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Off-the-Job Safety Among Challenges for EHS Pros

According to Robert Pater, managing director of Portland, Ore.-based Strategic Safety Associates, the biggest challenges for EHS professionals in 2007 will include improving their leadership skills and addressing off-the-job safety.

Pater – whose clientele mainly consists of large, private-sector companies – said that more and more EHS professionals are making an effort to grow from "being just technicians to leaders."

One of the reasons for that, Pater said, is the growing importance of being able to get the attention of upper management. The good news, Pater added, is that the ROI of safety is a message that executives increasingly want to hear.

"I've been doing work in safety as a consultant for more than 20 years, and I have never seen greater receptivity on the part of senior management toward safety," Pater said, "whereas before it used to be something that was secondary or tertiary and, organizationally, was farmed out and delegated. Now senior management often is demanding safety changes."

According to Pater, another challenge facing EHS professionals is how to make "wise use" of their resources. As a backlash to what Pater calls "the back belt syndrome," employers are being more cautious when it comes to how they spend their time and money.

"It used to be, not that long ago, that organizations were entranced by the newest flavor of the month, the newest thing," Pater said, noting, for example, that back belts once were touted as an effective method to prevent back injuries but since have been discredited. "It's almost as if organizations are saying, 'I've seen this before. I bought a pig in the poke before and it didn't last.'"

Tying in to leadership and resource management, Pater added, is "the need for thinking of simultaneous objectives" – in other words, the need for EHS professionals to simultaneously work toward accomplishing their mission of improving safety and health and helping the organization achieve its overall goals.

"It's part of thinking more as a leader," Pater said. "So, 'How do I help the organization become more productive and efficient and have quality on one hand, boost safety and health on the other hand and boost employee satisfaction on the third hand?'"

The challenge, Pater said, is to implement strategies and interventions "that simultaneously reach and boost all three of those objectives."

Changing Climates and Habits – On and Off the Job

Among other challenges facing EHS professionals in 2007 and beyond, Pater asserted, are finding ways to "become a force for a changing climate"; exploring "alternate ways of changing actions and behaviors"; and promoting off-the-job safety.

EHS professionals, Pater said, are tasked with the challenge of raising employee morale, attitudes, trust and involvement, all of which Pater considers part of becoming a force for a changing climate. EHS professionals also need to find effective methods for changing actions and behaviors.

With the National Safety Council estimating that off-the-job injuries and fatalities cost U.S. businesses almost $200 billion annually in lost productivity, the need to influence employees' actions, behaviors and habits extends beyond the workplace. That's why Pater believes that off-the-job safety is one of the biggest challenges facing EHS professionals today.

"Organizations have, in the past, been frustrated by seeing [injuries] that happened off work," Pater explained. "Well it doesn't matter. The bottom line is they're paying for it one way or another at that point and [employers] realize that."

Pater added that "The lines are blurring between work and home." Consequently, trying to allocate responsibility to the worker for his or her off-the-job behavior "has less and less meaning for many organizations that are being unsuccessful at that."

"So the bottom line is not blaming and fending off but, 'How do I positively, proactively adjust people's off-work behavior?'" Pater said.

As 2007 approaches, is examining some of the major issues impacting the EHS community. This is the third in a series of online articles. For more, read "Safety Issues on the Table" in the December issue of OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS.

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