IHS Quality in a Changing World

May 1, 2000
When change is a constant, what does quality mean, and how do we measure it? Take the test to find out.

It seems as though every industrial hygiene and safety (IHS) organization that I know of has been changed, rightsized, downsized, outsourced (in whole or in part) or is being reorganized. I hear fellow professionals asking, "What is happening to this profession? How can we fulfill our professional responsibilities when we are being asked to do more and more with less and less? How is all of this affecting the health and safety of employees?"

These are important questions. They deal with the core of how we, as professionals, will be able to best practice IHS. These questions also deal with the personal issue of how we, as individuals, can survive. Before discussing the change that is happening around us, I think that it is important to discuss the changes that may be occurring within.

Dealing with Self

The first question that must be addressed: "How do we personally deal with this change?" This significant, unanticipated (by us) change that does not match our expectations can cause a measure of fear to arise in most of us. Uncertainty and ambiguity, followed by mistrust and the instinct for self-preservation, can take over. This fear is natural and normal. To deal with it, we must first recognize it for what it is -- a loss of control.

It is not the events of change that so confuse and overwhelm us, but the unanticipated implications that these events bring into our lives. We ask ourselves, "What will downsizing, rightsizing, consolidation or outsourcing do to me?" This is what awakens our fears. We must face up to this question before we can begin to address the other issues that grow out of organizational change and before we define and seek program success.

Managing Change

The most critical factor in all of this is the degree of control that we have over these changes. If we can fit this change into our perception of reality, we stand a better chance of coping. In other words, we must get to equilibrium. Here are some ways to get there:

  • Grieve and get it out of your system. Admit the pain, share the fears, then move on. Work on where you want to go, not where you have been.
  • Take stock of where you are.
  • Identify how your skill can add value to the changing organization.
  • Identify how you "fit in" and what positives you bring to the party.
  • Take initiative: Define where you want to be and how you will get there.
  • Make a plan of action.
  • Implement your plan.

Powerlessness is a state of mind. Assume that you have absolute authority and power, then use your creativity to let go of the past and embrace your future. If you cannot do this, be prepared to batten down the hatches, because you are in for a rough ride.

Dealing with the Organization

Changing of organizations and outsourcing of services directly impacts the way in which IHS professionals can affect the "state of the workplace." By the state of the workplace, I refer to the level of risk to which employees are exposed. The elimination and reduction of health and safety risk is the primary goal. When organizational change alters the IHS professional's ability to reduce risk or directly changes the variables that affect these risks, the state of the workplace will be altered. Our objective is that changes in organizations have a positive impact on employee health and safety, and that these changes do not increase risk to IHS hazards and, it is hoped, reduce these risks.

Organizations are changing and altering the ways that we impact IHS risk in the workplace by:

  • Consolidating internal resources and functions, such as industrial hygiene, safety, environment and engineering services;
  • Outsourcing highly specialized services such as risk assessment or toxicology;
  • Outsourcing selected parts of basic functions, such as industrial hygiene monitoring, analytical services or respirator fit testing;
  • Downsizing IHS organizations based upon overall management objectives, cost-benefit analysis and company culture; and
  • Delegating IHS responsibilities as far down the line in an organization as possible and reducing or eliminating central or corporate staff organizations.

These organizational changes impact how things get done and what things get done. If IHS programs and objectives are not viewed as supporting the organization's basic purpose and mission, these programs may be adversely affected.

What do we do to maintain IHS quality in this changing world?

Before this question can be answered, let me define what is meant by IHS quality: A quality IHS program is one that is focused on the elimination of workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities by having systems in place that anticipate hazards, reduce risk of these hazards occurring, and involve employees and management in these processes.

When organizational change causes these systems to break down or malfunction, quality is being affected.

Here are some activities and measures to assess the impact of organizational change on quality:

1. Does the IHS program still have mechanisms in place that anticipate and identify potential workplace risk and hazards? Some examples of these processes include job hazard analysis, chemical inventory, exposure assessment, employee training and management of change (engineering) procedures.

2. Does IHS have the organizational strength to carry out its mission? Is IHS considered an integral part of the culture of the organization (i.e., how things get done)? Has the program moved from the primary stages of being reactive, problem-solving and compliance-driven into the realm of being a strategic function in tune with overall company values and mission? If this status is maintained, quality will not be adversely affected.

One way to measure this is through employee perception surveys. Such surveys can define whether employees understand and accept their roles, as well as the IHS role, in producing a safe and healthy workplace in the changed organization. The other side of this measure is management commitment, defined here as senior management knowing and accepting its role and responsibilities for a safe and healthy workplace, and how this role is affected by the change. If management understands its role, it must determine how this commitment is demonstrated in the "new" organization.

3. Performance in industrial hygiene and safety is also gauged by measures of final outcome. These measures answer the questions: Are employees safe? Have health hazards been prevented? Have injuries, illnesses and fatalities been reduced? They are aimed at measuring how effective the program has been over a defined time frame. These are the outcome measures of quality.

Some of the most frequently used outcome measures are injury, illness and accident statistics. Even these are not absolute measures, because adverse health effects may not be evident until years after the incident of exposure has occurred. Furthermore, these measures are after the fact; that is, they represent a failure analysis, not a demonstration of how well IHS has succeeded.

For these reasons, IHS professionals must develop other outcome measures of programs and systems that look at risk reduction and indirectly predict health and safety outcomes.

Quality Measures

Occupational health, industrial hygiene and safety programs can be compared to Y2K preparations. We were prepared and the potential system failures were corrected, so nothing happened. Measuring "nothing happening" is a difficult task. So is the development of IHS program outcome measures that are specific enough to allow objective, reproducible evaluation of IHS potential risk. These measures should allow us to compare previous performance to present performance and help to determine what future performance should look like.

Here is a process for developing such indirect outcome program measures:

1. Choose a parallel activity that reflects the possible outcome, such as workers' compensation costs, workplace hazard assessment and employee training.

2. Define a limit of measure, such as number of hazards identified by hazard assessment, reduction in near misses, numbers of employees who have received training, or type and cost of accident.

3. Establish a standard level of performance for each of these activities. What is the present level and what is the desired level?

4. Create a method or device to measure actual performance (within a specified time). These could be quarterly workers' compensation cost comparisons; periodic inspections, monitoring and audits to measure hazards; training records; and reduction in accidents.

5. Compare actual performance to desired goals.

Outcome measures of IHS performance quality should clearly define what is being measured and what these measures tell the organization about how it is fulfilling its IHS mission. These measures should be stated in the language of the organization; for example, expressing the risk of exposure to the company in terms of the cost in people, efficiency and dollars.

An example of this concept would be a measure of the number of people potentially exposed to an identified hazard; the process, system or training required to reduce their potential for exposure, thus their risk; and the cost of exposure in down time, human injury and dollars, which is the cost avoidance to the company.

These same outcome measures also are often compared between like companies, a process known as benchmarking. However, it should be remembered that benchmarking is a measure of efficiency, not a measure of effectiveness. This is because how a company performs when compared to outside sources will not tell you how it is truly doing inside. Putting it another way, how well your employees understand and accept IHS is a much truer measure of efficiency than how your numbers compare to outside organizations.

IHS quality measurement should look at the basic drivers of IHS programs to see how these have been impacted by organizational change. The before and after evaluation of these systems is the true measure of the impact on the organization's quality of IHS.

When measuring quality, we must avoid simply diagnosing what is wrong and stating what should be done about it. Instead, we must interact with the organization in such a way that we are evaluating and measuring "the things" that make "things" happen in the organization.

The final step in maintaining quality is to communicate these quality measures to all levels of management and to employees. Their acceptance and involvement is needed if these measures are to be truly meaningful and become a part of the "new" organizational culture brought about by change.

Frederick M. Toca, Ph.D., CIH, CSP, is president of Atlantic Environmental Inc., a safety, health and environmental consulting firm based in Dover, N.J. Toca can be reached at (973) 366-4660.

How Is Change Affecting Your Organization?

Thus far, I have presented the nature and impact of change on IHS organizations in an abstract, academic manner. But what I want to know is how this change is affecting you and your organization. Please answer the following questions and provide your comments. I'll follow up with your observations in an upcoming article.

1. Has your organization undergone rightsizing, outsourcing, consolidation or other changes to IHS programs in the last three to five years? (Circle the appropriate answer.)

Yes No

2. Has this change positively affected the IHS programs?

Yes No

3. Has this change negatively affected the IHS programs?

Yes No

4. Have IHS staff been reduced?

Yes No

5. In your opinion, is your IHS program continuing to meet its goals?

Yes No

6. Has the change increased or decreased the emphasis on OSHA compliance?

Increased Decreased

7. Are employees positive about the changes in IHS programs?

Yes No

8. Are employees aware that the IHS program has changed its organizational structure?

Yes No

9. How do you feel about the change that has taken place?

10. How does this change affect the way you do your job?

Please fax your answers to: Dr. Frederick Toca, c/o Occupational Hazards, at (216) 696-7658, or mail them to Occupational Hazards, 1100 Superior Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44114. All submissions are confidential, and information will be published in statistical form only.

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