Threat of Terror Impacts Workplace Safety

Occupational Hazards' readers report that, as a result of Sept. 11, the demands on their time have increased, but so has the importance of occupational safety and health.

If the past several months are any indication, the complex job of the environmental, health and safety (EHS) professional is becoming even more demanding.

Take Brian Goldman for example. As health, safety and environmental coordinator for a Shell Oil Products facility in Galena Park, Texas, Goldman faces many of the same issues as nearly 900 others who participated in Occupational Hazards' 2002 National Safety Survey in April. In addition to ensuring the health and safety of 155 employees, he is deluged with paperwork and has less time to spend one on one with workers.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, moreover, Goldman has found himself confronted with new responsibilities for security, an area he had not dealt with much in his 19 years in the profession.

"As a health and safety guy, all of a sudden I was thrust into the security role and didn't have a whole lot of places I could turn to [for help]," he told Occupational Hazards. "It wasn't like it was discouraging or depressing. It was just a whole bunch of new things that all of a sudden I had to start worrying about. I had to react quickly to a problem in which I didn't have a lot of training."

The More Things Change ...

Just as many Americans look at life a little differently since Sept. 11, many EHS professionals notice a change in the way management and employees approach safety and health issues.

"I have seen a safety teamwork attitude develop from some of our factory employees," said Tony Kuhnell, safety manager for Champion Windows Manufacturing in Cincinnati. "A lot of that is from exposure to seeing all of the people working together at the World Trade Center site. The concept came through to them that a lot of good things can happen when they work together."

Kuhnell has focused on overall facilities security, such as perimeter security and building access. The plant is surrounded by two interstates and a railroad track, which could be used by terrorists to transport bombs. "Every employee who sits at a desk and has a phone will have a flip chart on steps to take and questions to ask if they receive a bomb threat call," he said.

For time-pressed readers like Goldman, the terrorist threat has brought a new set of challenges. Other than a corporate-based security group and guards at the front gate, the Shell Oil Products site, which blends and packages oils and manufactures and packages grease, did not need to focus attention on security before Sept. 11.

"We had never really stopped to think about a terrorist attack at our facility," he said. "We didn't have a plant where we could control access 100 percent."

Goldman educated himself and had corporate security do a site inspection for recommendations on what additional measures to put in place. "This became my primary role for a while," he said of security issues, which included installing additional surveillance cameras and moving truck access gates away from the plant to create a buffer zone.

For many readers, dealing with terrorism threats extended beyond security issues and into emergency response. Some reported that they upgraded their emergency response plans or created plans for the first time.

As a result of these threats, a change in training also may be occurring. Survey respondents were asked to list the types of safety and health training they routinely use at their workplaces. Nearly three-fourths (74 percent) of readers use emergency preparedness and response drills (see chart on page 26), a percentage that likely is affected by Sept. 11.

Stephen G. Kastensmidt, CSP, CPEA, a Houston-based regional safety and health manager for Calpine, is overseeing an increase in emergency response drills and training for about 2,000 employees at 28 geothermal power plants. The goal is to turn the employees into responders instead of onlookers by providing fire, first aid and CPR training. Workers also have shown an increased interest in general safety training.

"I think we had fairly comprehensive plans before 9/11. We had always considered hurricanes, earthquakes, major fires and - after June last year - floods," Kastensmidt said of conditions in Houston. "There is a new awareness of terroristic threats and workplace violence."

That awareness has extended to the facility's contact with government agencies, including the FBI. "One of the effects of 9/11 is now a lot of groups talk to each other," he said. "In the past, they wouldn't have had those communication channels open."

For a large percentage of survey respondents, last fall's domestic terrorism did not affect their workplaces, much to the chagrin of at least one person. "We have not heightened security measures, and we need to," wrote a compliance technician in Ohio.

... The More They Stay the Same

EHS professionals continue to fight many of the same battles on a day-to-day basis. When asked to list the single biggest obstacle to getting their job done, National Safety Survey respondents mentioned lack of time or financial resources, regulatory paperwork, and an absence of management support and employee buy-in.

A consultant for an insurance company covered most of the bases when he listed hindrances such as "companies that talk safety but do not budget for it, lack of management commitment, time and money pressures, and a lack of understanding of safety and real risky jobs by management."

Time is a rare commodity for many EHS professionals because of many areas of responsibility. A reader in West Virginia is the company's human resources manager and safety director, plus has security obligations. "I am stretched between so many areas of responsibilities that I become overwhelmed. In addition, I handle all labor relations, grievances, contract negotiations, etc. My day will begin with one area of responsibility and suddenly switch to another before I can accomplish the first issue."

For others, the biggest obstacle is the workplace culture. "The current culture is one of hurrying to get the job accomplished in spite of safety," wrote a safety manager in Virginia.

Employee ownership of safety is a problem for a safety coordinator in Kansas. "I have trouble getting folks to understand that just because their title or job classification doesn't include the word 'safety,' it is still part of their job. People do a great job of identifying hazards or at-risk behaviors and bringing it to my attention. But when I ask them what they did to alleviate or correct the situation, they tend to see this as out of their job scope."

Safety committees are found in a vast majority (87 percent) of the readers' companies. Those with committees listed accident investigation, communication, conducting audits or inspections, employee involvement, and identifying and correcting hazards as common functions.

"I believe the committees serve two important functions," wrote a safety engineer in Louisiana. "One function allows employees to participate in improving the safety of our site. The second allows the safety department to gain a different perspective on how the employees view the safety of the plant. This is often different than the safety department's view."

A safety engineer uses committees "to allow management and workers to jointly identify and address safety issues and concerns. This provides a venue for workers to air issues and to take ownership jointly with management for the outcomes. This only happens when both sides believe they are equal partners."

The majority (61 percent) of survey respondents does not use behavior-based safety programs. A slight majority (51 percent) has a safety incentive program, with incentives such as money, gift certificates, paid time off, awards dinners, clothing, vacations and bonuses.

Formulas for Success

Occupational Hazards also wanted to find out what works for EHS professionals in their efforts to send workers home safe and healthy each day. So readers were asked, "What is your formula for a successful safety and health professional/manager?" The answers are as varied as job tasks represented in the National Safety Survey.

"Be original," wrote a safety and compliance officer in Kansas. "There is not a blanket approach to safety in existence that will work for everybody. As safety professionals, we must be creative and find the right approach for each individual or group."

Numerous readers included such ingredients as training, management support and employee involvement. For many more, however, it was matters of the "heart," such as caring, commitment, conviction and compassion.

Success for an engineer in New Mexico involves "a fierce determination to make the workplace, and home of the employees, the safest places possible. Included is a wide and deep knowledge of psychology, sociology, management concerns and a good engineering background with a significant dose of chemistry to understand the industrial hygiene portion of the problem."

The formula for a safety engineer in Texas is "a sensible head, a good heart, the ability to compromise, but strong legs to stand on issues."

"It's all about people," wrote a corporate safety and health team leader in Nevada.

Part of people skills, according to a senior technical specialist in Pennsylvania, involves getting out among the workers. "Take off your tie and leather dress shoes and put on your jeans. Get out on the floor. Watch, listen and smell."

People skills also are important to a health, safety and environmental manager in Kansas. "Know your people. Talk with them and understand their concerns/issues. None are trivial. Be approachable and remember that you are employed by your boss, but you also work for the employees. Without this mindset, no program in the world will succeed."

Sidebar: A Rewarding Career

Many readers who responded to Occupational Hazards' National Safety Survey see their ever-increasing responsibilities as not only a challenge but a major reason why they look forward to going to work each day.

When asked what they enjoy most about their jobs, a large percentage used words like "variety" and "diversity" to describe their daily tasks. Other common responses included working with people and keeping employees safe.

More than 50 percent of those who took the survey are responsible for at least six areas: safety, occupational health, industrial hygiene, fire protection, environmental and workers' compensation. It's this level of diversity that many EHS professionals point to as making their jobs satisfying.

"Every day is a new adventure," wrote a governmental safety and occupational health specialist in Ohio.

A safety supervisor in Louisiana looks forward to "the challenge of various safety projects that allow me to use my experience and expertise regarding safety management systems, which have helped my company reduce injury frequency and severity."

For a corporate safety and health supervisor in Connecticut, his variety comes in the areas of psychology, engineering, training, policy development, planning and analysis.

Some EHS professionals also enjoy working with people. A corporate safety and training manager in Wisconsin likes "rolling up my sleeves to work on varying projects and using creativity to develop workable and realistic solutions to problems. I thoroughly enjoy working with all people at all levels in the plants and offices as we partner to improve the work environments and processes."

For many others, sending their workers home safe and healthy every day makes their jobs worthwhile. A safety and special projects coordinator in Florida enjoys seeing the "light come on" for employees regarding their well-being and how safely they work as a result. What a corporate safety director in California enjoys about his job is "knowing that what I do every day affects the lives of each and every employee in a positive manner."

When asked to rate safety and health as a career, 80 percent of readers responded with "excellent" or "good" (see chart). Only 4 percent gave "fair" or "poor" ratings.

Nearly 72 percent of readers have taken a continuing education course in the past 12 months, with 90 percent of employers paying for the courses. While there are intrinsic rewards to their jobs, many respondents (47 percent) have no chance for career advancement in occupational safety and health at their companies.

Still, readers enjoy their careers enough that a majority (54 percent) have been in the EHS profession for more than 10 years, with 83 percent in the field for five years or longer.

Sidebar: How has your job or EHS functions at your company been affected by the terrorist attacks?

"I have attempted to use the terrorist attacks as an example of how quickly something can occur that can totally change a person's life. An accident can do the same thing to an individual and his/her family as the 9/11 attack has done to New York and the rest of our country." - health, safety and environmental coordinator in Mississippi

"The workload priorities have shifted to security - about 90 percent security to 10 percent safety." - industrial hygienist in California

"It has helped me be more sensitive to people's issues and to listen better." - human resources/safety manager in New Hampshire

"Increased security measures placed a greater strain on our budget." - safety specialist in Florida

"As a heavy utility construction company, the only major change is a difficulty in getting blasting materials." - divisional safety administrator in Tennessee

"It made my job more burdensome and has inconvenienced me greatly, even though the relative risk of a similar situation is low." - industrial hygienist in Louisiana

"My staff was reduced." - senior safety engineer in California

"I work in airport construction, so safety and security are monumental concerns that have grossly affected the way we conduct our day-to-day activities." - corporate safety and security director in Florida

"We have had insurance companies in almost every area wanting to cancel policies. This has created tremendous workloads on several people while we have solicited new providers." - corporate safety/environmental compliance manager in Idaho

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