Tools for Envisioning the Future of Industrial Hygiene

How is the field of industrial hygiene changing to meet the shifting workplace? What is the future you wish to create?

In the day-to-day routine of our busy lives, we find it difficult to take time to envision or reflect on our professional future. Futurist Peter Senge noted, "Where there is no vision, people perish." The thoughts that follow are designed to whet your appetite for reflection, and provide tools to fire your imagination and creativity for the long term.

Looking in the rearview mirror, we took a quick trip back in our profession's time capsule and noted some interesting observations. In 1967, Fred

Ottoboni of the California State Department of Health wrote, "The Golden Age of occupational health in the United States ended in the mid-1950s. The movement, which began in the 1930s and which provided wide knowledge of industrial diseases and excellent textbooks, is slowly dying."1

Three years after Ottoboni wrote that prophetic statement, occupational health was revitalized by the enactment of OSHA. With the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the establishment of EPA as foundations, industrial hygienists have become recognized as champions for workplace health and safety and, increasingly, champions for environmental health.

Today, we recognize that OSHA struggles to be a driving force for improving worker health. The importance of Threshold Limit Values has come to the forefront due to the difficulty that regulatory agencies have in developing reasonable standards within realistic time frames. Changes in technology, business practices, market forces and globalization have become the real drivers of worker health and safety.

At the Toronto American Industrial Hygiene Conference & Exposition in 1999, futurist/economist Roger Bootle spoke of "one integrated, global world." He noted the impact of extraordinary technological advances taking place that were driving major change and likened these changes to passing through the Industrial Revolution and discovering America - at time-warp speed. The Internet brought about new "connectivity" that will bring about jobs we cannot even imagine. He painted a picture of economic prosperity, increased efficiency and use of skilled labor, and improved competitiveness of international markets.

Bootle, like management guru Peter Drucker, envisions the dematerialization of social wealth - less value placed on physical assets like land, machinery and chemical processing, and increasing value placed on intellectual capital. True value lies in intangible elements, such as scientific discoveries and computer programs. If one person consumes more of these nonmaterial goods, it does not mean that someone else can consume less. Contrast that with the depletion of our natural resources - oil, coal and copper. When the supply is gone, it's gone. With dematerialization, we are using fewer resources. The nature of economic growth is changing.

Planning for the Future

The future is created through the actions or inactions we take today. We don't know exactly what will happen in the future. But if we consider what might happen, we, as a profession, can more sensibly decide the type of future that would be most desirable and work to achieve it. According to the World Future Society, "often the most valuable forecasts are those that don't come true because people took action to avert a crisis."2

In our research and work with colleagues such as John Meagher and the American Industrial Hygiene Association's Emerging Issues Committee, we found a number of forecasting tools, both quantitative and qualitative, to help us think through and envision future scenarios. A brief description follows.

Be aware that there are no silver bullets. Planning for the future takes time, energy and commitment. For more specific information on models and futuristic planning, contact the World Future Society at www.wfs.org.

Forecasting Methods and Scenario Planning

The Delphi Technique3 focuses on future forecasting and consensus building. Its roots are with the RAND Corp. It was invented in 1953 by Olaf Helmer and Norman Dalkey4. Group forecasting techniques are used for future events based on estimates from experts, feedback and re-estimation until reasonable consensus occurs. This technique is still popular in military circles and can be used for cyber or e-mail futures or strategic planning. By using the Internet, no personal interaction is required, so data can be quickly and confidentially gathered.

The Futures Wheel5, also called Mind Mapping, Webbing, Impact Wheel and Implementation Wheel, is a straightforward, structured brainstorming technique requiring only blank paper, a pen and one or more creative minds. It is an easy-to-use wheel to think through the implications of, and organize thoughts about, possible future events or trends.

If you prefer a probabilistic framework (Monte Carlo) for futures planning, two powerful quantitative analysis software programs are useful in exposure analysis: @RISK from Palisade Corp. and Crystal Ball from Decisioneering Inc.

The concept of risk comes from our appreciation of future uncertainty - our inability to know what the future will bring in response to a given action today. Risk suggests that a given action has more than one possible outcome.

Another tool is scenario building, developed by Peter Swartz in "The Art of the Long View." This format allows us to plan for the future by developing stories with a purpose. Scenarios go beyond forecasts that extrapolate outward from current data. According to Schwartz, they're teaching devices that present several alternative images of the future based on present and potential future developments. They are tools for taking a long view. They convey the means and impact of events more vividly than standard forecasting methods.

Planning for the Future

For this example, we will use the scenario planning model as a process to look at three possible future outcomes: (1) preferred future (optimistic, highly desirable), (2) probable future (linear extrapolations of trends, logical extension of today) and (3) undesirable future (pessimistic, wild-card disasters, reversal of positive trends of today). Determine your time window - one, five or 10 years.

This requires a dedicated team effort with divergent strengths, viewpoints and good resources to research the topic. Ideally, this effort would take a day or two to hammer out. This example is cursory, but it should get your creative juices flowing. Your product is a summary or list of what could happen in the future. Next, work through the following steps:

Step 1. Identify a critical issue or decision to be made. What keeps decision-makers awake at night?

Example: From a chemical manufacturer's perspective, how do you address the growing concern that a widely used class of solvents is carcinogenic?

Step 2. List key industry factors. How do these industry players affect you?

Use Michael Porter's Five Forces Model of Competition:

  • Threat of new entrants - nonsolvent cleaning method formulated.
  • Bargaining power of suppliers - lower toxicity gives manufacturers a strategic competitive advantage.
  • Bargaining power of buyers - users of this solvent class will no longer purchase this group of solvents.
  • Threat of substitute products - noncarcinogenic alternative is marketed.
  • Rivalry among competing firms - alternative cleaning methods jockey for position based on price, toxicity and cleaning efficacy.

Step 3. Explore "what is happening" in the general environment beyond your front door. What events external to the industry group are affecting you?

Demographics - older population more susceptible to toxic effects; young population susceptible to toxic effects.

Political/legal issues - laws change to make use of alternative solvents and cleaning methods more desirable.

  • Tax credits, pollution credits, fewer regulatory requirements, lower operating costs.

Technology - more energy-efficient cleaning methods.

  • Fewer pollution controls required with new cleaning methods.
  • Totally enclosed system no longer needed.
  • Lower disposal costs.

Social/cultural concerns - fewer community concerns about chemicals.

Economic trends - improved global competitiveness.

  • Lower operating costs with new cleaning methods.
  • Lower training and medical surveillance costs.
  • Enhanced worker productivity with new cleaning methods.

Global conditions - the world stage.

  • Less impact on global warming.
  • Less dependence on foreign petrochemical feed stocks.

Step 4. Rank the key factors and trends using two criteria:

  • Lower toxicity.
  • Lower operating costs.

Step 5. Develop scenarios addressing the most critical factors and trends.

  • Preferred future - chemical cleaning methods become obsolete.
  • Probable future - multiple cleaning methods will exist side by side.
  • Undesirable future - solvent methods become highly regulated and expensive.

Step 6. Anticipate the future - brainstorm.

  • Describe what the world would be like without chemical solvent cleaners.

Step 7. Determine implications of this new process.

  • Toxicity.
  • Cost.
  • Regulations.
  • Ease of use.

Step 8. Select leading indicators.

  • Determine what should be monitored in the long term.
  • Research and development into alternative cleaning methods.
  • Growth in the use of alternative cleaning methods.
  • Workplace exposures.
  • Stakeholder acceptance of alternatives.

For a complete lesson in scenario building, we refer you to Chapter 50, "Anticipating and Evaluating Trends Influencing Occupational Hygiene," in the textbook The Occupational Environment: Its Evaluation and Control (AIHA, 1997).

Conclusion

While the future cannot be convincingly predicted, events, trends and historic factors can be identified that set the stage for what might happen. As occupational and environmental health professionals, we should be at the forefront of anticipating, recognizing, evaluating and controlling exposures. The better we are able to analyze issues and forces that surround our work and to see how they are a part of a system, the greater leverage we will have on our future. The planning models enable us to see the big picture and to create stories of our future by analyzing trends and forces shaping tomorrow's world - technologic, global, social/cultural, demographic, economic and political/legal.

Today, our safety, security, public health, occupational health, and chemical and emergency response are again at center stage as we confront globalization, environmental concerns, bio-terrorism and the forces of war. The occupational hygienists who will be in demand are those who can appreciate the interconnectedness and social discontinuities of world cultures and are able to leverage their knowledge and skills to benefit human, occupational and environmental health.

1Ottoboni, F., "Occupational Health in the Construction Industry," National Safety Council Proceedings, 1967.

2World Future Society: www.wfs.org/faq.htm.

3 Delbecq, Andre' L., "A Group Process Model for Problem Identification and Program Planning," Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, Vol 7:4, 1971.

4 Helmer, O. Analysis of the Future: The Delphi Method. Santa Monica, Calif.; Rand Corp., 1967.

5 Glenn, J., Futures Research Methodology, American Council for the United Nations University, 1999; www.millennium-project.org.

About the authors: Ruth McIntyre Birkner, MBA, is president and Lawrence R. Birkner, MBA, CIH, CSP, is vice president and technical director of McIntyre Birkner & Associates Inc., a health, safety and environmental performance consulting company based in Thousand Oaks, Calif. They are contributing editors of Occupational Hazards.

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