handle them, are not hazardous to the environment. They need to be aware of problems associated with air pollution, use and generation of energy, noise, vibration, and light. Wastes may need appropriate treatment before they can be safely discharged to the environment. These are all areas that require expertise that comes from a combination of science and engineering knowledge. Of course, there is another aspect where technical aspects interact with social attitudes and perceptions often reflected in legislation which changes over time. For this reason, an EHS engineer will also need to understand how individuals perceive hazards to develop effective control measures without resorting to enforcement methods unless these act as a last line of defense.
EHS engineering in the UK:
In the UK, EHS engineering is not a formal profession and there are no statutory requirements for any qualifications in this field. This means that people can claim to be an EHS engineer without having had any formal training or qualifications. There are many self-styled ‘EHS engineers’ who have worked as tradesmen but it cannot be assumed that they have either the knowledge base or even perhaps the desire to work within a regulatory framework where accountability rests solely with them as individuals.
Professional engineering institutions offer qualifications in safety, fire, and environmental protection but these are generally confined to protecting equipment or facilities against specific hazards such as fires or explosions. Therefore somebody with a qualification in this subject may be able to design systems to guard against some forms of contamination by hazardous materials but not others. Many safety-related jobs call on the services of professionals from other disciplines who would regard safety generally within their area of work. For example, an onshore exploration geologist will normally have no control over the activities that take place on a drilling rig on an offshore installation nor does he have any responsibility for the control measures used there although if something goes wrong he may well be called upon to provide expert testimony in a court of law.
There are other very highly qualified individuals such as chemical engineers and environmental chemists who would be useful to an EHS engineer but they do not necessarily have the detailed knowledge of what is involved in controlling hazards at source during manufacture or generation. Traditional ‘chemical hygiene’ methods which were developed for manual handling and end-use may be inadequate when dealing with complex processes and where machinery needs to be designed around those processes rather than vice versa. The following gives some examples:
Some people consider that it may be possible to produce some form of generic training package associated with some type of certification scheme, but this cannot provide anything more than a basic awareness since there are so many overlapping areas between disciplines where specialist knowledge is required to be able to control hazards effectively.
Several professional bodies represent the interests of EHS engineers but these tend not to focus on occupational safety at source, i.e. within manufacturing or generation facilities, rather for example for the offshore oil and gas industry or in the nuclear sector where there is a clear separation between organizations responsible for health & safety issues at work compared with environmental protection issues outside working hours. The UK National Offshore Operators Committee ( UKOOG ) has published guidance for its members about carrying out environmental risk assessments in preparation for decommissioning North Sea oil installations but this does not address many important operational issues such as minimizing hazardous materials used for well-casing cementation and how best to control the migration of hydrocarbon contaminated groundwater.
Health & Safety Executive ( HSE ) has published guidance documents for generic manufacturers with particular reference to hazardous chemicals ‘in commerce’ which is very useful information but it does not take account of the specialized conditions associated with chemical synthesis or where substances are used in specific production processes within manufacturing facilities. The UK Chemical Industries Association has an active environmental section that produces guidelines about various aspects of managing risks from hazardous materials and waste, but this only covers the containment and disposal aspects after manufacture or generation rather than integration into a process control system designed to minimize exposures for employees and neighbors as well as harm to the environment.
Duties involved in EHS engineering
The following are broad sub-categories of an EHS engineering role that can be taken forward for further development by any professional who wants to specialize in this area:
1. Management systems that provide an overview of the principles and practice of controlling risks to health, safety, and the environment from various types of chemical hazards associated with waste materials, emissions into the air, water, or land as well as impacts on people during normal working conditions. This includes providing technical input to management system auditors demonstrating how compliance with regulatory frameworks has been achieved & maintained.
2. Control methods for hazardous chemicals used within manufacturing processes that incorporate risk assessment aspects for employees and the community as well as the environment. These must take into account the full life cycle of each substance, i.e. production ( including sourcing raw materials ), storage, transportation, use within a process together with any special conditions such as unusual operating temperatures or pressures, reactive hazards if appropriate or extremely toxic end-products that require special care at end of life disposal ( ELV ).
3. Integrating safety & environmental management systems by specifying equipment to control hazardous chemicals used in manufacturing processes where substances are directly released to air or water but also indirect effects on people via food chains & ecosystems i.e. contaminants dispersed through land or aquatic environments due to leaks from transport containers or wastewaters/effluents from processes. Safety aspects must be considered for operators as well as local people if waste is removed from the site for disposal off-site.
4. Selection of chemicals within equipment where different types and qualities of plastic, metal, and ceramic materials are used together with special coatings or surface treatments to control corrosion, biofouling, or contamination spread by dust & vapors during operation and clean-up afterward.
5. Control engineering where isolation/containment barriers for operations involving dangerous chemicals must be designed and specified as well as instrumentation for monitoring operations continuously during normal working hours as well as unplanned releases which occur after shutdown, accidental spills, etc. This also includes temperature/pressure control equipment such as autoclaves or kilns.
6. Inadequately controlled syringe filling operations involving hazardous chemicals that pose an impact hazard due to lack of protective equipment and clothing as well as a lack of engineering controls such as fixed or portable local exhaust ventilation. This method of chemical transfer is not only dangerous but also wasteful because it produces an excess of foam which has to be disposed of as hazardous waste.
7. Risk management involves the consideration & adoption of various strategies for protection against unplanned releases during normal operation, maintenance work, shutdowns, etc by using containment devices or backup safety systems designed to contain or reduce the release of dangerous chemicals within a process, preventing staff exposure & environmental damage.
8. Safe storage/handling of chemical wastes that may produce vapors or dust during removal from sites including the selection and provision of appropriate containers such as plastic drums instead of glass bottles with metal lids because these can shatter causing serious cuts from flying glass fragments whereas plastic drums are not only safer but also less likely to damage vehicles carrying them if they leak. This is aimed at protecting both staff who handle this type of hazardous waste as well as the public living in the vicinity of the site if waste is taken off-site for disposal.
9. Inclusion of all hazards within health & safety documentation to fulfill legal requirements that all aspects of a process are included in operating procedures, not just those related to EHS.
10. Inappropriate selection/use of personal protective equipment (PPE) by workers who are not suitably trained in its use or do not understand the limitations of that type of PPE which could be defective or become damaged during use by sharp edges, tearing, breakage, etc. This also applies to any new employees who have not received the appropriate training & safety indoctrination before using it i.e. they may try to open a stuck lid on a chemical drum wearing only latex gloves without realizing that these will provide virtually no protection against corrosive substances.
These all are the aspects in which EHS engineering can play its role and one can join the particular industry to provide his/her services in this field.