Competitors Find It Hard to Cooperate

Nov. 5, 2001
Too many hurdles stand in the way of combining AIHA, ASSE and ACGIH into one group. The three, however, still should work together on specific issues.

When I was AIHA president, I frequently heard the pleas of members and outside observers that I, and my colleagues on the AIHA board, should unify the professional associations. Indeed, in a much-reported talk at AIHA's conference in June, Mort Corn, an AIHA board member, urged the creation of a confederated association structure.

I must tell you that, as good as this suggestion is, it is not new. Then-AIHA President Jim Thornton and then-ASSE President Frank Perry made this same suggestion in March 1999. They arranged for a joint "board summit" and signed a memorandum of agreement (MOA) for AIHA and ASSE to work together on specific, mutually beneficial initiatives. In January 2001, I offered the ASSE board to meet them anywhere, any time, to discuss any aspect of the cooperative effort to implement the MOA.

Some years previously, I was a member of the AIHA-ACGIH-AIH-ABIH Unification Task Force. The task force developed a detailed unification plan that was voted unanimously, at each and every stage, for each and every detail, by every one of its members. One of the ACGIH members abstained from one vote, but every other vote was unanimous and positive.

You might ask yourself what value is a unified or confederated structure for these associations? The answer is three-fold:

  • The dues of the combined membership organization would inevitably be reduced.
  • The products and services offered by the combined membership association would better serve the needs of their customers by being planned and delivered more efficiently.
  • The profession would speak with one voice on governmental and professional certification issues.

With these clear advantages, why has unification or confederation not occurred? Why do the associations not band together to more efficiently and effectively serve the greater good &endash; the combined mission of protecting the health and safety of workers and the community? The answer is found in the age-old saying "the devil is in the details" or, rephrased, "problems become more apparent when you get close to an issue."

To those on the outside of the process, the lack of progress in cooperation is inexplicable and inexcusable. Let's get close to the issue so I can comment on a few of the impediments to progress.

Impediments to Progress

First, each association has its own board of directors with its own executive committee. Each board and committee has its own defined set of responsibilities, authority structure, financial and human resources, standard operating procedures and by-laws, and prerogatives. It is exceedingly difficult to get boards and committees to give up those structures, resources and prerogatives to create a common structure.

Second, each association has its own professional staff, headquarters office and sometimes its own building. Loyalty of the executive director to his or her staff prevents restructuring and downsizing with subsequent layoffs, is completely understandable and may possibly become an impediment to unification. Long-term lease or building ownership agreements are nontrivial and expensive to cancel.

Without the resolution of such issues, the economy of scale necessary for a successful unification or confederation cannot occur. I must say, however, that I personally believe the board-executive committee issue is a much greater challenge than the staff and building issue.

Third, each association serves a somewhat different membership base. ASSE's base is heavy with safety practitioners who may not be certified. AIHA's base is heavily laden with industrial hygienists and safety professionals who are degreed and certified. Full membership in the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) is permitted only to members who are academics or governmental hygienists.

The products and services required to adequately serve each of these member bases is different. Because member dues are a small fraction of the gross and an even smaller fraction of the net income of each organization, these associations live or die on how well their products and services meet the needs of their members.

Fourth, there are significant cultural differences in the organizations, which lead to nontrivial obstacles:

  • The centralized decision-making structure of AIHA vs. the multiple vice presidents and member voting bodies of ASSE;
  • The payment by ACGIH for the travel of all of its committee members to technical committee meetings, which is not done by the other associations;
  • The restriction on ACGIH against commenting on legislative and other federal governmental issues; and
  • The nonvoting status of industry, consulting and labor members of ACGIH.

Compete or Cooperate?

These are real and abiding differences that are less and less easy to surmount the closer you get to them. The result is that we are actually competing businesses. Each association is a business that competes for gross and net revenues by providing products and services to its members. Nonetheless, we must continue our attempts to unify, confederate or just to work together on important occasions.

In an Occupational Hazards article ("Will Worlds Collide or Merge?") almost three years ago, AIHA's Thornton explored this issue and its ramifications. As past president, he now says: "I believe that it is in our mutual best interest to find a structure that allows us to maintain our core identity, while freely co-owning those services and products that are common to us. In many cases, we are missing opportunities to apply synergistic principles in such a way that these redundant resources might be redirected to those initiatives that not only benefit our members, but to the improved health and safety of workers in the workplace."

As ASSE's Perry says, "We are probably not going to be able to overcome the obstacles that prevent our total partnership in any short time. These are significant issues that will have to be addressed and dealt with in a businesslike and professional manner if we are to successfully formulate the SHE federation. This change will be made by evolution and not by revolution."

So we have the question: Compete or cooperate, which will it be, and how can the situation be optimized for the good of the associations, the members and the stakeholders?

Contributing editor Steven P. Levine, Ph.D., CIH, is past president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. He is a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan. This article was co-authored by Jim Thornton, a past president of AIHA and director of Newport News Shipbuilding's Health, Safety and Environmental (HSE) Department; and Frank Perry, ASSE's past president who recently retired as HSE director at Cameron after 26 years with the company. He now heads his own consulting firm.

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