More today than ever before, our jobs in occupational safety and health are at risk. Business changes are turning long-thought beliefs of job security upside down. Although no exact statistics are available, each of us realizes that like never before, more and more safety and health professionals are out on the street looking for work. Others are trying it on their own, thanks to corporate downsizing or reengineering efforts.
There have been many explanations offered for why this is happening and what we can do to reverse it. But with all the window dressing removed, the reason is simple. American business is changing and that changes our workplaces. Change has a nasty habit of causing everything within the system, including safety and health, to be reassessed and reprioritized.
While the reason for this trend is easy to spot, figuring out how to reverse the trend isn"t. Two recommendations, based on yesterday"s business and professional paradigms, have dominated &emdash; language and salesmanship. The former goes like this: "If you want management"s attention (or in this case, to keep your job), you have to speak their language." In reality, management"s language isn"t as much a "what" as it is a "how." Whatever the language is, it isn"t the answer we need today.
Calls for us to develop sales skills and actively practice them always cause inner conflict. Our negative perception of salespeople in general causes us to be repulsed by the recommendation that we be better salespeople to keep our jobs. With this baggage, we feel that it is a form of ethical prostitution. But like management language, this also is not the answer.
The simple fact is that these traditional paradigms do not work in this changing business environment. As Joel Barker told us, when paradigms shift, everything else starts back at zero.
The Dwindling Numbers Problem
We cannot begin with any misconceptions. This is not about saving a profession. It is about saving our jobs. These are very different tasks. The first is a holistic, all-encompassing concept. The other is highly individual. It is important that we begin here because the painful fact is that the number of people actively practicing occupational health and safety is going to be less in the future, not more. That fact will become unavoidably obvious to all of us in the next two to three years. Today, there is a glut of professionals.
This is an important place to start. If we can accept that job survival is an individual effort with an individual reward, then we can move to positively affect our jobs. But remember that because it is an individual effort and our total numbers will ultimately go down, the ugly side is that despite our efforts to keep our jobs, there will be a certain percentage who will not succeed. It"s the cold reality of numbers.
Answers for Today and Tomorrow
What can we do to embrace these business changes and increase our chances of staying employed? I have included 11 major actions we can take. Most are about 180 degrees from our traditional thinking and practice. It is natural to view these with some "sticker shock," but consider each idea independently and, when completed, as a whole. They are ordered by shock value or divergence from our traditional paradigms, from least to greatest.
1) Be visible to the organization. Some of us are grassroots people, as safety practitioners commonly are, and we feel very comfortable dealing with employees. We are factory-floor types. Others are scientists, as industrial hygienists commonly are, and we feel that our office, lab or sampling event is the place where we belong. The problem is that neither of these approaches is visible to decisionmakers. If the only evidence management sees of us is a memo, posting of sampling results, or written recommendations from a study, inspection, audit or accident investigation, we aren"t visible. For job security, invisibility can be your worst enemy.
The key to becoming visible lies in our active participation outside our comfortable safety and health arena. Outside safety and health is where we become more visible, increase our organizational knowledge, expand our frame of reference and contribute as a member of the organizational team.
Get involved in production meetings and quality councils. Expand your involvement into areas such as material review boards and in workplace efforts and teams such as just-in-time implementation teams or time-based management teams.
2) Know why your function exists and share it. Do you know why your function is critical to the success of the organization? Does anyone above you know? If you don"t know why your function exists and why it"s important to the organization, how can you expect your boss or other decisionmakers to know when they are evaluating your function"s worth?
Traditionally, we deal with this as a soft issue. After all, isn"t what we do -- and its importance -- obvious? Frequently, we reduce our reasons for being employed to those that are subjective and not measurable. Some of the more common examples include: to keep the workplace or workers safe and healthy, reduce the injury or illness rates, or reduce the workers" compensation costs. After all, who else is going to do all these activities such as sampling, inspections, training, etc. if we aren"t there? These, of course, are the wrong reasons and are a real turnoff to decisionmakers.
In today"s business world, more appropriate reasons would target adding credit-side value to production or services. This departs from our traditional, "save costs" thinking and focuses on providing highly efficient customer service to the line structure for minimizing production interruptions and maximizing the management-labor interface. This is a "when needed" service and is given at the level requested by the customer. It isn"t a "jam down the throat," compliance-oriented, "you can"t do that" orientation. This is a "together we"ll find a way to succeed" (and maintain worker safety and health) approach.
The reason your function exists and is important to the organization needs to be clear, written, tied to measurement and never subjective nor open to interpretation. Write a mission statement that simply states three things -- who it applies to, why the function exists and is important, and how the function is accomplished. It matters little if it is pointed at enhancing the positive, e.g. add to the credit side of the ledger, or at reducing the negative, e.g. decrease debits. It only matters that it be written, understandable, agreed to by the decisionmakers and accurately describes fact.
3) Ask for input and listen to it. This not only seeks perceptions from your customers and your management, but also provides critical information that will guide an improvement plan. "They don"t know what I do," you might say. Well, then it"s time they should know.
"How can a novice or layman tell me how I"m doing in my complex job?" Just like McDonald"s customers can"t critically evaluate how the burgers or shakes are made, they do know if they are happy with the service and quality. And service and quality are what we are paid to deliver. If you ask, you will get some negative feedback. But by not asking for input, you sentence yourself to not knowing what your customers think and limit your opportunity for improvement. Consider something else. You may choose not to ask and to stick your head in the sand, but the decisionmakers won"t make this same mistake.
4) Simplify, do not complicate. Making things more complex is natural. In a way, it makes us seem more indispensable or our function more difficult, and therefore requiring our level of expertise. But rather than protecting us, making things complex today is suicide. With the increasing spans of control, outsourcing, preferred vendors and delayering activities, things have to be simpler. They cannot require the same efforts, time and costs as before.
Our health and safety function is not exempt from this new paradigm. Trying to simplify starts with us asking how well we really know our processes and activities. Knowing how we do things in a step-by-step fashion, how long each step takes and whether or not that time is spent productively are invaluable. With this information, you can eliminate the unnecessary steps, simplify them and make you and your function more productive. You please your customers and help your visibility. It also allows you to do more...with less.
Opportunities for simplification abound. For example, how does it add value to the organization to have safety and health approve new chemical products? In an empowered organization, through increasing the knowledge in the line structure and use of control programs, entry of new products can be made easier and quicker. Processes that take 20 steps for our review, action or approval can be streamlined, outsourced into the line structure or eliminated.
5) See the business side of the equation. It"s common for us to have tunnel vision when it comes to occupational safety and health issues. We see only one option. The rub comes when the decisionmakers see it differently. Understand two facts. Management is the practice of choosing successful options. Second, the way you "see" anything comes from your frame of reference (FOR). We all wish "they" could see things "our" way. Seeing the business side reverses this common thought process. It says, if you are dependent on business for employment and the decisionmakers see things from a business FOR, perhaps it is in your best interest if you do, too. This is not to say that significant problems do not need to be corrected, even if management feels otherwise. The key word is "significant," and the concept is to expand our FOR to get away from our too common professional myopia.
6) Multifunctionality is the new rule. There are two humorous theories about learning. One says that you can shrink your focus of knowledge as you get deeper and deeper into a subject. At some point, the logic goes, you come to a point where you know everything about nothing. On the other hand, you can broaden the focus of your learning and absorb less about each subject until you know nothing about everything.
Traditionally, we have feared the latter when it came to learning new skills. We feared that we would become "specialty-diluted." More often, however, experience tells us that learning more broadly not only increases our overall knowledge level but increases the scope of our FOR.
Business likes multifunctionality for another reason. It allows better utilization of people resources. Staff can be moved from one challenge to another based on level-of-need. This avoids highly specialized resources left waiting for something in their special field or focus. The latter is seen as a waste that needs to be eliminated.
7) Think competencies, not job knowledge. Traditional thought says that our professional performance should be measured by what we get done and how much we know. This is known as job knowledge and management by objectives. In the future, we are more likely to be measured by competencies.
Competencies are those areas of individual performance that make us effective or failures in organizations. They include: communication skills, teamwork, customer orientation, leadership, planning, results orientation, process orientation, reinforcement management, innovation, adaptability, resilience, delegation, integrity and the familiar job knowledge. The theory says that to be a valuable contributor to the organization, you need to be proficient in all competencies. Your objectives become a part of your development program and should document your accomplishments in each competency. Notice that job knowledge is only one of the competencies that is listed. If we use job knowledge as a primary indicator of organization value, we can only score a maximum of 7 out of a possible 100 percent. Putting our total faith in job knowledge, the old professional paradigm, we lose. In a function re-evaluation, we"re out.
8) Provide value, not specialty. In the past, the profession said that we were employed to provide a particular specialty to the organization. The new paradigm says that employees must provide documentable value to the organization or they are a waste. There is a world of difference between these two perspectives. One is a "my turf/my specialty" perspective while the other looks at "our organization/our success." The old way is "me"; the new way is "us."
9) Lead or participate in change. There"s a common saying: "You can lead, follow or get out of the way." This is a description of traditional thinking. The new version would go something like, "You can lead, actively participate or get discarded along the change path." The good news is that while many safety and health professionals avoid change, we are not genetically encoded to do so. From a function perspective, leading or participating in change is also the difference between being impacted by change and having the opportunity to influence that impact.
Another way of putting this is to be part of the solution, not the problem. When change efforts get tough, those involved in the change process visibly fall into one of two camps &emdash; those who are trying or listening and those who are roadblocks. Shigeo Shingo, the father of Japanese management, had a very non-traditional saying: "Some cannot embrace change." Knowing how patient and accepting Japanese management practice is, this saying becomes more alarming when interpreted into what American management would say: "If they"re in the way, fire them!"
Change must become a near-fluid medium in American organizations. Its magnitude and speed must increase. Changes in organizations reduce the availability of resources to deal with non-participants. The point here is simple. Business success depends on effective change implementation. Change success depends on high participation. Participation, therefore, is key to job security.
10) Share the "how." We operate out of a black box. We make what we do "turf possessions" that we use to document our need in the organization. How we accomplish those functions and tasks is purposely withheld from those who use and need our service (our customers). This extends to industrial hygiene sampling, radiological surveys, accident investigations, chemical product approvals, noise evaluations, safety or environmental audits, and countless other tasks. Keeping the "how" of what we do secret gives us job security, documents our worth to the organization, and justifies the level of expertise we provide.
Here is the new picture: "If what you do is so specialized, why can"t I just contract it out when I need it?" And let"s be honest, much of what we do isn"t rocket science. Does it take a certified industrial hygienist to take a noise reading or a dust sample? Does it take four-plus years of college study to perform an accident investigation? And with all the on-line resources on standards, interpretations and court decisions, need we ask about our role today in defining or interpreting applicable regulations? On the flip side, though, have you ever considered how much more effective our function could be if everyone in the organization could do it?
11) Eliminate your job. "I beg your pardon," you might say. "Didn"t we begin this article with a search to keep our job? How does it make any sense to end it with the opposite?"
Good question and one that hits at the very focus of change in American business. Let me use a direct analogy. A business has to change due to dwindling market share, high relative production costs, noncompetitive quality, or other customer demands. (A change-or-perish ultimatum is pretty strong and usually has a high probability of success if a clear change vision is available.) Change is planned. Change begins. A strange cycle is created and becomes self-sustaining. Change produces improved results. Improved results increase competitiveness. Increased competitiveness causes pressure on the entire market to improve. The market improves. The business" results and competitiveness are reduced. A new change-need is created. Change is planned. Change begins. The cycle continues. In businesses that already face continual competitiveness challenges and ever-improving markets, this cycle is a continuum, never stopping.
How does this business analogy relate to the practice or specialty of occupational safety and health? Let"s follow the analogy. The safety and health function has to change due to higher competition for staff and resources, high relative function costs, poor function quality or lack of customer focus, or other customer or management demands.
Change is planned. Change begins. Change produces improved results, greater productivity, better quality and happier customers. Improved results increase staff competitiveness. Increased staff competitiveness causes pressure on the entire staff organization to improve. The staff organization improves. The safety and health function"s results and competitiveness are reduced. A new change-need is created. Change is planned. Change begins. The cycle continues.
What is the most efficient end result of this process? Ask a production manager that question in reference to raw materials. He"ll say, "When they"re free." Does this mean that the production manager will ever reach a zero cost for raw materials? Probably not, but it"s the goal because it is the most efficient end result for the success of the organization. It is the ultimate goal. Any effort at reducing raw material costs can only be gauged as marginally successful, locked in the improvement continuum, until the ultimate result is reached. Only at that point can the improvement effort stop.
What can we learn from this example about our specialty? First, eliminating our job must be the ultimate goal in an organization-focused orientation. It is the most efficient end result. Second, because there is and will continue to be a need for the specialized function, it is improbable that the job function itself will ever totally go away. It will look radically different than it does today, but it will still be there. And, third, it is a natural self-perpetuating emphasis of the continuous improvement process.
Does this mean that without us, worker safety and health will suffer? That depends a lot on our role in change. If we take a "head in the sand" approach and resist these changes, we will be acted on. This approach may very well hurt worker safety and health because change occurs without our input and perspectives. If, however, we immerse ourselves in the change and given the opportunity, lead the effort, we can improve worker safety and health through defined line responsibilities, increased knowledge and skills, better measurement of participation, and better communication.
Given our safety and health function"s continuing need and endless ways that it can be provided, what would be the most effective way? Wouldn"t it be if the function was a part of everyone"s job every day, assuring that everyone had the necessary knowledge, resources and skills to do that function well?
Before we start analyzing why this option could never happen because the challenges to such an approach are significant, stop and consider what it would be like if it were possible. The function"s emphasis would never be compromised. It would be a value in every decision and task. Unlike you physically, the function would be everywhere, all-seeing, and never take weekends or holidays off. Unsafe conditions and acts would be immediately identified and corrected. Control or elimination would be the first approach, not the last. Assigned personal protective equipment usage would never be compromised. Think of the benefits for worker safety and health. Think of the cost savings to that business.
We need to take a lesson from Frederick Winslow Taylor and the practice of industrial engineering if we are to see our future. In the 70s, industrial engineering almost became an extinct specialty practice. Change was stonewalled by the profession, but occurred anyway through downsizing. Resisting change hurt the profession, thousands of practicing industrial engineers, and the body of knowledge in practice in American business. Today, industrial engineering is seeing a comeback -- as a line skill. This transition from specialized staff to line could have been much better if a different professional attitude had existed. Now think about it. Do you see any parallels?
It"s important that in our search to find solutions for our job threats that we ultimately deal with a new question. We must develop the ability to consider the impossible and question "why not?" Those who cannot will become the endangered members of our profession. Because, the decisionmakers are becoming quite proficient at asking this type of question and being trapped in our traditional paradigms and practices, we offer no counter evidence.
Barker, Joel, Discovering the Future: The Business of Paradigms, Charthouse Learning Corp., Burnsville, Minn., 1989.
Pierce, F. David, Total Quality for Safety and Health Professionals, Government Institutes, Inc., Rockville, Md., 1995.
Shingo, Sigeo, The Saying of Shigeo Shingo: Key Strategies for Plant Improvement, Productivity Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1987.
BIO: F. David Pierce, CIH, CSP, is manager of safety, environment and security for Westinghouse Electric Corp."s CNFD-Western Zirconium facility outside Ogden, Utah. The facility is a Malcolm Baldrige award winner and a Star plant under OSHA"s Voluntary Protection Programs. He is the author of Total Quality for Safety and Health Professionals, Government Institutes Inc., 1995.
Occupational Hazards, October 1996, page 113