7 Foundation Science

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Foundation Science


Scientific knowledge that could be used to prevent work-related fatality, injury, disease and ill health is often well known long before it is seriously applied. The time is past when prevention of work-related injury and ill health can be considered a matter of ‘common sense.’ There is a science base to understanding how hazards behave, how they cause harm and how the body reacts. This understanding is vital in designing effective control measures. Generalist Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) professionals must embrace this knowledge as part of their professional practice. The breadth and depth of the scientific knowledge required by individual OHS professionals will depend on the industry and hazards where they work and the nature of the advice they provide. How the OHS professional gains this knowledge may vary from school or vocational study to university education or specifically designed bridging programs. This chapter provides science-topic ‘maps’ to assist educators and OHS professionals in identifying the basic science required for professional practice, and also identifies fundamental numeracy requirements.

Keywords OHS, occupational health and safety, health, science, physical, chemical, biological, health science �Contents This material is supplied on the terms and understanding that HaSPA, the Safety Institute of Australia Ltd and their respective employees, officers and agents, the editor, or chapter authors and peer reviewers shall not be responsible or liable for any loss, damage, personal injury or death suffered by any person, howsoever caused and whether or not due to negligence, arising from the use of or reliance of any information, data or advice provided or referred to in this publication. Before relying on the material, users should carefully make their own assessment as to its accuracy, currency, completeness and relevance for their purposes, and should obtain any appropriate professional advice relevant to their particular circumstances.. 3 Synopsis of the OHS Body Of Knowledge 6 Background 6 Development 6 Conceptual structure 6 Audience 7 Application 7 Accessing and using the OHS Body of Knowledge for generalist OHS professionals 7 1 Introduction 1 2 Historical perspective 1 3 The approach taken in this chapter 2 4. Science that underpins OHS practice 3 4.1 Physical science 3 4.2 Biological science 3 5 Numeracy skills for OHS practice 7 6 Use of the foundation science-topic maps and numeracy skills list 8 7 Implications for practice 9 8 Summary 10 References 10 � �1 Introduction Generalist Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) professionals develop strategies and actions to prevent, minimise and mitigate the effects that a broad range of hazards and workplace conditions have on humans. The defining characteristic of professional practice is that the generalist OHS professional understands how these hazards behave, how they cause injury and ill health, and how workplace conditions may interact with hazards and humans to potentially cause injury, disease, illness or even death. To achieve this understanding, the generalist OHS professional must have a broad multidisciplinary knowledge base; a grasp of basic physical/chemical and biological/health sciences together with the principles and key concepts of psychology. While perhaps not considered ‘science,’ basic numeracy is also a key requirement for the effective OHS professional.

When the scientific basis of OHS is ignored or poorly understood, OHS practice defaults to a superficial ‘common sense’ or ‘flavour of the month/year’ approach. Such a tendency limits recognition of the need for specialist advice to identify and manage OHS, and weakens the effectiveness of hazard management strategies. Our society acknowledges the need to consult medical specialists for advice and treatment, but lacks similar recognition of the underpinning science in the identification and management of OHS problems (Viner, 1991, p. 1).

While some OHS professional education programs require high school or first year university-level science and some generalist OHS professionals consider such education a pre-requisite for professional practice there is no common agreement. This chapter takes a minimalist approach by reviewing the foundation physical, chemical, biological, and health science and basic numeracy skills required by the effective OHS professional together with how that knowledge might be obtained. Many practicing OHS professionals will have greater depth to their scientific knowledge than outlined in this chapter.

2 Historical perspective The effects of work on human health have long been recognised. The Italian physician Bernardino Ramazzini, who published Diseases of Workers in 1700, observed: “Many an artisan has looked at his craft as a means to support life and raise a family, but all he has got from it is some deadly disease…” (Crowl, 2009). Historically, the application of science to workplace injury and ill health has tended to lag behind the acquisition of relevant scientific knowledge. For example, although the carcinogenic nature of asbestos was well known by the 1960s, it was 1984 before asbestos mining ceased in Australia and 2003 before a total ban on the use of asbestos products was implemented (Australian Council of Trade Unions, 2003). The toxicity of various chemicals, such as lead and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), were known for decades before adequate control measures were implemented. Despite the identification of tuberculosis bacillus and its infective link in 1882, tuberculosis in Welsh slate miners was still considered a social disease in the 1920s (Viner, 1991, pp. 3,4).

While policy making is usually the domain of government, science-aware OHS professionals should be at the forefront in driving change to ensure that workplace OHS practice is both informed by science and responsive to scientific knowledge.

3 The approach taken in this chapter As the Body of Knowledge is not a textbook and there are many good references on basic science available, the minimalist approach taken in this chapter is, firstly, to map the key concepts in physical science and biological and health science relevant to OHS practice and, secondly, to identify the fundamental numeracy skills required by generalist OHS professionals. The division between the sciences facilitates ease of presentation and follows common divisions in learning and available texts.

The concepts listed in the science-topic maps should be familiar to anyone who has studied senior-school science, and the linkages to OHS practice related to physical hazards and the human body’s response to the hazards are clear. While some understanding of each concept is required by all OHS professionals, the breadth and depth of knowledge necessary for individual OHS professionals will depend on the hazards they deal with, the industry in which they work and the nature of advice they provide. Indeed, many practicing OHS professionals will have greater depth to their scientific knowledge than that outlined in this chapter. For example, an OHS professional with a degree in science (with some chemistry) will have an in-depth understanding of particles, atoms and molecules, atomic structure; chemical reactions; chemical energy; endothermic and exothermic reactions, etc., which may be essential knowledge for working in the chemical industry. Alternatively, all generalist OHS professionals, irrespective of background, should have a basic understanding of the science-map topics and their links. How the OHS professional arrives at this knowledge may vary from high school, vocational or university-level study to bridging programs or, in some cases, informal/self-directed study.

4. Science that underpins OHS practice Although addressed separately below, there is a strong link between physical science concepts, particularly those relating to chemical energy, and biological/health science concepts. Knowledge of these enables understanding of the potential effect of hazards on the physiology of the human body and consequent adverse health outcomes. As there is a close link between physiological response to conditions and human psychology, an understanding of biological/health concepts will also affect understanding of the basic principles of psychology.

4.1 Physical science The first topic map (Figure 1) presents the physical/chemical science concepts that underpin OHS practice. It presents links to aid understanding of physical hazards and how hazards affect the human body and its physiological response to harm. This topic map highlights various forms of energy and provides a basis for understanding physical hazards as sources of potentially damaging energy, which is the key principle of the energy-damage concept first formulated by Gibson and further developed by Haddon in the 1960s (Guarnieri, 1992).

4.2 Biological science The second topic map (Figure 2) presents the biological/health science concepts that underpin OHS practice. It illustrates the link between atoms and molecules that are the basic building blocks for the complex sub-cellular and cellular components that give rise to tissues, organs and systems that integrate to form a functioning human.

Figure 3 complements Figure 2 by identifying the relationship between the external environment, be it the work environment or the non-work environment, and the underlying biological functions at various organisational levels within the human body.

� Figure 1: Topic map: Physical science concepts underpinning OHS practice

� Figure 2: Biological/health science terms and concepts underpinning OHS practice

Figure3: Possible environmental impacts on biological systems �5 Numeracy skills for OHS practice All OHS professionals should have basic numeracy skills as indicated in Figure 4.

1 Arithmetical skills Various ways of describing fractions: vulgar, decimal, percentage, ppm, ratios. Arithmetical processes: addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, BODMAS (order of operations), including manipulation of fractions, ratios. Squares, square roots, inverse square, powers, significance and rounding off. Basic algebraic manipulation (eg: PV = nRT)

2 Measurement Logarithms Prefixes, their meanings and abbreviations (e.g. kilo-, G, 103; centi-, c, 10 – 2) Units of measurement related to OHS: length, area, volume, mass, frequency, density, force; pressure; energy; electricity; sound; light, temperature; chemical concentration; pH; radiation

3 Basic statistical measures Some statistical measures used in occupational health and safety are: frequency rate incidence average duration percentage and percentage change mean median mode.

Display of data including knowing which display to use for a particular type of data including: tabulation line graphs bar charts (histogram) pie chart.

Probability, sampling distribution and confidence intervals

Figure 4: Basic numeracy skills required for effective OHS practice

Correct procedure in multiplying, squaring or taking the logarithm of a number will provide a numerical answer. However, numeracy skill is not merely about getting an answer; how the answer is interpreted is crucially important. Numbers often speak loudly, but they must not become such an object of focus that one loses sight of the context.

The language of basic statistics is much used in OHS publications. Some knowledge of statistical terms may be useful for:

Reading, interpreting and applying OHS research literature including epidemiological studies Analysing and evaluating OHS performance and the effectiveness of a series or set of OHS interventions Communicating findings and outcomes and justifying recommendations.

The first use relates to the OHS professional as a critical consumer of research that involves statistical analysis. This requires some understanding of both descriptive and inferential statistics. The second use requires a higher level of statistical skills that, while useful to the OHS professional, may not be considered core knowledge. The third use could be considered a core requirement for OHS professionals providing strategic advice.

For those interested in further statistical skills for the OHS professional these may include descriptive and inferential statistics, quantitative and qualitative research methods, experimental design, and parametric and non-parametric statistics. Education programs and textbooks are available on these topics.

6 Use of the foundation science-topic maps and numeracy skills list As previously indicated, the topic maps provide only the title of the concept with the breadth and depth of knowledge required by individual OHS professionals being dependent on their background, the industry they work in, the hazards they deal with and the nature of advice they provide. OHS professional education programs may address the foundation science and numeracy requirements through content within the program, required prerequisites, bridging programs or a combination of such strategies. The concepts may represent the basis of major studies or they may represent topics in an integrated underpinning science unit(s). Also, the topic maps could provide the basis for an OHS professional to design their own program of professional development.

It is recognised that there are some challenges in ensuring OHS professionals have the requisite foundation science. These challenges include:

University resources and processes dictate that students in undergraduate OHS programs are required to complete a first-year science program that is common to all science students; much of the material may not be directly applicable to OHS or the links with OHS may not be obvious to the student. The majority of OHS professional education programs are postgraduate with insufficient course time to address these foundation concepts and skills. Some currently practising OHS professionals may not have the breadth of foundation science identified in the topic maps.

There is an opportunity here for purpose-designed modules to be developed for a flexible delivery mode to address the content and assessment of the physical and biological science concepts identified and the basic numeracy skills.

7 Implications for practice The generalist OHS professional requires a base of scientific knowledge and numeracy skills to:

Understand the action of hazards and be capable of identifying their presence and method of causing harm Understand the mechanism of long-term health effects as a result of exposure to hazards Analyse and estimate risk Develop and implement controls taking account of human, physical, organisational and social factors Access and evaluate a wide range of information.

Not only is OHS an emerging profession, but work environments and the hazards with which the professional is required to engage are becoming more complex. For example, without some understanding of basic physical sciences it will be difficult for the OHS professional to comprehend the nature and effects of nanomaterials and nanotechnology.

The importance of an understanding of physical and biological science is well illustrated by considering carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning in humans. Work-related CO poisoning, often with fatal consequences, is not uncommon. An understanding of basic chemistry will arm an OHS professional with the knowledge that CO is a colourless and odourless gas that is the product of the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels or other sources of carbon. From the physiological perspective, it is known that CO has approximately 200 times the affinity for the oxygen binding sites on the haemoglobin molecule. The displacement of oxygen from sites on the haemoglobin molecule and the subsequent decrease in delivery of oxygen to vital tissues and organs can lead to tissue damage and even death. An understanding of the partial pressure of gases and the kinetics of oxygen-haemoglobin binding informs the OHS professional of the mechanisms underlying CO poisoning and its severity in different circumstances of exposure.

8 Summary An OHS professional requires a foundation of basic knowledge of physical/chemical and biological/health sciences together with numeracy skills to be able to provide informed advice on managing workplace hazards and preventing fatality, injury, disease and ill health. The extent of scientific knowledge required will depend on the industry and hazards where the OHS professional works, and the nature and extent of the required advice. The source of such knowledge may vary from senior-school science, vocational study or bridging programs to more advanced levels acquired from science-specific university education.

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