The State of Safety Education

As baby boomers reach retirement age and leave the profession, the demand for degreed safety professionals outstrips the supply, causing some educators and professional organizations to wonder where the profession is headed.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act is 35 years old, and there is widespread concern stopping just short of panic, in some cases about the fact that many of the occupational safety and health professionals who entered the field as researchers, academics and safety and industrial hygiene managers at the advent of the Act are retiring.

"A lot of people in academia and at federal agencies and state agencies people who started in health and safety when OSHA first started are retiring or thinking about it," says Richard Fairfax, director of OSHA's enforcement programs.

Fairfax, who has been with the agency since its inception, says he can relate to the safety professionals who are reaching retirement age and leaving the profession. "When I retire, I want to retire," he notes, not start another career as an educator or consultant.

The problem with that, he acknowledges, is that "there is a loss of historical background, and it's a problem everyone is facing."

Dr. Mark Friend, professor of safety and chair of Applied Aviation Sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, chairs the American Society of Safety Engineers' (ASSE) Educational Standards Committee and is a member of Occupational Hazards' Editorial Advisory Board. Friend also is worried that the institutional knowledge held by those leaving the profession will be lost.

"The body of knowledge held by those who are pure safety practitioners is very valuable," he points out. "We are taking five steps backward regressing if we lose that knowledge. We haven't created the mechanisms to retain it." (For more about efforts to attract students to careers in EHS, read "State of Safety Education: The Importance of Mentoring" in the May 2006 issue.)

Educational Opportunities Or Not?

Some safety educators and professionals worry that safety education programs are getting the short end of the stick, that they are being eclipsed by industrial hygiene, ergonomics and occupational health programs at universities.

Demand creates supply, Fairfax explains. He remembers that back in the 1970s when OSHA was created, local OSHA offices, as well as local chapters of the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) and ASSE, attended job fairs at high schools and colleges to recruit students into the safety profession. In the 1980s and 1990s, those recruitment efforts died away.

"Enrollment [in safety programs] at schools is declining, so they're cutting back programs," says Fairfax.

Funding agencies appear to be following suit, adds Friend, who is concerned that while the 16 Education and Resource Centers (ERC) across the country funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) offer undergraduate and master's degrees in safety, industrial hygiene, occupational health and ergonomics, as well as doctorate-level degrees in disciplines such as industrial hygiene and occupational health, they do not offer Ph.D.s in safety.

"We won't see any real progress in [doctorate programs for] safety until money is put into funding pure safety programs," Friend says.

NIOSH's ERCs offer four core areas of study: industrial hygiene, occupational safety, occupational medicine and occupational nursing. "Only five or six of the ERCs have an [undergraduate or master's] occupational safety program," says Dr. Steven Lacey of the University of Illinois in Chicago. "Every one has an industrial hygiene Ph.D."

Lacey says an unofficial poll taken of the directors of the IH programs at the ERCs found that of the 2005 graduates, 39 received bachelor's degrees, 23 received master's degrees and 19 received doctorate degrees.

"One hundred percent of our graduates get jobs right away," Lacey boasts. "We had one graduate who received seven job offers from across the country. We're doing our job well in educating the students, but EHS professionals are retiring faster than we can replace them."

Allan Fleeger, who is both a CIH and a CSP as well as a member of the AIHA board, says AIHA members have a history of going out into their communities and back to their alma maters to educate students about the opportunities available in the IH profession.

Now, as an organization, AIHA is doing more to mentor young students and professionals. He sees the current demand for safety and industrial hygiene professionals "as not so much of a crisis as an opportunity."

"We are all trying to recruit the same players. We are all competing for the same generation of students," says Fleeger, who is an area occupational health manager for Exxon Mobile Corp. While he stops short of calling it a war, he notes, "What we're trying to do is be proactive and not wait until the loss of retiring industrial hygienists reaches a crisis point."

Some safety professionals worry that in their profession, that crisis point almost has been reached.

Are There Enough Educators?

Out of all the universities in the United States, only one West Virginia University offers a doctorate in occupational safety and health, or what Friend calls a "a Ph.D. in pure safety." That program graduates four students a year.

Dr. Paul Specht of Millersville University, who serves on the ASSE Educational Standards Committee with Friend, notes that most universities require professors to have a doctorate or to achieve a doctorate within a certain number of years. If only four people graduate each year from the single safety Ph.D. program in the country, how will universities fill slots for professors of safety-related courses of study? Specht wonders.

"They're not really taking master's-prepared people," notes Specht of universities. "A lot of us (safety academicians) are retiring in the next 5 years. Who's going to take our places?"

He acknowledges there are some highly qualified instructors with master's degrees at universities who came to those positions following careers as safety professionals out in the "real world." But, he adds, the likelihood of experienced safety professionals giving up high-paying jobs in private industry is slight. "The pay of an assistant professor is, say, $40,000 a year. An experienced safety manager [in private industry] with a master's degree earning $70,000 or more would have to have a vocation for teaching to be willing to give up a great salary to educate future health and safety professionals," says Specht.

At the March 13 "Direction for NORA's (National Occupational Researach Agenda) Second Decade" national town hall meeting held in Washington, D.C., by NIOSH, ASSE Senior Vice President Michael Thompson, CSP, talked about the need to develop future academic leadership in safety, stating that the safety community is faced with a retirement challenge among those who achieved Ph.D.s in safety in the 1970s, when educational facilities appeared to be quicker to meet the challenge of educating those who could prepare safety professionals.

SEC. 21, Training and Employee Education, of the OSH Act directs the secretary of Health and Human Services, after consultation with the secretary of Labor and with other appropriate federal departments and agencies, "to conduct, directly or by grants or contracts, education programs to provide an adequate supply of qualified personnel to carry out the purposes of this act."

Specht, Friend and Thompson worry that NIOSH is asleep at the wheel when it comes to encouraging its ERCs to offer Ph.D.s in safety and in funding those programs.

"With only one pure Ph.D. program in safety, the circumstances for the future of safety education may be dire," Thompson predicts. "If the safety profession is to continue to advance and meet the challenges of the future, finding ways to encourage more individuals to achieve the highest level of safety education will be necessary. Research to help determine how to achieve that encouragement as well as to help formulate Ph.D. programs that challenge individuals to meet the future is needed."

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