I get other people to do stuff, I get money, and I sell the program." That's how Joy Erdman, CIH, CSP, with a verve and a simplicity befitting her name, describes her job as the head of safety and occupational health for the U.S. Navy.
While Erdman downplays her role, she is a passionate and effective advocate for her program and industrial hygiene, in part because of her focus on the profession's human dimension. "We do safety and health not just because we have to, but because it makes a real difference in people's lives."
Erdman oversees a program of nearly 400 industrial hygienists and 1,000 safety managers for more than 500,000 military and civilian employees. Although her job has clearly expanded beyond that of the traditional "pump hanger," Erdman retains her industrial hygiene (IH) roots and loyalty. For example, she recently finished a three-year term on the board of directors of the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists. She is proud of the fact that the Navy is the only military branch with a significant cadre of IH military officers -- 128 as of 1999. Every aircraft carrier has one.
Erdman traces her pursuit of industrial hygiene to her college interest in science. What really seems to have set her career in motion, however, was when she discovered how the profession makes the connection between science and people's lives. After 20 years of working on occupational safety and health as a civilian in the Navy, Erdman appears to be just as excited by IH as an undergraduate who has made her first scientific discovery.
As she talks about downsizing, the competition for resources, ergonomics and hearing protection, it soon becomes apparent that industrial hygienists (IHs) in the Navy and the corporate world face remarkably similar challenges.
Every Crisis Is an Opportunity
When asked what accomplishments she is proudest of, Erdman's first answer is winning special pay for IHs in the early 1990s. She realized that the low pay was not only hurting her program, but was also a waste of Navy resources because IHs were leaving the Navy for higher pay after receiving their training at government expense. At her initiative, Erdman engaged a host of federal agencies to win support for the pay raise. She says the successful effort showed her the importance of building partnerships with people to get something done.
"Before, we were more 'stove-piped' around here," she says. "It was exciting to get to know my counterparts, including other IHs, in other agencies."
The experience taught her another valuable lesson. "Anytime you have a crisis, you can use it as an opportunity."
Erdman is less interested in talking about her achievements than something that evidently has been a key to her success at the Navy: team-building.
"You're only as good as your team," she contends. For example, under Erdman's leadership, the Navy's Occupational Safety and Health (NAVOSH) Quality Council has become an important part of the long-range planning effort. Its members, drawn from all over the Navy, are responsible for guiding NAVOSH's strategic plan.
"Getting teams to work together and make things happen is tough," Erdman says. "But we've built up enough trust to keep going forward, even if we don't always agree."
One of the elements of the group's success is that it spends a lot of energy on implementation, unlike a lot of other long-range planning groups that spend most of their time just doing a plan that ends up going nowhere.
NAVOSH's strategic plan emphasizes ergonomics, communication and information systems, training and education, and a measurement system to assess performance. True to her IH background, Erdman said she believes obtaining better data is the key to making sound decisions and to selling top Navy decision-makers on the value of the NAVOSH program.
Getting resources for safety and health in the military probably has similarities with most organizations, Erdman believes. "Competition is fierce, convincing people to invest in something that may or may not happen is difficult, and most people want safety and health, but don't want to pay for it," she said.
Erdman lists two basic approaches to selling the value of safety and health: financial and human.
On the financial side, cost-benefit analyses are taking on a growing role in safety and health decisions. Erdman believes that data demonstrating the value of safety and health will be increasingly important to "make the sale." For example, a couple of years ago, NAVOSH sponsored a study to determine the return on investment from ergonomic interventions. It found that for every dollar invested, there was a $3 savings in workers' compensation costs.
Yet, it is easy for IH professionals to neglect this piece of the puzzle. "You have to make time to do it [because] it's not the same as your job," Erdman says. She pointed out that it is especially important for IHs to sell the value of their work because health hazards are often not very visible, and the time lag for disease is greater than with risks surrounding safety hazards.
Erdman is constantly on the lookout "to expand our horizons concerning data." For example, last year the Naval Safety Center used the Department of Veterans Affairs' database on military disabilities and discovered some revealing information about military hearing loss as a primary disability. As a result, the Navy is making changes to its hearing conservation program in an effort to stem future hearing loss.
Overall, NAVOSH has compiled some impressive numbers. From 1989 to 1997, lost-time rates in the private sector fell 18 percent. The Navy's rates decreased 30 percent over the same period.
Along with the use of data, Erdman is working to integrate safety and health into the Navy's culture. She has identified a key goal of her organization -- "readiness" -- and has made the case that her programs keep Navy personnel healthy and on the job, an inescapable component of readiness.
The Human Factor
As important as money and data are, it is staying committed to human beings behind the numbers that may be the secret to Erdman's success and the contagious ebullience she has kept after two decades of government service.
"My heart has always been with the worker out there," she says. "If you're going to survive, safety and health has got to be a calling."
In the competition for resources, NAVOSH often uses the human argument to transcend cost-benefit analyses, because the value of human life is incalculable. Erdman says that immediately after a fatality, or even a near miss, organizations are especially receptive to this line of reasoning.
To be an effective leader of a large program, it also helps to pay attention to human factors in the people you manage. One element of her program that she is especially eager to talk about is "1001 NAVOSH Success Stories," posted on the NAVOSH Web site, www.navosh.net. The stories are examples of successful efforts to solve safety or health problems. They can be submitted by any Navy civilian or military employee.
Posting these success stories, Erdman says, "has encouraged field professionals to think outside the box, be creative and go beyond compliance to solve important problems in their world."
The initiative is voluntary, so it has been a test of leadership to get professionals excited about what they do and inspire them to share it with others. Moreover, the value of one good idea is multiplied as many times as it is used across the organization.
A review of the success stories shows that one of Erdman's priorities, engineering and design solutions to safety and health problems, is already being implemented. Navy IHs are increasingly involved in the design review and procurement process. The training of IHs makes them ideal for the job of sorting out relative risk factors, Erdman says.
Who Is My Customer?
Erdman is finding an expanding role for IHs in the Navy, in part, by asking the question, "Who is my customer?"
Traditionally, the Navy has seen its safety and health program solely in terms of protecting its employees. Erdman thinks this has to change.
"What about the public, the taxpayer?" she asks. For example, the Navy does more than 80,000 samples of chemical exposures every year. Erdman says the Navy could share sampling data with small businesses that cannot afford to do as much sampling as they would like.
Another initiative in this area is improving the health and safety standards of Navy contractors. The Navy has to deal with many hazardous materials. If a contractor fails to deal with these hazards appropriately, the Navy can be stuck with a big cleanup bill and a public relations disaster.
One way of addressing this problem has been instituted: 10 percent of the awarded contract money is held back until the Navy completes a review of the contractor's safety and health performance.
The issue of contractors comes up in another way, one that may be familiar to corporate IH professionals: having people outside the organization do work that previously was done on staff. Erdman says she is monitoring this issue carefully to determine what tasks outside contractors should, and should not, be doing.
"They're great for special studies," she says, because outsiders can bring a fresh perspective to an organization and may not be so defensive about shortcomings. The danger of relying too much on contractors, however, is "you lose advocates within the organization."
Erdman's passion for the profession is combined with a sober sense of the staying power needed to succeed in a large organization.
She points with pride to a recent Brookings Institution study identifying the enhancement of worker health and safety as No. 16 on a list of the 50 greatest achievements of the federal government in the 20th century. She also stressed another of the study's findings: The achievements were the fruit of endurance, consensus and patience.
Despite the progress she has made in helping to change the Navy's culture with respect to health and safety, Erdman believes there is still more to do.
Her goal? "I want to get to the point where they realize that they need us more than we need them."