Health Physics

What in the World Does “Health Physics” Mean?

Dear Dr. Zoomie – what in the world does “health physics” mean? Why not use something easier to understand?

Funny you should ask – I’m traveling this week and when the guy sitting next to me on the plane asked what I do I told him I’m a health physicist. He started telling me about his back problems, his prostate, and his family history of insomnia. When he finally paused to take a breath, I explained that I’m a PhD and not an MD, and I was unable to help him out.

When the Manhattan Project got rolling, the higher-ups realized they needed to know more about the health effects of radiation and they needed to learn how to use it safely. At the same time, security was everything. – since we knew that Nazi Germany was researching nuclear weapons, we didn’t want to give away any information that could let them know we were working on them as well. Hence the term “health physics” instead of “radiation safety” was used describe helping protect people from the damaging aspects of working with radiation and radioactivity. Paul Frame, the historian of the Health Physics Society, quotes one of the first health physicists in one possible explanation of the term: “The coinage at first merely denoted the physics section of the Health Division… the name also served security: ‘radiation protection’ might arouse unwelcome interest; ‘health physics’ conveyed nothing.”

So this is why nobody knows what a health physicist is – it was intended from the start to be obscure. The best indication of its success as a code term? After 70 years nobody still knows what it means, and I still get beset with unwanted health information when I tell people that I’m a health physicist. Maybe I should start telling people I’m an industrial hygienist…but then they’ll probably think I mop floors and take out trash. Sigh….

What does a Health Physicist do?

Dr. Zoomie – I know that health physicists are radiation safety specialists, but what do they do?

We spend a lot of time bemoaning the fact that nobody knows what a health physicist is or what we do. Unfortunately, there aren’t many health physicists so it’s hard to assemble a support group unless you live close to a nuclear power plant or a national lab so we generally suffer in silence and try not to develop drinking problems. But now I’m thinking that maybe you were thinking about what we do on the job…. So let me try to answer that!

Cartoon - I Hear You're a Health Physicist

Radiation safety is a lot more than doing radiation surveys and decontaminating things. In a hospital, for example, health physicists help to make sure that x-ray machines are working properly, that radiation therapy sources are stored and used safely, and that nuclear medicine “hot labs” can account for their radioactive materials (among other things). At a university, health physicists will check to make sure that scientists follow regulations and use their radioactive materials safely, they organize and run radioactive waste programs, respond to radioactive spills, and help review research plans, and work with researchers to keep radiation exposure to their staff as low as possible. And as regulators, health physicists have a huge role in making sure that licensees use radiation and radioactivity safely as well as making sure they follow all of the applicable laws.

And there’s more to it than that – a friend of mine is a health physicist for NASA, which uses radioactive sources to power many of their deep space missions. Another friend of mine works on making plans to help keep the public safe if there’s a radiological or nuclear accident. After the Fukushima accident, I traveled to Japan with many of my colleagues. Some helped to map the extent of contamination, others helped assess radiation dose to the public, and still others helped to provide information to physicians, emergency responders, and governmental officials. There’s more than that, too, but space is running out. So let it suffice to say that, if it involves radiation (medical, research, industrial, nuclear power), health physicists will be involved to help make sure that people and the environment are protected.

How do I become a Radiation Safety Officer?

Dear Dr. Zoomie – our Radiation Safety Officer just left and my boss tells me I’m the new RSO. I’m not sure if I’m qualified – how can I find out?

For starters, no matter what your boss says, you’re not the RSO until your regulators say that you are. So you’re going to have to write a letter to them requesting that they amend your license to name you as the RSO. And in order to do that you’re going to have to provide them with your credentials to show that you’re qualified to be an RSO. But then that gets into your second question.

The exact skill set you’re going to need to be an RSO is going to depend on how big and how complex your radioactive materials program happens to be. If all you have is a few small (i.e. low-activity) sources, then you won’t need nearly as much education, training, and experience as you will if you work for a major university or hospital. But in general, what your regulators will be looking for is to see whether or not your education, experience, and training are adequate to run your company’s radiation safety program.

Although there aren’t any specific regulatory requirements to be an RSO for specific types of radiation safety programs , there are guidelines – federal guidelines are found in a document called NUREG 1556, and many states have their own requirements (most of which are very similar to NUREG 1556). I’ve worked with some companies that had a very small radiation safety program – their RSOs only had to have a high school degree and no radiation safety experience at all. To be a RSO for a major university or hospital, you’ll probably have to have at least an undergraduate degree in a scientific or technical field along with 6 years of radiation safety experience. In most cases, you will need to attend a 40-hour RSO short course. And make sure you keep the course completion certificate so you can prove to your regulators that you did actually finish the class! If you need a little help figuring out what kind of training you’ll need please contact us.

So what you’re going to have to do to be named RSO is to send a letter to your regulators asking that they amend your license naming you as RSO. You’ll need to attach copies of your qualifications (course completion certificates, resume, diplomas, etc.) that should either meet or exceed the requirements your state asks for. Then you wait for the regulators to get back to you – within a month or so you should receive an amended license that names you as the RSO for your organization. Until then, no matter what your boss might think, you’re not officially the RSO.

You might not meet all of the requirements to be an RSO. In some cases, you can work with the regulators to get past this snag. For example, if you haven’t yet had a chance to attend the RSO class you might be provisionally approved to be an RSO, provided you send a course completion certificate within a few months to show that you’ve completed the training. Or if you lack whatever amount of experience they’re looking for it might be possible to contract with a consultant who can visit your facility once a month or so to check on things and to act as a mentor for a year or so. And it’s also possible that your regulators will simply insist on an RSO who meets all of their requirements – if they do (and you don’t meet the requirements) then your boss is going to have to find a different person to be RSO.

Once you’re named as RSO the fun begins…