President Thomas Cecich: The Beat Goes On for ASSE

June 6, 2017
Tom Cecich, CSP, CIH, is the outgoing president of the American Society of Safety Engineers. In an interview with EHS Today, he discusses the challenges the safety profession faces with the change in government administration as well as the strategic vision of the organization and the safety profession.

Change is the name of the game for Tom Cecich. During his tenure as president of ASSE, he has seen a shift in the way the organization utilizes technology for communication and education, worked directly with other board members on ASSE's first name change in 100 years and witnessed the outcome of a presidential election.

In an interview with EHS Today, Cecich discusses where the organization is going in terms of strategic planning, how it plans to enhance its membership experience, what brought about the proposed name change and what the new administration could mean for the future of occupational health and safety.

Stefanie Valentic/EHS Today: What accomplishments are you proud of personally and for the organization in the past year?

Tom Cecich: The thing that I'm most proud of is working to advance the profession. We worked really hard to focus on trying to transition what safety professionals do beyond compliance and to look at providing value to organizations by reducing risk. We've found that's a conversation that safety professionals can have with their senior manager. It can open doors to senior management as opposed to just discussing compliance because, in general, most senior managers don't look at compliance alone as a source of competitive advantage whereas they do with respect to managing risk. All senior managers and executives do that. Operational risk and safety risk is just one type of risk that they manage.

Looking at promoting that transition for safety professionals has been, a message that I've delivered whenever I've been asked to give an update or ASSE or an update of the profession.

The board set strategic priorities a year ago. As president, a big part of my job is to help the organization achieve those priorities. Our priorities are enhancing our member communities; how do members relate to each other and to the society?

Through chapters or practice specialties, common interest groups, face-to-face dialogue or done virtually, these are all different ways our members can network together and how they choose to connect with the society and with each other. Whether it's through social media, direct member-to-member, through conferences or chapter meetings, we want to make sure that we provide the best possible membership experience. That's strategic vision number one.

Vision number two, we use the term "reimagining education." We think ASSE is a world leader in providing safety and health education. We want to make sure we're providing it in the manner that the attendees want and that varies from the traditional classroom approach to a virtual approach to using micro training– looking at all the different methods and methodologies plus using the most current adult education principles.

The third is we want to be a leading global standards organization. We currently are the secretariat for over a hundred ANSI standards, various health and safety standards from fall protection to occupational, health and safety management system, lockout/tagout, confined space. We have a number of standards on construction and safety. We're looking to further develop that area to an even broader range of safety and health standards.

Our fourth is promoting the value of the profession. That's really the broad topic of how do we promote what safety professionals do, the value they bring. That's a big part of my presentation when I talk about transitioning from managing compliance to managing risk. That's all part of what the value of the profession is.  

Are there any critical issues that are affecting both ASSE and the practice of safety?

Cecich: A big item right now is even though we say we want to move beyond compliance, the role of government always is going to be important and compliance is always important. For our members, it is obviously always going to be of key component of their job. As a result, we are very interested in what's occurring in Washington right now. Whenever there are changes in administration, there's always the question about the direction of the new administration. It varies from more of a compliance assistance approach to one end of the spectrum to more of an enforcement approach at the other end of the spectrum.

The new administration really hasn't offered any guidance yet as to direction they're going. We are certainly paying attention to what is occurring in Washington. We are in the process of developing a white paper that includes new ideas about how OSHA can be more effective.
What are some things that will further enhance OSHA's ability to protect American workers? If you look at the rate of occupational fatalities that OSHA or the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, that number has really not changed much in the past 10 years. In other words, as a nation, we've not been able to reduce the rate of occupational fatalities over the past 10 years.

We think some new ideas are warranted and we're in the process of putting together a series of recommendations that we'll present to the new assistant secretary [of labor for OSHA] for his or her consideration.

Can you speak about any of those recommendations?

Cecich: Well, some things are not new, some things are new. We still think that safety and health management programs — it's what our members do. We do it every day. We think that to make a change in the number of fatalities and serious injuries that companies need to embrace that. We also think that there is an opportunity to broaden OSHA's reach into organizations by developing some type of third-party audit program. In the United States, there are fewer than 2,000 state and federal compliance officers, across both state and federal jurisdiction.

If you look at the numbers, it's safe to say that there is no way they can ever cover [every facility].

So, why not take advantage of using third party safety professionals in some kind of manner to do inspections or to do audits?

What that would look like is open for discussion of course. The process is not necessarily a new thing. There are Canadian provinces that have similar programs that they feel are very effective in reducing workplace injuries and illness.

We continue to advocate that all public workers should be covered by OSHA protections. There are a number of states that are still under federal jurisdiction under OSHA and in those states there's no coverage in most cases unless they choose to specifically cover public workers.

There is a number of states where public workers such as municipal workers or state workers who do potentially hazardous jobs that are not covered by OSHA regulations. And we think that continues be a gap that needs to be closed.

Can you provide a little background on the proposed name change for the organization and how members are responding to it?

Cecich: The name American Society of Safety Engineers goes back almost 100 years, maybe even  more than 100 years. The organization tracks its roots to 1911. I don't think we were originally ASSE, but I think that name changed many years ago.

The question that has come up many times over the decade is does the name American Society Safety Engineers accurately reflect who we are and who our membership is? We have individuals who are engineers such as myself, but that really doesn't accurately reflect who we are or who our members are.

The conversations have occurred a lot of times over the years, and it's a big change.  To change the name of an organization that is over 100 years old is not something that should be taken lightly.  It's challenging and, as a result, past leadership has said, is it the right title? But, it was such a big change and significant effort it was easier to defer to a future board of directors.

This year, a couple of things drove it. Number one is just the question: is our name right and is our brand right? We are in the process of making a major upgrade to our IT systems and ultimately our website. With an upgrade of a website, if you're going to rewrite or redevelop the whole website, it's important that you are going to include your branding on that website.

From the board's perspective, we said if there is ever a time that we might want to look at our brand, what it says or who we are or how it promotes what we do, this would be a good time.

The board contracted the study with a professional branding group, and they surveyed our members back in the fall.

More than 1,700 of our members responded. They also looked at safety professionals who were not members. They asked the questions: Does the current name reflect what we do? Would non-members be interested in joining?

Probably most important – certainly right up there in importance – we wanted to understand how younger professionals both inside and outside of ASSE view the name. We're very attuned to what the profession would look like in the future and what future professionals will look like. Those are the professionals who are coming out of schools now and are new in the field.

Their preference was pretty strong that the name ASSP, American Society of Safety Professionals, seems to better reflect who they are and what they do than ASSE. All that information was evaluated by this professional branding group.

They presented their findings to staff and then the board. The board is very interested in making data-driven decisions that are not just arbitrary – "we think this sounds good" or "maybe this sounds good"– but rather what our members said that was very important to us.

Looking at that as a whole, the branding consultant came to the board of directors and said the data they've generated points to a broad cross-section of our membership and the outside world that says the organization would better be represented by changing name from ASSE to ASSP.

They also looked at the logo and said that people recognized the logo. There are things such as the shield that are very representative of ASSE and who we are. They came up with what they called a refreshing of the logo. There is a proposal to the membership to both change the name and change the logo, and the timing of that would coincide with the updating of our IT systems and our website.

Do you have any advice to EHS professionals or those wishing to enter the profession that you would like to provide?

Cecich: I will be completing seven years on the board of directors, overall 44 years in the profession. I think my advice to young professionals and people considering safety as a career is that, just from my own experience, it's a great career field.

Advances have been made in the profession and professionals are still able to influence and impact people's lives. As a profession, it's one where there is great satisfaction in terms of making a contribution to protecting people.

You can also make a contribution by adding business value to the organization. I think that's one of the real values we are bringing in terms of transforming the conversation beyond just compliance to one of managing risk.

It's a rewarding profession in several different ways, from making a business contribution to an organization, but also knowing that you're helping workers to go home safe and sound at the end of work day. It is also a profession that is more and more about providing rewards and career opportunities. People can make a good living for themselves and their families. All those together make it a great profession, one that I found very rewarding and one that I've been able to give back as a volunteer to help both the profession and future generations of safety professionals.

You've been on the board for seven years, and you've been a safety professional for 44 years. What do you plan to do now?

Cecich: That's a good question, very good question. I will continue to teach. I've been asked to serve on a corporate board. I'll still do some consulting. I will do the best I can to continue to advocate for safety: for workplace safety, the safety profession and safety professionals. 

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