Editor's Notebook: Take Advantage of the Network

When Jack Dobson takes the reins of ASSE later this month, he'll be promoting the business value of safety and the benefits of active association membership in a safety manager's career.

by Stephen G. Minter

Jack Dobson brings almost 40 years of safety experience to his impending duties as president of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE). Those experiences in both the private and public sector, in staff jobs and as a consultant, have shaped his views of what is needed to make safety a success in a facility and on the national level.

Dobson's safety career started in the United States Air Force, an organization he touts as having one of the best safety programs in the world. The Air Force taught Dobson the importance of motor vehicle safety, an area he thinks is still given too little attention. "There are 43,000 deaths a year and no one gets upset," he said, adding that it borders on a "national epidemic." He said ASSE has initiatives underway with the National Institute for Traffic Safety Administration and points to a brochure developed by ASSE on highway safety. But he wants safety professionals to do more. He notes that only 40 percent of work-related highway fatalities occur in the transportation industry. The rest befall home health nurses, equipment service technicians, salespeople and many other occupational groups across the business spectrum.

Dobson said the downsizing that safety has experienced in many organizations is not over, but he said other organizations are strengthening their safety staffs. Dobson is manager, occupational safety and health, for Simplicity Manufacturing Inc., a subsidiary of Briggs & Stratton. In Briggs & Stratton's network, he said, every plant has a safety engineer and the company also employs nurses and workers' compensation administrators. Dobson said one of the vital roles for safety professionals is to build the safety culture in their organization so that safety becomes an integral part of operations. He said a focus on OSHA compliance only produces "mediocrity" and that safety managers must show that an investment in safety "can be a profit center, not just an expense."

Not surprisingly, Dobson will continue the push at ASSE in recent years to stress the need for safety professionals to learn about business and be comfortable communicating to top management in business terms rather than arcane safety terminology. He recalled the effort to introduce safety into business schools through Project Minerva and said he hopes to renew that effort. But beyond that, he said there is a need for a variety of business disciplines, including manufacturing, marketing and engineering, to have at least an introduction to safety. He noted, for example, that many design engineers do not have any safety training.

Congress and Safety

With several bills in Congress calling for changes in the OSH Act, ASSE re-affirmed its support for the introduction of third-party auditors. Jon Turnipseed, safety program manager for the San Bernadino, Calif., Municipal Water Department, testified before the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections that a challenge for ASSE members is to "help employers move beyond compliance toward establishing proactive workplace health and safety measures." He said third-party audits would not supplant OSHA enforcement and cooperative efforts, but rather "add one more tool to help increase the number of safe and healthy workplaces."

Dobson said OSHA simply does not have the resources to do the job on its own. "It's far from a fat-cat organization," he said, adding that third-party audits would serve as an extension of recent OSHA efforts to promote voluntary compliance and safety programs driven by an interest in safety excellence.

Ultimately, said Dobson, it is up to organizations and their safety personnel to develop effective safety programs. Asked about the explosion at the BP refinery in Texas City that killed 15 people and injured 150 more, he put it in the context of a series of major incidents at large facilities that have demonstrated the continuing need for proactive safety measures and for safety personnel. He said such incidents are usually due to multiple causes and that investigators have to be careful not to immediately search for "who screwed up."

That's one reason he is eager to promote membership in ASSE and other EHS associations. He said the networking that comes from membership in these groups is valuable because safety and health professionals have an ongoing need to stay current with a wide variety of safety issues. "When you join ASSE, you have 30,000 people in your network," he said. "If you don't network, you're lost."

The same reasoning applies to attending this month's Professional Development Conference in New Orleans. He said along with the opportunity to network with nearly 4,000 fellow safety professionals, the PDC offers great speakers, in-depth seminars and a track for personnel new to the safety field. And he said companies shouldn't worry about making the investment in sending their safety managers to this meeting. "It's pretty intensive," he said. "There are sessions going on all the time."

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