Safety Roundtable: The View From the End of an Era

From economic turmoil and OSHA transitions to workplace wellness and culture, EHS leaders discuss what's in store for the safety community.

As 2008 comes to a close, we face a new year, a fresh start and not a few major changes. The United States elected its first African American president; Democrats gained more control in Congress; Edwin Foulke Jr. left his post as OSHA administrator in November; and an unfolding economic crisis put the nation on edge.

In light of these developments and more, EHS Today spoke to occupational safety and health stakeholders to learn more about what's in store for the safety community in the coming year and beyond.

END OF AN ERA

Frank White, vice president of ORC Worldwide, points out that OSHA's approach under the Bush administration focused on voluntary programs, increasing the size of VPP, creating partnerships and alliances and helping employers understand the value of safety. It was, in essence, a “business-friendly OSHA” rather than one focused on standard setting. And with Foulke out and a new administration coming in, OSHA may have to wait until summer 2009 or later for a new agency administrator.

“It's surely an end of an era at OSHA,” White says. “I suspect an Obama administration will have a different kind of emphasis. It's fair to say you'll see a shift away from emphasis on voluntary programs” to a larger focus on standards enforcement and production.

But White thinks there still is more OSHA can do, such as taking the lead from other countries and encouraging communication among stakeholders.

“OSHA needs to broaden its outlook and take a close look at what other countries are doing, and take steps to integrate some of those approaches,” he says. “OSHA has tended to look inward, as a lot of US. agencies do, when I think it could learn a lot by looking at the European experience and taking advantage of what they have done.”

OSHA also should create processes for getting parties to the table and searching for common ground. In Europe, White says, there is a tripartite system that includes forums and processes for stakeholders and government to get together and reach agreements.

“We don't have that in this country,” White points out. “I'm not saying Europe has a perfect system, but there is a willingness to talk through issues and move forward.”

That kind of collaborative work hasn't been accomplished in the occupational health and safety arena for a long time, according to White. “There has got to be some work done by everyone to think of solutions,” he says. “It's a matter of getting started.”

International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) President Daniel K. Shipp also considers OSHA's role in the coming years.

“I think it's pretty clear that there are people who want to see an ergonomics standard come back,” Shipp says. “And I think there will be probably some attempts to toughen the penalties for workplace injuries.”

Shipp also expressed some dissatisfaction with OSHA's level of involvement in recent years. “OSHA and MSHA, like a lot of other agencies, tend to react when there is a disaster, whether or not it was a previous high priority,” he says, but adds that the Obama administration “is undeniably going to be much more influenced by organized labor.”

Of course, Shipp admits it may be too early right now to predict how these changes will play out.

“We have a lot of different people with a lot of different agendas, [it] will have to all come together,” he says.

DOING MORE WITH LESS

And then there's the economy, a topic that has much of the nation in near panic mode.

“The effect of the economy on occupational safety in general is always scary,” Shipp says, because “as companies' margins gets smaller and smaller, they look for places they can cut.”

Even so, eliminating a safety director's job might not be the first step a company takes to save money during these difficult economic times, Shipp says. Instead, some organizations may look for ways to economize on safety equipment that may not meet standards. And many safety professionals will have to do more with less.

“Safety professionals have to be creative,” says Shipp. “In a lot of cases, they don't have strong sets of government standards telling them how to do things. The good ones can develop programs and sell those programs to top management by showing them convincingly that investments in health and safety pay off at the bottom line.”

James “Skipper” Kendrick, CSP, director, EHS training for Textron Inc., agrees that the economic crisis could have a significant impact on EHS programs, and that there will be pressure to spend money, time and resources on other things.

“However, I think this really will be a test in those companies and cultures to determine if safety is a priority that's going to change with time, or whether safety is going to be a true value,” he says. “For those companies where safety true value, I don't anticipate anything to change. They will continue to hold it as a core component in their operating structure and treat it the same as they've always treated it.”

While Kendrick describes the current task safety professionals have as “leading in tough times,” he believes strong communication may be the key to reducing injury and illness. In addition, he says, safety professionals today will have a higher chance for success if they are more attuned to the business aspects of safety and pay attention to workers' well-being.

“We've got to take care of the people,” Kendrick says. “It's even more important in today's economy to be able to retain talent, to have them on the floor producing day in and day out rather than home sick or injured.”

Finally, he also considers how the economy could impact companies' environmental initiatives. “It's a challenge to us all to continue our efforts to improve environmental performance, to become more green, while we've got the same battle going on for the dollars to be spent in other places,” he says.

But Shipp sees a silver lining, at least on the global scale: “As economic growth happens in other parts of the world, people that work in those countries begin to have new expectations about quality of life. And an important part of that quality life is to work in a safe environment.”

And a lot of companies are pushing social and corporate responsibility agendas, of which worker health and safety is a factor. “There's a long way to go, but we do see advances,” Shipp explains.

EMERGING ISSUES

Christine Branche, Ph.D., acting director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), highlights some of the issues she anticipates NIOSH will focus on in the upcoming year and beyond:

Older and Younger Workers — Branche explains that there are “two sides of a trend to examine” when it comes to the age of employees in the workplace. On one hand, workers are retiring later than ever, and the current economic situation isn't exactly encouraging people to retire. Younger workers, meanwhile, are entering the work force in large numbers, and 2007-2008 saw the largest numbers of students entering college ever. Branche says the way these older and younger workers influence the work force — and how work affects their health or well-being — is a significant issue.

Traffic Injury Prevention — “The transportation sector is very important for occupational safety and health, with a sizeable number of nonfatal injuries and deaths to workers in road traffic injuries,” Branche says. Whether they are transporting goods and services or are in the transportation industry itself, workers are at risk of road-related deaths and injuries. NIOSH is examining this issue not only within the United States, but also on a global scale.

EHS Career Building — Branche stresses the importance of demonstrating why the EHS field is an attractive career choice. “The key is to build careers and provide training,” she says. “I think it's important for those of us who have made investments in occupational safety and health to help people understand that it's still a very compelling area for them to commit their careers.”

Addressing the Language Barrier — “We certainly have people who come from other cultures and speak English as a second language, and we want them to benefit from health and safety activities,” Branch explains. That could entail written materials translated into other language, or pictograms that visibly describe safe work procedures. Such accommodations also are necessary for workers who are illiterate or have poor reading comprehension skills. Branche stresses that this is a broad issue people must consider across industry.

NANOTECHNOLOGY AND HIGH-VIS APPAREL

In addition to those issues, Branche said NIOSH will continue to focus on the implications of nanotechnology, which she calls “a wonderful, groundbreaking, 21st-century novelty, but the risks to workers could be a great unknown.” NIOSH therefore is taking a “deliberate, methodical approach” that she says will pay off in the long run.

“As the technology that benefits society broadly is underway, we are right in step with trying to assess and evaluate the risks, as opposed to waiting until so many years later when the risks begin to manifest as health problems that then we have to double back and figure out what we did,” she explains.

But according to Shipp, nanomaterials may lead to new applications for protective clothing, head and face protection and respiratory filtration. He cites a presentation at ISEA's fall meeting that discussed new technologies that could enable products to change their protective qualities based on the hazard they sensed.

“There are all sorts of possibilities out there,” Shipp says.

He also points out that high-visibility apparel will continue to be an area of growing interest and importance. The new ANSI/ISEA 107-2004 standard, which went into effect Nov. 24, requires all workers operating in right-of-way federal-aid highways to wear Class 2 or 3 compliant high-visibility garments. While Shipp says the standard will impact safety positively, the next step is “to get recognition from OSHA that high-vis apparel is PPE.”

Dan Glucksman, ISEA public affairs director, adds that ISEA will continue advocating for the publication of a walking-working surfaces rule, as well as protective services and equipment for the tree care service industry. And in 2009, Glucksman says ISEA will be working on standards for high-vis apparel, eye and face protection, hard hats and workplace first aid kits.

WELLNESS

Company wellness programs are evolving, as well. According to Jane Ellery, Ph.D., assistant professor and associate director of the Fisher Institute for Wellness and Gerontology and member of EHS Today's editorial board, trends in workplace wellness are taking on a more far-reaching scope.

“People are starting to recognize a broader definition of wellness,” Ellery explains. “It just doesn't mean diet and exercise. Instead, it means a whole host of opportunities coming together to improve the well-being of an individual.” For example, reading, volunteering or being with family might be more beneficial for a particular individual than spending that time exercising.

“We need to think about helping people make the best choice for them, rather than imposing the choices … on them,” Ellery says. She adds that this more generalized approach to wellness could improve the dynamics of the workplace.

“As we embrace a more broad definition for wellness that includes work environment and work culture, then I'd like to think some of those areas also will improve for workplaces,” she says.

And that's not all: Ellery predicts that company wellness programs will continue to thrive in the future, even during tough economic times.

“If you go about doing a wellness program because you really value the people in your company, then no matter what those changes, they should only enhance your efforts rather than detract from them,” she says.

Ellery urges employers or safety professionals interested in developing or improving wellness programs to encourage employees to buy in all along the way instead of creating a system that starts with management and trickles down. “Have [employees] be involved,” she suggests. “If they feel part of it, they are more likely to participate.”

SAFETY CULTURE

When looking ahead to the challenges in the occupational safety profession, stakeholders seem to agree that the foundation of a strong safety culture can help organizations weather difficult times.

“The folks who are really going to become effective and see results have got to ingrain it as part of the culture and treat environmental health and safety issues as they treat any other segments of the business,” says Kendrick.

But even with a healthy approach to safety culture, he acknowledges that safety professionals may be in for some trying times.

“I think it's going to be a challenge for the next year or two for EHS professionals to once more tighten the belt, and come in day in and day out with the feeling that they are making a difference,” he admits.

“It's going to be harder work, but I think if we do the right things in the right way, even more satisfaction will come, because we've done good in even a tougher time.”

What They're Saying About …

The Globally Harmoized System (GHS):

“It is inevitable that [GHS] will be adopted here in the U.S. because the rest of the world is doing it, and frankly the U.S. can't afford not to catch up here … I see this as something the administration will move on. Is it going to be a top priority? That's really yet to be seen.”
Frank White, ORC Worldwide

The Aging Workforce:

“We're looking at a cohort of older adults who are healthier than their parents and their grandparents, they're expected to live longer, they're expected to be active, and I think to some degree, they expect to continue working in some heavy industries for a longer period of time. It will be interesting to see how they behave and their health responds to their decisions to delay their retirement.”
Christine Branche, Ph.D., NIOSH

Depression in the Workplace:

“Depression is one of the leading non-addressed health areas out there. And once you start addressing this issue, you save money immediately.”
Jane Ellery, Ph.D., Fisher Institute for Wellness and Gerontology

The Threat of a Flu Pandemic:

“There is hanging out there an enormous threat from the possibility of a flu pandemic that hasn't gone away. You don't hear as much about it now as you did a while back, but it's still there … If a pandemic hits, we will know right away the areas our preparation has been inadequate. It could be a traumatic time.”
Daniel K. Shipp, ISEA

Diacetyl:

“It's a much bigger problem than I think we initially realized. It made for a very compelling scientific issue. We saw responses from researchers, staff here at NIOSH, colleagues and from industry — that's important.”
Christine Branche, Ph.D., NIOSH

OSHA Compliance:

“Compliance is a given. You cannot not be in compliance anymore.”
James “Skipper” Kendrick, CSP, Textron Inc.

Going Beyond OSHA Compliance:

“Most companies, certainly our clients, have fairly sophisticated management systems. They do focus on risk, and while of course they do their best to comply with OSHA, they go beyond that, establishing management systems and looking at risks not necessarily regulated by OSHA … Frankly, much of business is ahead of where OSHA is in terms of approaching serious safety and health risks.”
Frank White, ORC Worldwide

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