Defining Our Mission

The president-elect of the American Industrial Hygiene Association examines the mission of AIHA and other health and safety associations.

The American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) Mission Statement reads: "The AIHA promotes, protects and enhances industrial hygienists and other occupational health, safety and environmental professionals in their efforts to improve the health and well-being of workers, the community and the environment."

I believe there are at least two ways to interpret the mission statement of AIHA and allied occupational health and safety associations. In this article, I will give you some interpretations and why I think this subject is important.

Put the Association and the Profession First

One interpretation is that the most important job of the leadership, primarily the Board of Directors, of AIHA is to ensure the health of the association as a viable organization. A strong association will then ensure that the occupational health and safety (OHS) profession, primarily meaning the membership of AIHA and sister associations, will be served and will flourish. The flourishing of the association and, thereby, the profession would logically enhance our ability to protect "the workers, the community and the environment."

An example of this logic might be a government-mandated OHS program that, of necessity, would involve the hiring of our association members or the contracting of association staff. Thus, more OHS professionals would have jobs. In this scenario and using this interpretation, the association would lobby to support the promulgation and implementation of this program. Workers would benefit because this OHS program would presumably reduce injuries and illnesses.

Put the Worker First

An alternate interpretation of the AIHA mission statement is that the association exists to "improve the health and well-being of workers, the community and the environment." Decisions would be made that would improve the protection of the worker, whether or not the health of the association or the employability of the membership was improved.

If we choose to support this interpretation of the mission statement, the logic here is that, if we work single-mindedly to protect the worker and the environment, the profession will benefit in the short and long run. If the profession and, thereby, the OHS professional benefits, the association, of necessity, also will benefit. In this interpretation, the association is the "trickle-down" beneficiary.

An example of this might be a government-mandated OHS program that may or may not have a significant impact on the employment of OHS professionals or the use of association resources. If this program were of such a nature that it would help protect the worker and environment, we would support it as ardently as if many of our members would get new jobs and opportunities.

It seems that the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) leadership may adopt this point of view. Its new mission statement, if approved as drafted, will be: "The ACGIH community of professionals advances worker health and safety through education and the development of scientific and technical knowledge." This is a subtle, yet not so subtle, emphasis that I think is important.

Indeed, Scott Merkle, the vice chair of ACGIH, has this to say: "A revealing distinction that can be drawn is whether an organization fundamentally defines itself more as a 'scientific society' or as a 'trade association.' [Note: When Merkle talks about trade associations, he is referring to organizations that represent profit-making corporations, such as the National Association of Manufacturers.] A professional organization is not 100 percent one or the other, but often is a blend of the two. The missions of societies in public health science are focused more on basic social goals such as advancing knowledge to cure a disease or, in our case, to protect worker health and safety.

"On the other hand, 'trade associations' tend to focus more on the issues that impact the members of a given trade. OHS trade associations can provide broad public health benefits by supporting their members and improving the tools used by those engaged in that trade. It is not a matter of one focus being better or superior to the other. Both have important roles in our society. But they do represent different aims and purposes that can result in some differences in the ordering of priorities."

Merkle continues: "I personally share your core belief that our prime focus should be on the worker. This is the deeper and more enduring force that holds us together in an association of individuals with a common interest. Our individual employers may be different, our job titles may be different, our political and cultural views may be different, but we commonly share a passion and dedication to the worker's well-being.

"There are those who suggest that the decision whether to continue to be a member in an association is based on answering the question: 'What have you done for me lately?' While this may be true for some, I submit that the more telling question on membership value is 'What have we done for the worker lately?' "

Scott Schneider, director of occupational safety and health for the Laborers' H&S Fund of North America, has another comment on this issue: "Why are IH schools within public health schools? That implies that we need to or should see ourselves as public health professionals with a broader interest." He is saying that schools of public health (and other related schools) have a mission: to train professionals to serve the higher interest of public health, not just to practice our profession.

Are These Two Interpretations the Same?

I believe that these two interpretations are complementary, but not equivalent. My core belief is that AIHA, ACGIH, American Society of Safety Engineers and sister associations exist, first and foremost, to further the protection of the worker and the environment.

Many of my colleagues see no real difference between the two interpretations. They feel that service to one serves all. The disagreement I have with that position is that, by primarily focusing on the association, there is the potential to miss the desired objective altogether. Stated another way, when push comes to shove, we must always remember why we do what we do. In that way, we can recognize and use the collective power of the members of the allied OHS professional associations to really make a difference. Indeed, at the core of what we do, we should keep this quotation from the Dalai Lama as a personal professional OHS mission statement: "May I be at all times ... a protector for those without protection, a servant to all in need."

Contributing Editor Steven P. Levine, Ph.D., CIH2 (Comprehensive Practice & Chemical Aspects) is president-elect of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. He is a professor of environmental health sciences and co-director of the University of Michigan WHO Collaborating Center for Occupational Health, and adjunct professor at the Institute for International Health of Michigan State University. This article was written with assistance from Scott Merkle, ACGIH vice chair. Thanks to Scott Schneider of Laborers' H&S Fund of North America, Dave Stangis of Intel Corp. and Harry Ettinger of Los Alamos National Laboratories for their input.

The opinions expressed in this column have not been debated nor endorsed by the AIHA Board of Directors.

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