Safety Roundtable: Looking Inside the EHS Crystal Ball

Occupational Hazards asked a panel of industry leaders to give a forecast of what's to come in workplace safety.

Predicting the future may be an uncertain art, but Occupational Hazards cleared some of the haze by asking leading professionals what they think will affect the EHS community in the coming years.

The discussion revealed a variety of emerging trends that could impact the practice of safety in the future. Some were familiar themes, such as globalization, the aging workforce, nanotechnology and OSHA’s role in worker safety. Other predictions were a bit less expected, including the possibility that human resource departments might play a big role in workplace safety culture, the greening movement can attract young talent to the field or product branding may protect workers from injury.

But one conclusion these EHS leaders overwhelmingly returned to is the need for safety professionals to broaden their focus and adapt to a changing – and expanding – field.

The Generalist Trend

“For years, people saw safety as hard hats and seat belts,” says Carl Heinlein, safety consultant at American Contractors Insurance Group and member of Occupational Hazards’ Editorial Board. “But our job as safety managers is to be a resource, guide, educator and informer. These are the new safety professionals who are looked upon to really be an asset to the company – part of the business culture of the company.”

To do this, safety professionals increasingly are becoming generalists, acquiring broad, varied skill sets instead of specializing in a narrow area. Gone are the days when safety professionals could only focus on safety – now, it’s more likely they need to be in tune with the company’s culture and business practices.

Michael Thompson, American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) president, explained that when he started his career in the industry in 1980, it was a different world. Safety professionals were concerned about people, or, as he puts it, “pure safety.” Things have changed. Today, he says, safety professionals have to understand their roles in the business and the greater community.

“Companies are continually challenging themselves to be the most productive, to get the best they can out of their people,” he says. “They want experience in the business of safety.”

Thompson adds that safety professionals must “continue to retool education and knowledge sets” to adjust to the generalist trend without falling behind. “If they’re not doing that, they’re standing still,” he says.

The developing role of the EHS employee is further complicated by the fact that, when compared to their predecessors, young safety professionals today are being asked to do more complex, demanding work earlier in their careers. To keep up with the added responsibilities, Thompson pressed safety professionals to read about pertinent issues, attend conferences, speak to other professionals and make themselves available to public interest groups.

“If they’re doing that, they’re doing their jobs as viable, contributing professionals,” Thompson says. “That’s how they will stay sharp and on their game.”

Rick Fulwiler, president of Technology Leadership Associates and a member of Occupational Hazards’ Editorial Board, describes the broadening trend as “a continuation of the integration of the separate functions – occupational health, safety, environment – [and] having to focus on all three parts.”

When considering whether this integration is beneficial to the industry, Fulwiler hesitates. “It’s two-sided,” he explains. “It’s positive that these people have broader responsibilities, but negative that they are not as narrowly focused.”

Whether or not this trend is a move in the right direction for the EHS world, it’s not likely to disappear any time soon. Don J. Hart, American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) president, acknowledges that the same broadening has emerged in the industrial hygiene field, as well. In fact, he notes that the trend is causing safety professionals and industrial hygienists to communicate more and cross over into each other’s territory in the course of their work. And this is just the beginning.

“Becoming more of a generalist is going to continue,” Hart predicts.

Sustainability

Sustainability can refer to a range of issues, from a company’s long-term viability to environmental responsibility to the EHS industry’s ability to attract and nurture new professionals. Not to mention the trend toward greening.

“I’m convinced the greening initiative in business is going to have one of the biggest impacts on us professionally,” says Fay Feeney, founder of Envision Strategic Group.

Feeney predicts the field’s focus will move from personal injury to be broadened to include the workplace as a whole and the environment. She believes expanding the field to include other issues – especially sustainability – may be attractive to up-and-coming safety professionals and can help solve another issue looming on the EHS horizon: the need for new employees to replace those who will soon retire.

“The pipeline for professionals is just not big enough,” Feeney says. “As a profession, we have to make this attractive to young people. We have to give them some new challenges.”

She explains that currently, many safety professionals have up to 25-30 years of experience in the field. Upon their retirement, these seasoned professionals may leave a gap as the industry struggles to bring new employees on board. Leaders in the field already should be looking ahead to ensure that the previous generation’s knowledge and experience is being transferred to new employees.

Heinlein puts this issue in more drastic terms.

“The industry is sorely lacking people coming into it across the board,” he says. “I get a call a week from people looking for safety professionals. From a safety professional’s aspect, that’s fantastic. From a contractor’s side, not as much.”

To address the problem of attracting enough talent to the field, the future of the EHS industry may be in the hands of an unexpected group – human resource departments. Both Heinlein and Feeney contend that human resource departments may play a role in working with safety professionals, not only to bring on new hires, but also to improve a company’s safety culture.

“It takes a lot of effort to bring the right person on board,” Feeney says. “A good safety professional will partner [with human resources] to bring good people on board who can manage themselves in relation to safety and health.”

From the industrial hygiene industry’s perspective, Hart explains that while he doesn’t see a significant personnel shortage in the near future, the growing international safety industry could increase the demand for employees. With companies expanding their operations into the international realm, and with other nations developing their own health and safety programs, he expects globalization will be a big factor in the industry’s changing future.

Think Globally

Hart explained that many countries, particularly China and India, are in need of safety and industrial hygiene programs and professionals. AIHA is doing its part to promote the importance of this work in other countries.
“We’re reaching out internationally – to China, India, Mexico – to give them an appreciation for what industrial hygiene can do for them,” Hart says.

A major hurdle in this process will be successfully crossing communication and cultural borders. Tom Krause, CEO of Behavioral Science Technology, stressed the importance of recognizing how differences in culture and communication could affect a company’s safety record.

“The way you think about a safety issue in the United Sates might not be the same way you think of it in an Asian culture,” he says. To solve the communications challenge, Krause explained, workers must be able to understand the situation from a different culture’s perspective and think of safety as a global, not local, issue. “A safety leader must be able to think globally on behalf of a company,” he says.

Globalization will continue to impact the EHS field as it becomes clear that countries have different workplace safety and health standards. “In our field, it comes down to not only working in a common language, but working in common processes,” says Feeney.

Another issue that will continue to press the EHS community is the safety of consumer products coming from countries that do not require third-party certification. Daniel Shipp, president of International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA), is concerned that substantial amounts of untested and potentially unsafe products are entering the country. He believes this problem will only continue in the next few years, and it should be addressed now.

“We see a continuing influx of products in this country from other parts of the world,” he says. “It’s important for anybody buying a brand name from an unfamiliar company to ask the supplier for the standard to be sure it’s tested.”

Magic Masks and OSHA Reform

Shipp says that currently, many companies and safety professionals are looking for what he calls the “magic mask” – respiratory protection designed as a simple, disposable mask anyone can use without being trained or tested for fit. Growing concerns surrounding flu pandemic or terrorist attacks have increased the demand for such a catch-all respiratory system, particularly within the health care industry.

While this type of respiratory protection could have a major impact on the industry in the future, the need is not likely to be fulfilled anytime soon. “The problem is that the technology is just not there,” Shipp says. “If companies could produce this magic mask, they would have done it.”

Safety equipment manufacturers might not be able to produce the magic mask, but they are working to create a connection between protection and their product brands. Shipp is noticing a continued trend of companies trying to attract users to associate a particular product with a familiar brand. While this obviously makes sense from a marketing perspective, Shipp explains the branding trend also could keep workers safe.

“You hope it will make them use it and wear it more regularly,” he says of the branded equipment. “Anything that gets people to wear and use PPE is a good thing.”

OSHA’s recent final ruling on employer payment for PPE, which removes the financial burden of purchasing PPE from employees and places it on employers, also will impact worker safety in the coming years by ensuring more comprehensive protection.

“Our position is that an employer should buy PPE,” Shipp says. “Not just because of workers’ rights or ethical reasons – when an employer buys PPE, it’s more likely to be specified to meet standards that need to be faced.”
A Senate aide, speaking on behalf of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., also expressed approval for the final ruling. “We definitely think it’s right for employers to pay for personal protective equipment for workers,” she says. “We have been calling on OSHA for a long time to take this step.”

The spokeswoman went on to say that Kennedy’s work with the comprehensive OSHA reform bill, “Protecting America’s Workers Act,” remains a priority in the coming years. The act calls for increased protection for whistleblowers, expanded OSHA coverage to state and local governmental employees and increased penalties for violations. Right now, the aide says, penalties are “too low to provide a good deterrent.” If put into place, the Act could increase worker safety in the coming years.

Kennedy also will focus on imminent threats to workers, like pandemic flu and diacetyl, that have been sitting on OSHA’s regulatory agenda without being acted on yet. These issues, combined with other EHS concerns, such as ergonomics, could impact the industry in positive ways if action is taken.

“We still continue to be concerned about ergonomic injuries, and OSHA has not moved as expediently as we would want them to,” the aide says. “We have seen little or no action from OSHA in that area.”

(Editor’s Note: Occupational Hazards tried to make contact with an OSHA representative for this article, but was unable to secure an interview by press time.)

A Complex Future

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Director John Howard looks ahead and sees a range of issues that could affect this developing industry. “ The safety and health [industry] is much more complex than it was before,” he acknowledges.

To illustrate this new complexity, Howard cites the continued emerging presence of nanotechnology, and the industry’s responsibility to protect workers from its potential hazards.

“We are cognizant of the many benefits of nanotechnology,” Howard says, “but must make sure the risks are known.”

Howard explains that university settings are most likely to contain nanotechnology research, but safety consultants might stumble upon this technology (and its safety implications) in other areas, such as labs operating within lager companies, or even in janitorial supply areas in hospitals. Howard says EHS professionals therefore must be aware of nanotechnology’s increasing presence.

“You could be confronted with this,” he cautions.

Nanotechnology is just one example of what may impact and change the EHS industry in the coming years. The best preparation may be to recognize the coming change, become educated and gain broader skill sets as the industry shifts to meet future needs.

“No one successful today practices in the environmental health and safety box without going beyond,” Feeney says. “And it’s going to be more and more critical as time goes on.”

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