The Science of Understanding and Reducing Exposure
Industrial Hygienist Margrethe Hoff Helping Businesses Safely Reopen
Margrethe “Maggie” Hoff is an industrial hygienist who lived and worked in Europe for 27 years. Three years ago, when she decided to return to her roots in the U.S. and upstate New York, Hoff started looking for a position with an occupational health clinic and discovered Bassett’s New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health (NYCAMH). The Cooperstown-based program isn’t far from where Hoff grew up in Deposit, NY; she applied and became part of the NYCAMH team in January of 2019. A year later, when COVID-19 hit, having an industrial hygienist in the ‘house’ at Bassett would prove fortuitous.
“Maggie has been a remarkable resource for the institution,” says Employee Health physician John May, MD. “Industrial hygiene is about understanding and reducing exposure, helping people work safely. Maggie is highly skilled in this work and brings resources and connections from her time in Europe that have filled a void in this region. She has helped not only Bassett, but many businesses looking to reopen amidst the pandemic.”
Helping Protect the Bassett Workforce
Hoff, as part of NYCAMH’s HealthWorks staff, has served as the IH technical consultant to the Bassett network incident command team in this pandemic, providing recommendations on personal protective equipment (PPE), including alternative respirator protection.
“The early shortage of PPE drove us to look at all options; I was concerned about the risks associated with swabbing patients during COVID-19 testing,” explains Hoff. “The process may generate aerosol in close proximity; N95 masks are 95 percent efficient, but elastomeric respirators with P100s are almost 100 percent efficient. I wrote a protocol on how to safely use and disinfect the elastomeric respirators, and we developed videos, training, fit-tested and equipped staff.”
Hoff’s continuous research into effective protection for health care workers also led her to advocate for investing in powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs), which use a blower to force air through filter cartridges and into the wearer’s breathing zone. The equipment looks a bit space age and involves a head covering, but the design means the person wearing the PAPR is consistently inhaling clean air.
“The European standards that Maggie has familiarized herself with are more sophisticated and stricter than those in the U.S. She has also been remarkably collaborative throughout, and she and Sara Albright, as vice president of Human Resources, have really stimulated a much more systematic approach to respiratory protection for the network,” notes May.
Reopening Amid a Pandemic
As the pandemic waned a bit in central New York and moved from the crisis phase to reopening around the state, Hoff and the rest of the HealthWorks team found themselves responding to a steady stream of requests to test businesses’, governmental and other organizations’ employees for COVID-19, the antibody, and to advise communities on how to safely reopen.
“It is still picking up,” says Hoff. “I’ve been assessing and providing reopening recommendations to county government, businesses, non-profits, museums, and educational institutions. It is such rewarding work, although a challenge at times. This is a new virus and the guidance is a moving target.”
Among the dozens of organizations that have reached out for an industrial hygiene assessment ahead of reopening are Munson-Williams Proctor Institute in Utica, and the Fenimore Art Museum and National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
“I have been researching different standards for industrial hygiene around the world, to include Italy, France, the UK, the American Industrial Hygiene Association, and the CDC. Risk assessment is a big part of it in this pandemic. You need to consider who has the most contact with the public, the kind of transactions that take place, and what can be done to mitigate risk resulting from employee exposure. Then you help them think about multiple ways they can prevent transmission (e.g. space in front of the cashier area, Plexiglas barriers, changing scheduling, sanitizing hand gel, workflow protocols, and masks). Influencing behavior is very important.
“I also teach them about contact time. There are several places I’ve been where they had a type of product that needs to be sprayed and kept wet for 10 minutes in order to kill any germs or the virus.
“In the end, this is a lot about biology. I have always been interested in people’s health as a biology person and industrial hygiene is about reducing the negative impact on health of stressors in the workplace whether from noise, heat, chemicals, or a virus,” Hoff says.
Living What She Teaches
Hoff and her husband have built a home ‘off the grid’ in Leonardsville, NY. They heat with wood, and solar energy provides all the electricity. The insulation in their tiny cabin is sheep’s wool – safe to install. Even the stain used on the kiln-dried wood floors is akin to green tea and contains no volatile organic compounds. “We have the best indoor air quality!”
Hoff, who sings and plays guitar, piano, and harmonica, spends time at area nursing homes where her music provides a therapeutic interlude for residents.
“Studies have shown people with dementia respond to music. I am passionate about these things, finding ways to influence people to make their lives better. My work personally and professionally is about looking at the whole picture; what are all the things that could affect a person’s health? Especially during this pandemic, we want you to be healthy no matter who you are and where you go.”