Rex Butler, ASP, the manager of environmental and safety at the Central Iowa Power Cooperative, is worried about the safety profession. The root of his concern is a common culprit these days: the economy.
“I'm trying to be optimistic about the economy in the future as best I can, but I do have fears on how safety may be impacted in the long run when we suffer from setbacks and cuts,” he says.
Difficult economic times, coupled with the number of EHS professionals retiring, may result in less-experienced professionals entering the field, Butler predicts.
“If economic times get more dire, there's a potential for more and more inexperienced people to get into our profession out of sheer necessity because we just don't have the people with the training or the background coming in from the ground up,” Butler explains. Once these professionals enter the field, he added, they may realize there's more than meets the eye to the EHS profession.
“It can be pretty overwhelming, and I worry about those folks that need the help and support from their companies and from other safety professionals and organizations,” he says.
Butler was one of nearly 1,000 EHS professionals who responded to EHS Today's 2009 National Safety Survey. Among the roughly two dozen questions, which focused on job duties, work environment, targeted injuries/illnesses, management support, EHS programs, OSHA performance and more, the economy was a sticking point for many respondents.
In fact, 10 percent of responding EHS professionals say their budgets have decreased by more than 10 percent in 2009, and an additional 13 percent say their budgets decreased from between 1 and 10 percent.
Almost half (47 percent) of EHS professionals, however, reported that their budgets remained the same. Eleven percent reported budget increases of 1 to 10 percent, and a fortunate 4 percent of respondents saw their budget go up by more than 10 percent in 2009.
Because of the economy, EHS professionals reported lower morale among employees, reduced or eliminated incentives programs, reduced travel opportunities, reduced training, layoffs, facility closures and fewer new equipment purchases. One respondent even claimed he had just lost his job and was preparing to file for unemployment.
“Management has a knee-jerk reaction and is cutting all budgets with little concern for worker safety,” one professional wrote. Another said the economic woes have “slowed our ability to introduce some ergonomic improvements.” Yet another respondent worried that some employers will stop buying PPE and assume workers will “just work safely” without protective equipment.
But not everyone views budget cuts as a threat to EHS programs. Several respondents pointed out that their companies used layoffs as an opportunity to shed the most inexperienced employees or those who took risks or shortcuts, which ultimately improved safety performance. Another said budget cuts allowed them to find more creative solutions, and another EHS professional said a tighter belt resulted in a more vigilant attempt to reduce the costs associated with injuries. If anything, he wrote, more attention now is placed on safety to help to reduce overall costs.
Still, it's hard to avoid the fact that slashed budgets might put safety programs at risk. Various respondents pointed out that there is the possibility that fewer accidents will be reported in this economy.
“People are clearly feeling like an injury could cost them their job — even if that isn't true, it's a difficult perception to fight,” one professional wrote.
Count Butler among those concerned. While he says his EHS program fortunately has not been negatively affected by the economy, he fears for the future of the profession at large.
“I'm worried about the repercussions of the failing economy and what it could do for our profession and for safety in general at companies,” he says.
WELCOMING OBAMA … OR NOT
The survey also asked EHS professionals to rate President Barack Obama's approach thus far to occupational health and safety. The responses drew a mixed bag: Sixteen percent rated his performance as good, 26 percent considered it average and 13 percent rated it fair. Fifteen percent of responding EHS professionals, meanwhile, rated Obama's performance as poor and more than a quarter (27 percent) said it's too soon to tell.
“The challenge that I would give to Obama is to be concerned about health and safety,” one EHS professional wrote. “Be concerned enough to be educated about what the businesses and employees are doing and not doing and not just throw money at it and say its all good.”
“Since Obama's answer to every problem is money, put real money into programs that want to improve their safely effectiveness without OSHA fines,” one respondent suggested. Another worried that Obama was moving too quickly: “OSHA [should] really review the changes being made. All things take time and Obama is taking these [changes] too fast.”
Ultimately, it looks like EHS professionals will have to agree to disagree. “Stay clear of the Obama administration. They have been doing a fine job so far,” one respondent said. Another declared, meanwhile, “I do not want Obama's administration involved in anything to do with health and safety.”
Finally, one respondent highlighted some of the challenges Obama faces and considered where safety fits in: “I think it would be better if he just stays focused on the economy and our own government, CEOs and bankers destroying our country from within,” the respondent wrote. “Don't you think that is enough for the guy to do?”
HOPES FOR OSHA
The question “What occupational safety and health challenge would you most like to see OSHA address during the Obama administration?” also yielded a variety of responses. Here, professionals suggested that OSHA focus on ergonomics, update antiquated standards and not be so quick to hand out fines instead of examining a violation's circumstances. Others called for a speedy nomination of an OSHA administrator, and one respondent suggested a focus on the issue of workplace aggression.
Survey respondents shared conflicting views on OSHA's role. “Reduce the size of ‘fedzilla’ OSHA and return authority to the states,” one respondent wrote, while another hoped for “consistency from state to state. We are the United States of America.”
One professional expressed his hope for OSHA to not waste any time in developing its identity and focus under the Obama administration: “Quickly figure out who they want to be, how they want to have the agency function, get people in place and do it,” he advised.
Ron “Sonny” Sundall, safety supervisor for Allied Machine and Engineering, would like to see a more helpful OSHA concerned with guidance instead of mostly enforcement.
“I think that OSHA does a very good job of what they want done, but they do a poor job of telling you how to do it,” he says. “You [do] have to go after the bad boys, because I know a lot of people really blow safety off, and it needs to be enforced, but I'd like to see them be on the more proactive side. Tell us what you need done and how to do it.”
Butler, meanwhile, would like to see OSHA make regulations easier to understand and interpret.
“When OSHA has tackled regulations in the past and written them in layman's terms, they just looked very effective. For instance, even though the ergonomics regulation fell through years ago, [it was] well written and easily understood. People could really tell what OSHA was trying to get across,” Butler explains. Writing regulations in a way that sounds as if they are coming from an experienced person in the safety world would make more sense than language produced by attorneys or legislators, he added
“I just think it would make things easier, especially during these economic times when a lot of businesses will pull somebody into the safety position who's never been in that position before,” Butler points out. “They really need all the help they can get, to be able to comply with the many requirements that OSHA has for us.”
GRIPES AND GRUMBLES
When asked about the most frequent complaints they hear about their health and safety programs, EHS professionals weren't afraid to speak up. Various respondents heard complaints about uncomfortable PPE, managers who are apathetic about safety, overwhelming amounts of paperwork, that safety rules do not apply equally to everyone, that company leadership is unwilling to spend the money to improve health and safety at work and that production takes precedence over safety.
“We have a corporate team that spends the majority of their time telling the organization what is wrong with the EHS efforts, but they offer no solutions or training,” one respondent wrote.
Several respondents expressed their frustrations of dealing with employees who argue they have been working in a certain way at the company for years and therefore do not need safety training or to change how they work. “‘I've done it like this for 25 years’ is a common phrase when employees have to adapt to new safety approaches,” a respondent wrote.
For Kevin Saylor, CIH, MPH, the health and safety manager at Dakota Creek Industries, the problem is managers who say they can't “make” employees work more safely — an issue he encountered when he previously worked as a consultant.
“I would talk to the safety or production manager, and they would say, ‘We can't make them wear safety glasses.’ I would say, ‘You can make them create a quality product, correct? Well, you can make them wear their gloves or their safety glasses and follow your work procedure in a safe manner,’” he explains. “The supervisor has to train and instruct and educate the employee on the correct way to do it, and then reward and enforce.”
(When asked how they would rate first-line supervision's attention to health and safety, the majority of EHS professionals — 40 percent — said good,13 percent said excellent and 29 percent said average. Only 11 percent considered supervisors' attention to health and safety to be fair and 4 percent poor.)
Even companies that are not bombarded by employee complaints aren't necessarily home free. One professional said he didn't receive many complaints, which tells him that the safety division is not active enough.
“I don't hear complaints,” another professional wrote. “I don't think employees are even aware of any safety and health initiatives.”
While one respondent chose to answer, in all capitals, “WE ARE IN GOOD SHAPE” when asked about the one area EHS professionals would like to see improvements in their safety and health programs, most were not at a loss for ways they could get better. Attitudes, training, culture, ergonomics, wellness programs, budgeting, communication and time management were offered again and again in the responses.
One professional would like to see “less arguing about ‘why’ we have to comply with regulations, and more discussion about how or what we are going to do to improve safety and comply with applicable rules.” “Middle management talks the talk, but there are gaps in what they say and what they do,” another wrote. “It's good at the top, but something is lost in the middle.”
“Better training for the front-line supervisors/foreman,” another suggested. “They are the first line of defense and usually have the least amount of training.”
Yet another respondent wished for “a culture that identifies and corrects safety issues at the time they are recognized — not waiting for the ‘day shift’ to fix it.”
When asked about the most important thing they do to improve safety and health within their organizations, EHS professionals shared responses ranging from training, communication, PPE, management visibility, daily safety meetings, working to produce culture change, fostering awareness, being visible on the jobsite and more.
“I spend time with the hourly employees on off-shifts listening and encouraging,” one wrote. “Sadly, to show pictures of mistakes made by others,” another commented. “There is no ‘one thing,’” a respondent pointed out. “It is a compilation of researching the requirements, training the work force and auditing to verify compliance.”
Sundall explains that his company works to emphasize at-home safety. “Statistics show that more people are hurt off the job than they are at work,” he says. He therefore uses monthly safety talks to highlight ways to stay safe at home, covering topics from lightning to lawn mowers to the importance of sunglasses.
“No matter what the topic is, the last part of the session is about take-home safety, something you can take home to your loved ones,” he says. “They feel that you really care about them, which we do. They're our most valuable resource, and we want to show them that not only are you important, but your children and loved ones are, too.”
The overwhelming response to this year's National Safety Survey shows that during times of change or economic hardship, people want to talk. In sharing their successes, failures, goals and concerns, these professionals added their voices to the discussion of how to make workplaces safer. Or as one respondent said, EHS professionals now more than ever must “keep fighting and pushing every day.”
Speaking Out About VPP
In June, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report recommending strengthened oversight in OSHA's Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP). The report took issue not only with oversight, but also with the program's documentation policies, program management, goals and performance measures and more. These findings have spurred discussion within the safety community of exactly how much help VPP needs and whether the program should be saved at all.
“Either make VPP acceptable or do away with it,” one survey respondent proposed.
Other EHS professionals who responded to the National Safety Survey acknowledged problems with VPP but largely supported working to improve it. “Do not trash something good because of a few bad apples,” one EHS professional commented. “Reorganize the VPP and other programs rather than abolishing them,” another suggested.
Some survey respondents actually wanted to see VPP grow and expand rather than fade away, while others offered suggestions for improvement, ranging from increased oversight, more closely monitoring and reviewing participating sites and directing more resources to the program. One EHS professional who said he'd like to see more VPP-type programs pointed out that those employers or companies who intentionally violate safety regulations “will always find some way” to do so anyway.
Another EHS professional said VPP has “slacked off” in recent years, but urged a recommitment to the program. “I've participated in VPP and it works,” another declared. Other respondents thought VPP should be supported as a constructive way of improving compliance.
Still others thought that the safety world has bigger problems to address. “The VPP program is fine,” one survey respondent asserted. “Efforts need to focus on enforcement for common workers doing hazardous jobs.”