Safety Issues on the Table

In a "roundtable" discussion, Occupational Hazards asked stakeholders to predict which safety and health issues will be on the table in 2007.

With a new year almost upon us, Occupational Hazards convened a "roundtable" of safety and health stakeholders to get a sense of what might be in store for the EHS community in 2007. Although the roundtable discussion consisted of one-on-one interviews, several common themes emerged, including: the aging work force; the business of safety; globalization; health insurance costs; immigrant worker safety; nanotechnology; off-the-job safety; and pandemic flu preparedness.

Casting a shadow on all of those topics was the question of just how the EHS community will be impacted by the new political complexion of Congress.

Stakeholders offered frank opinions on what probably will happen and what they hope will happen as a result of the Nov. 7 elections, which gave the Democrats majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives. When the new Congress takes office in January, Democrats will take control of the two committees that have oversight of workplace safety and health: Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts will chair the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), while Rep. George Miller of California, at press time, was the presumptive chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

National Safety Council (NSC) President and CEO Alan McMillan does not believe that the change in the balance of power will have an immediate impact on workers and EHS professionals. Rather, he expects it to have "a time-delayed affect on the workplace at large."

"I do believe there's going to be a heightened level of oversight, and I think we'll see that early on," McMillan said. "I think we'll see it in both the House and the Senate."

McMillan and other stakeholders anticipate that the new Congress will convene hearings to ratchet up scrutiny on agencies such as OSHA, MSHA and EPA.

While raising the minimum wage is receiving top billing among the priorities Kennedy has announced for the HELP Committee, Kennedy indeed is promising "close oversight over MSHA and OSHA." Kennedy also announced that he intends to pass "the Protecting America's Workers Act," which, Kennedy asserted, will "cover more workers, give families a role in safety investigations, strengthen protections for whistleblowers and increase penalties for repeated safety violators."

While the Democrats are at it, McMillan said they should closely examine the legislative protocols OSHA must follow to promulgate standards.

McMillan, a former OSHA official himself, praised the agency for its dedication but emphasized that no administrator, "regardless of the intensity of their commitment and conviction, can do very much in the legal world of technical feasibility and cost-benefit [analyses] to get standards out in any kind of a reasonable time frame."

"I would urge the Congress - whether it be a Republican-led or a Democratic-led Congress - to take a look at the landscape now after 35 years of OSHA to see whether we still have the right formula," McMillan said.

Speaking of OSHA ...

When asked to predict the major issues for the safety and health community in 2007, stakeholders such as Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), and Peg Seminario, safety and health director for the AFL-CIO, were a bit hard-pressed to answer.

Musculoskeletal injuries, immigrant worker safety, pandemic flu preparedness - all of these are important occupational safety and health issues, they agreed. But Shufro and Seminario believe the Bush administration has turned a deaf ear to issues such as these.

"The reality is that we've now had 6 years of an administration that has refused to deal with any of the big issues in safety and health," Seminario said. " ... And that failure, in and of itself, will be a big issue."

OSHA is "staffed by well-meaning, hard-working folks," Shufro contended. But he also argued that the agency's enforcement ranks have been thinned by the Bush administration, nearly making the agency a "meaningless paper tiger." Shufro, however, expressed optimism that the changes on Capitol Hill will result in more OSHA funding "for enforcement rather than for consultation programs" as well as in more funding for worker safety education and training.

"[Training] is, in our mind, one of the most important things that can be done at this point," Shufro said. "Because as we move toward voluntary compliance, unless workers understand their rights and how chemicals affect them and what safety hazards they face on the shop floor, the playing field is not equal."

Even with majorities in the Senate and the House, any attempts by Congress to pass new or revised workplace safety and health laws - such as resurrecting the Clinton administration's ergonomics standard (a longshot, most likely) - could very well be vetoed by President Bush. That's why Shufro and other stakeholders believe that the Nov. 7 elections will have their most immediate impact at the state level, including in New York, where voters elected Democrat Eliot Spitzer as the state's new governor.

"We think that on a state level we are going to see a dramatic improvement for workers here and much more aggressive enforcement of our safety and health laws under the new administration in New York," Shufro said.

Changing Demographics

Politics aside, a common concern for 2007 and beyond is the changing demographics of the U.S. work force. These concerns fall into two major categories: the graying of the U.S. work force; and the growing number of Hispanics and other non-English-speaking immigrants in the work force.

At the National Safety Council's 2005 Congress and Expo in Orlando, Fla., Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao noted that the aging of the U.S. work force "has implications for just about every major public policy issue, including health and safety." Current OSHA Administrator Edwin Foulke Jr., speaking at this year's congress and expo, explained that the agency is bracing itself for the retirement of many of its compliance officers in the next few years.

The EHS profession is facing a similar challenge. American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) President Frank Renshaw, Ph.D., CIH, CSP, explained that the industrial hygiene profession has more certified industrial hygienists than ever. But, according to Renshaw, those numbers are dropping "as we speak."

"That is really the challenge for us: to replace the capacity we have now and to fill the pipeline of new and promising practitioners," Renshaw said.

In an effort to bring more young people into the fold, AIHA's American Industrial Hygiene Foundation (AIHF) recently expanded the eligibility criteria for its 2007-2008 scholarships to include undergraduate students as well as graduate students at a wider range of institutions. AIHA also formed the Students and Early-Career Professionals Committee to increase student and young-professional involvement in AIHA.

"We're doing a number of things ... to try and invigorate young people, including getting them into our student local sections," Renshaw said.

In addition to dealing with an aging worker population, many safety and health professionals in 2007 will be charged with the task of ensuring the safety of a growing contingent of Hispanic and other non-English-speaking workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' (BLS) Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries for 2005, there were 917 workplace deaths among Hispanic or Latino workers - the highest death toll reported for Hispanics since BLS launched the census in 1992.

Those numbers anger Michael Silverstein, M.D., MPH, a clinical professor in the University of Washington School of Public Health's Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences and the former assistant director of safety and health for the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries. As OSHA's 35th anniversary comes to a close, Silverstein lamented that "whatever progress may have been made in those 35 years, it certainly hasn't been nearly enough to address the current needs."

"The deaths and injuries - they're not random," Silverstein said. "They're predictable and they're preventable and they tend to target the most vulnerable and the least privileged workers in the work force."

Globalization

A range of issues and concerns fall under the rubric of "globalization," from the challenges of maintaining safe and healthy workplaces amidst the pressures of lean manufacturing environments, to the cultural and language barriers that EHS professionals in multinational organizations often must overcome.

There's another angle to globalization that Daniel Shipp, president of the International Safety Equipment Association, is watching closely. With more and more PPE coming into the United States and Europe "from other parts of the world and being sold through all sorts of channels of distribution," said Shipp, there's growing concern that some sellers may not be aware of the requirements of voluntary performance standards such as those established by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Consequently, those sellers have "no way to know whether the product that they're buying from an offshore supplier meets the standard or not," he added.

"In the United States, you look for the Z87 mark to show that safety glasses comply with the ANSI Z87 standard," Shipp explained. "We constantly hear about people finding product in the Far East or coming in from the Far East where the manufacturer thought Z87 was some sort of decorative mark on all U.S. safety glasses."

Shipp added that a lot of PPE from the Far East does comply with voluntary performance standards, "but unless you're getting it from a U.S. manufacturer or a company that understands the requirements of the standards [and] does their own testing when the product comes in or has it tested in a lab somewhere, how do you know?"

Since the United States has no requirements for third-party testing and certification of PPE - except for respirators - the challenge with global trade "is to somehow make sure that the products that are coming into use meet the required performance standards," Shipp said.

" ... [W]ithout a system of testing and certification in the United States, it's more important probably than ever for the worker, the purchaser or the employer to know who he's buying from and know that the company he's buying from is doing the testing and certification to make sure that the product meets all the required standards," Shipp said. "Because these are performance standards, and all it takes is one failure and you have an injury."

The Business of Safety

With the pressures brought on by an increasingly global economy, NSC's McMillan believes that it's more important than ever for EHS professionals to be able to communicate the business value of safety and health - return on investment, or ROI - to senior management.

"I think a gigantic challenge for the men and women in our profession is to not forget that yes, they may be out at the plant level, identifying hazards and coming up with appropriate abatement strategies to address those hazards, but at another level they really have to make sure that the leadership of their organizations see them as being part of the management commitment to create sustainable business operations," McMillan said.

Robert Pater, managing director of Portland, Ore.-based Strategic Safety Associates, believes that one of the biggest challenges facing EHS professionals in 2007 and beyond is honing their powers of persuasion and influence in order to graduate from "technicians to leaders." One of the reasons for that, Pater said, is the growing importance of being able to get the attention of upper management.

The good news, Pater added, is that the ROI of safety is a message that executives increasingly want to hear.

"I've been doing work in safety as a consultant for more than 20 years, and I have never seen greater receptivity on the part of senior management toward safety," Pater said.

Off-the-Job Safety and Health

The issue of off-the-job safety and health is not new, but it's only recently that EHS professionals have begun to pay attention to its impact on workplace productivity and on workers' compensation costs and health insurance costs.

Of those three financial hits, Pater said that health insurance costs just might be the scariest to employers right now.

"I heard the CEO of a large company say, and I'd never heard this before, 'We would much rather have workers' comp claims than medical claims,'" Pater said. "And generally in the past I'd always heard the other way around. And I'm starting to hear that more and more."

To try to keep spiraling health care costs in check, Pater expects more and more employers in 2007 to implement wellness programs. Pater, however, added that the trend now is to brand these programs with terms such as "health," "safety" or "quality of work life."

"People are eschewing names that are loaded in their minds, names that they're afraid there's going to be pushback on," Pater said. But while the use of the word "wellness" may not be popular at the moment, "the concepts of wellness are," he noted.

With EHS professionals opening their eyes to the fact that irresponsible off-work behavior can hurt their organizations' bottom lines, off-the-job safety programs likely will continue to grow in popularity as well. It's become such a hot topic that NSC plans to hold its second off-the-job safety symposium this spring.

"The bottom line is the lines are blurring between work and home," Pater said.

Including workers' off-the-job habits in a workplace safety and health program is a "culture change" for EHS professionals, McMillan admitted, but it's a challenge that they're uniquely qualified to handle.

"When the worker walks off the job at the end of the day, [EHS professionals] consider their primary job done," McMillan said. "And what I am suggesting is that their job isn't done, that in today's world our job is basically 24-7."

Sidebar: What They Said About ...

The Business of Safety

"If I were to encourage safety and health professionals to get more education and more training in any one area, I'd tell them to get their MBA."

Alan McMillan, president and CEO, National Safety Council

The Impact of Sarbanes-Oxley

"It's actually very positive. [EHS professionals] are actually being invited to the table, if you will, to be part of the business process to assist the organization and identify financial risks to the company. It's really what safety and health professionals want."

Kathy Seabrook, CSP, president and founder, Global Solutions Inc.

Investing in Safety

"Besides the right thing to do from a legal, moral and ethical viewpoint, an investment in safety makes dollars and sense."

Joseph Lazzara, vice chairman, Omron Scientific Technologies Inc.

Pandemic Flu Preparedness

"If there is a pandemic, the demand for respirators is going to shoot up enormously, and right now companies are working flat-out just to supply the needs of businesses and government agencies that are stockpiling."

Daniel Shipp, president, International Safety Equipment Association

The Aging Work Force

"I think the first step an organization should take is to start having a balanced, strategic approach toward an aging work force and be very clear about what the advantages of an aging work force are."

Robert Pater, managing director, Strategic Safety Associates

OSHA's Employer-Payment-for-PPE Standard

"Now here's where a change in the relationship between Congress and the executive branch may have an impact, because Congress may push OSHA really hard to complete that rule, which has been sitting unfinished for just an inordinately long period of time for such a simple requirement."

Michael Silverstein, M.D., MPH, University of Washington School of Public Health

OSHA's Enforcement Capabilities

"Since OSHA was founded in 1970, it's been under consistent attack by the business community. The agency from its outset has been underfunded, understaffed and under attack."

Joel Shufro, executive director, New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health

Globalization

"The United States needs to do a better job of engaging in the global community about the harmonization of standards than we are doing today. I believe we have stepped back over the last few years from our leadership role in the globalization of occupational safety and health standards."

Alan McMillan, NSC

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