The Future of Safety

Sept. 9, 2004
Occupational safety and health is important work, but does it offer a promising future? Our experts polish their crystal balls and offer their insights.

Safety professionals like Tom Lawrence lead busy lives, but these days he is also taking time for some introspection. With OSHA compliance established as a base level of the safety profession, Lawrence, as the American Society of Safety Engineers' (ASSE) vice president for professional affairs, has begun a process to try to establish what is "the other end of the range."

Lawrence sees two aspects to this process. The first is finding out what safety professionals believe about their future and how they define themselves. The second is finding out what their employers and customers, for the most part corporations, believe about their roles and capabilities. "Do they see us as strictly an extension of OSHA, to keep them out of citation problems," he wondered," or do they see us as having a larger capability to help with more enterprise issues?" Lawrence says a number of safety professionals are bringing their professional knowledge to bear on a wide range of business issues, and that it is ASSE's task to now make this expanded view of the profession clearly recognized.

Professional societies such as ASSE, the American Industrial Hygiene Association and the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses all are spending time and money trying to better understand the future their members will inhabit and what roles they will play within the business world and the global community. What is the future of safety and health practice? What new challenges, if any, will safety and health jobs entail? Will safety be a field that can attract talented newcomers and offer them the promise of rewarding jobs?

Such analysis stems from some wrenching changes that safety has undergone over the past couple decades. Manufacturing, the industry sector in which many safety professionals historically were employed, saw its ranks fall from 19.5 million workers in 1979 to 14.3 million in January and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecasts a further 1 percent decline by 2012. Corporations flattened their structures and downsized, with corresponding reductions in and even eliminations of safety and health departments. And OSHA, which during the 1970s and 1980s routinely promulgated new standards and provided safety managers with a powerful hammer for seeking investments in safety, is now widely seen as having lost much of its influence on corporate behavior.

In the short run, says Cindy Lewis, the assistant administrator for ASSE's Industrial Hygiene Practice Specialty, the job market will remain tough as companies continue to lay off safety professionals and, when they do hire, look for generalists, not specialists in any one discipline. But over the next 5 to 10 years, when the federal government forecasts a shortage of workers as baby boomers leave the job market, she says that will create opportunities for safety professionals in industry. "That is going to be great for those of us left in the field because we are going to become very much in demand," she said.

In the meantime, says Lewis, the safety profession needs to make an adjustment to the changing economy. "We are turning from a manufacturing, hard goods society to a services society. Since there are fewer manufacturing facilities, businesses feel there is less need for people in the field," said Lewis. "As safety professionals, we have to change our mindset about how we do safety, health, and even environmental issues for a mobile, service-based economy."

Safety in the New Economy

Services accounted for 80 percent of the employment and two-thirds of the 1.4 million lost work time injuries and illnesses in 2002, according to BLS. Nursing aides and orderlies was the occupation with the second highest number of lost-time injuries and illnesses, behind only truck drivers. Services accounted for 29 percent of all musculoskeletal disorders. With services expected to add 19 percent more jobs by 2012, one might expect that the service sector offers rich opportunities for safety professionals.

But Jonathan Rosen, MS, CIH, director of the Occupational Safety & Health Department for the New York State Public Employees Federation, AFL-CIO, says a major challenge facing the safety profession is to get hazardous industries in the service sector to hire safety and health professionals. He notes, for example, that nursing aides and cashiers face high injury rates, mostly from musculoskeletal disorders, but few safety professionals are working for the companies that hire these individuals. "So the ability to influence these industries in creating effective safety and health programs is pretty minimal," he said.

Dr. Richard Fulwiler, president of Technology Leadership Associates, says services may not replace the safety and health jobs lost in manufacturing, but the sector does offer many opportunities. "The right of entry for many of these will be ergonomics," he said, postulating that once safety and health professionals get their foot in the door, they will be able to identify other safety issues that need attention.

Lewis, an industrial hygienist with Halliburton, concurs. She said safety and health professionals can conduct risk assessments for service businesses, which are often much more dynamic than manufacturing facilities in terms of the work environments that employees operate in and the variety of activities employees perform. As a result, it is harder for service industry executives to fully comprehend the risks their employee face. "You need us as the safety and health profession to be able to assess that and be able to control your costs for things like workers' comp," she said.

Howard Cohen, a professor of occupational safety and health management at the University of New Haven, says one result of the changing economy is that there are fewer large facilities. "We have lots of small organizations, some of which use workers particularly for the most dangerous jobs who are not English speaking and don't have access to this type of care," said Cohen, adding that the United States has not found a way to get health and safety resources into small businesses. In fact, he said even if safety and health help was offered for free, some small businesses might be reluctant to take it because they wouldn't want to make investments, for example, in capital improvements.

Safety educator Mark Friend of Embry-Riddle University agrees, saying most small businesses remain largely ignorant of OSHA regulations. "You go out and talk to a 150 to 200 person business that has annual revenues of a few million dollars and they don't have a clue about safety regulations. The only thing protecting them is that their workers don't have a clue, either."

In uncertain times, some safety professionals are looking to the public sector to offer more job security. Brian Berke, CIH, CSP, the safety and health manager for Palm Beach County, said that when he worked in the private sector, public sector safety was not seen as the "place for the stars." He said as the private sector sheds jobs and skilled health and safety professionals come into government, there is an opportunity to demonstrate the value of safety. "The challenge is to be successful coming up with technical solutions so that people can do their jobs better and safer. Then people see the value in it as opposed to the old way, which was (safety) shutting down jobs. You have to get some safety people in place so that the non-safety people can see the value of safety and how it benefits their jobs."

Future Belongs to the Generalist

Though no one predicts that safety engineers or industrial hygienists will disappear over the next decade, there was near universal agreement among our respondents that organizations will continue the demand for professionals who can handle broad EHS functions and even allied responsibilities.

Cohen says those who want to succeed in the field need to be able to adapt to a wide range of job demands. "So many jobs require a broad-based knowledge of safety, health and environmental areas. Part of what you are doing is marketing yourself. Marketing yourself broadly for most people is going to be much more effective than marketing yourself narrowly," he said, adding: "No matter what field you are in, you need to show enormous flexibility because the technology and the economics will change what you are doing at any time."

Berke agrees that the most employable professionals will have broad EHS skills. "I did consulting for about a year and unless you were pretty good at health, safety, environment, training, the psychology of changing organizations, you were just too focused. Companies don't want to hire people for just a particular, narrow evaluation."

But Berke warns that the move toward generalists should not negate the necessity of having people with technical knowledge in safety and health. He said there has been a trend in industry of downplaying the professional knowledge that safety personnel bring to an organization and believing that "you just need to integrate health and safety into the line organization, train them a little bit and they will be able to take care of it," said Berke. He says organizations can run into trouble if they define the generalist as the person who is "brought up through the ranks, goes to a couple courses and now they is the health and safety person. That's a problem."

Drivers Wanted

Few safety and health professionals would argue that when OSHA was very active in promulgating standards and OSHA inspectors were seen as carrying a bigger stick, industry created an unprecedented number of safety jobs.

"The real push for safety started in 1971," said Friend. "We're pulling back from that with budget cuts at OSHA and the reorganization at NIOSH. The federal government has been the primary driver for safety throughout the economy for large and small business."

Berke says OSHA regulation "was an impetus and it was a way to justify positions and activities based on what would happen to them. It made it easier to convince certain types of management about the importance of programs and that you've got to do it. Without that club, it is much easier for them to say, 'OSHA might come in here once every 120 years. We'll take that chance.' For people who don't believe health and safety is integral to business, that is a very pleasing path to take."

Will OSHA's move to encourage voluntary safety efforts in organizations prove a driver for safety? "Partnerships are not going to be as effective as OSHA hopes they will be," said Lewis. "The reason is they are not partnering with specific companies, but with associations that have company members. They are not getting to frontline workers through the associations."

Cohen said that while voluntary partnerships offer the chance to do innovative things, "There is the possibility that one spends a lot of time preaching to the choir. You're taking the best companies and setting up partnerships." Moreover, he questions if OSHA's current course makes sense for an agency in the Department of Labor, an organization "designed to enforce labor laws." Cohen said such outreach and educational activities might be better handled by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Without strong regulatory pressure, say our respondents, safety and health professionals will have to become more adept at understanding how to guide management toward making investments in safety and health. That means understanding the financial and operating goals of enterprises and how factors such as tort litigation, workers' compensation, absenteeism and poor labor relations can affect them.

"We don't do safety," said Lawrence. "We are in the influence business. We have to do that well and influence all levels of the operations that we serve, from employees to management."

Mike Narvaez, CSP, manager of industrial and construction safety assurance for the Metropolitan Transit Authority in Houston, said that the trend toward placing additional responsibilities such as security, emergency preparedness and environmental on safety professionals may prove beneficial because it forces practitioners to deal with business issues such as strategic planning and budgeting. "It is helping to make us a little more well-rounded," he said. "If we want operations, engineering and facilities maintenance people to understand what we are bringing to them, we better start talking their language and their language isn't incident rates... We need to find out what makes them tick, what numbers would get an operations guy to stand up and say, 'We need to address this.'"

Similarly, Berke said safety and health personnel need to appeal to people who have the ability to change things in an organization. "If top management isn't motivated to do something based on their sense of doing the right thing, then you need to use the most effective way that you can to get things done," adding that making the business case for safety "doesn't mean that in the back of your mind, your motivation can't be the 'prime directive' of preventing injuries and illnesses."

"Our field is largely based in the technical and in human factors," Berke added. "I never thought my psychology minor would be worthwhile, but it is because it all comes down to changing the culture. We'd all like to take the pill to make that happen, but it's not that easy."

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