Dec. 1, 2009
Read the full transcript of the EHS Today Roundtable. We questioned EHS leaders about current and future regulations, the issues impacting the practice of occupational health and safety and the importance of mentoring future leaders. Here is what they had to say

1. What do you think has had the most impact on EHS in 2009 and why?

Mike Blotzer: The new administration in Washington, DC. While the news media has focused on the administration’s efforts at economic recovery, health care reform, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, new leadership at the Department of Labor and the Environmental Protection Agency is having a quiet, yet profound impact on EHS. OSHA’s special emphasis inspection program to ensure stimulus projects meet safety and health requirements and the EPA’s new greenhouse gas regulations are signs that the agencies will be more focused and engaged moving forward.

Cathy Cole: Obviously the change in administrations has had the most impact on EHS from the regulatory perspective. While it is still early to look at results, it seems as if the credibility of the agency (OSHA) has been raised simply by moving several issues forward. Budgets have been raised at OSHA and NIOSH which adds to this feeling that worker health and safety if receiving some early support.

Of course, the economy in 2009 has had a huge impact and challenged many in the EHS community limiting our abilities to move programs forward.

Carol Heinlein: The economy! The construction industry is seeing a slow recovery, particularly in the general building construction market (schools, office buildings, hospitals, shopping malls etc). Construction firms are building, but at a reduced pace, at reduced budgets, and at tighter margins.

However, there certainly are some bright spots. The renewable energy, government/public, and military construction markets are growing. Also growing is the street and road construction market under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which will help America's aging infrastructure and get Americans back to work.

Because of the economy, we are now seeing a transition in EHS staffs working in construction markets that they traditionally may not have worked in before. We are also seeing less hiring of EHS Professionals from outside the firm and using more internal resources to fill positions. In addition, EHS professionals are being asked to expand their responsibilities within their firms, including HR, Claims, and Risk Management.

Tom Krause: Certainly, the recession has had a tremendous effect on EHS efforts and functioning in 2009. We’ve seen the economic downturn pose two significant safety challenges to organizations this past year. The short-term issue is that many companies have had to figure out how to maintain an appropriate level of exposure reduction with fewer resources. Even for companies committed to protecting safety budgets, sustaining current initiatives and launching new ones has been more difficult than it was in previous years. Add to this mix employees who are distracted and anxious, and you have not just a resource issue, but a changing exposure picture as well.

The long-term issue, which is also more complex, is the cultural exposure posed by changes in the business. An organization responding to economic conditions can create an unintended climate shift, for example putting a higher focus on production than safety. To some, these shifts might get lost in the scramble to keep the business afloat, but they are very noticeable to employees at the front line, who take away from these experiences enduring memories of how they were treated and what they perceive the organization to truly value.

Many safety leaders in 2010 will continue to spend considerable time evaluating and navigating both issues. The upside is that the economy is helping some organizations rethink and refine their safety systems into something stronger and more resilient.

Jim Lastowka: Unquestionably, the severe downturn in the economy. Given the substantial negative impact of the downturn on every aspect of business operations, there is no doubt that the overall manpower and funding dedicated to EHS efforts likewise negatively impacted. Also, a significant physical and emotional personal toll has been taken not only on workers who lost their jobs but on those who remained on the job and necessarily are under pressure to do substantially more with less support in order to maintain or improve productivity, which increases safety challenges.

Zack Mansdorf: The economic crisis has had a significant impact on EHS in 2009. Budget cuts, loss of personnel and delaying major EHS projects that are in the pipeline were common among companies of all sizes and in all locations. This is not to say that EHS was ignored, but certainly advances were delayed.

Frank White and James Nash: From the perspective of EHS professionals, it would be the growing importance of sustainability, energy conservation, and ‘going green.’

If you tackle this question from the perspective of the practice of EHS as a whole, the answer is the heightened awareness of combustible dust hazards.

Cynthia Roth: The change in administration has had the most impact on EHS as Obama has set the pathway for the future.

Stronger sustainability programs, OSHA budgetary increases for enforcement, and Green initiatives all have come to a higher visibility in 2009.

Ergonomics has resurfaced in 2009 with the prospect in the future of developing a new standard.

Daniel K. Shipp: Like it or not, economic conditions affect EHS in companies. No one wants to admit that safety and health are scaled back when money is tight, and I doubt that companies would view cost-cutting as endangering EHS. But companies are stretched thin, people are given more responsibilities, and inevitably the degree of attention paid to EHS gives way other pressing responsibilities. Companies that do the best in this kind of atmosphere are the ones where there's a pervasive culture of safety, where everyone shares the responsibility of doing the right thing.

Of course, the 900-pound gorilla in the room is health. The H1N1 pandemic has not affected most workplaces, but people responsible for EHS have to be prepared for something much worse.

2. What regulation promulgated or under consideration by OSHA or EPA in 2009 will have the most impact on EHS in the future and why?

Mike Blotzer: OSHA’s proposal to modify the Hazard Communication Standard to conform with the United Nations Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). This will be the first major change to hazard communication in over twenty years and should improve the quality of hazard information. Adopting an international standard should also make doing business in the global marketplace more efficient. But I believe the biggest impact is that adopting GHS will provide more uniform data that will pave the way for using control banding strategies to help manage employee exposure to air contaminants.

Cathy Cole: GHS will have a broad impact as it will affect everyone in OH&S. But there are many others in the pipeline that will impact workers – combustible dust, diacetyl, silica, beryllium, perhaps even ergonomics. Introduction of a safety and health program standard has the potential of changing the course that OSHA has undertaken in the past with updating standards one by one. This may be the future of OH&S in the regulatory arena.

Carl Heinlein: For the construction industry, there are a number of OSHA regulations under promulgation, but the one that most interests our contractors concerns cranes and derricks. This very important rule will be instrumental in helping reduce fatalities and injuries in the construction industry.

The proposed rule 29CFR 1926.550 Cranes and Derricks in Construction aims to protect employees from the hazards associated with hoisting equipment when used to perform construction activities. Cranes are a critical piece of equipment to almost all construction projects, and this proposed rulemaking embraces considerable changes.

The proposed rule will update an almost 40-year-old OSHA standard.

Tom Krause: Our experience is that many companies are already far ahead of OSHA in their approach to safety and health, so increases or expansions in existing fines and regulations will not have a big effect on these organizations. On the other hand, the EPA’s finding in April that greenhouse gases that affect climate change can endanger public health and welfare sets the stage for regulations that could have significant implications for industry. Interestingly, this development parallels changes in thinking among many leading organizations that increasingly see safety performance as an issue that affects not just employees and contractors, but customers and the community. I think we can expect to see organizations focusing on safety performance as a sustainability and corporate responsibility issue in a much more prominent way than before and that this will benefit safety as a whole.

Jim Lastowka: Given the paucity of OSHA regulatory activity in 2009, slim pickings are available for identifying a regulatory action this year that will impact EHS in the future in a meaningful positive way. In fact, I think the question could be asked in a different way: What action by OSHA in 2009 will negatively impact safety and health? I think there is a clear answer: OSHA’s expressed intent to deemphasize safety and health partnerships and alliances with the safety conscious large employers who commit millions of dollars and tens of thousands of man hours to their safety programs. These companies are willing to work with OSHA to achieve shared safety and health goals. There is widespread disappointment that their partnership and alliance efforts are being viewed with suspicion rather than fully embraced. A very real opportunity to cooperate and leverage best practices is being squandered at exactly the wrong point in time given the challenges American industry is facing.

Zack Mansdorf: For OSHA, there was little of any real significance (with REACh in Europe having a significant impact on companies exporting or importing from Europe) while the decision on Cap and Trade will have long lasting impacts on American manufacturers and consumers. The implementation of the GHS (especially lacking OEL’s) will have some impact and not necessarily positive.

Frank White and James Nash: There are two answers to this question. The OSHA regulation with the greatest immediate impact on ORC members is unquestionably the proposed rule to harmonize OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard with the Globally Harmonized System (GHS). ORC Worldwide is now working very hard with its members to answer the many questions raised by this proposal and to develop comments, which we will submit to OSHA. In addition, we are fully engaged with helping our members prepare to comply with the OSHA standard.

Looking a little farther ahead, David Michaels, the Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA nominee, has said he hopes to consider promulgating a safety and health program standard, a standard that could require employers to adapt and implement safety and health management systems. If issued, such a standard could have an enormous impact on EHS in the future.

This standard could help shift OSHA away from its current hazard-by-hazard enforcement paradigm to one in which employers are responsible for managing risk. Given OSHA’s difficulty in promulgating standards for new hazards, this paradigm change could improve OSHA’s ability to protect workers.

Most ORC Worldwide companies have been using EHS management systems for years, and have found these systems to be a cost-effective way to manage EHS risk while continuously improving EHS performance. Moreover, most of our global trading partners are already following this risk-based approach.

Issuing such a standard would raise a number of issues, it would require extensive consultation with stakeholders, and it would not be an easy thing to do. However, if done in the right way, the standard could have a significant impact on worker safety and health.

Cynthia Roth: Most likely an ergonomics standard will have a great impact on EHS. With Workers’ Compensation numbers now in the billions of dollars and companies struggling to generate profits, having injuries and lost work time really impacts the bottom line of any organization. Ergonomics is an applied science that can assist in reducing the risk factors that exceed the human’s ability to perform the jobs or work with the equipment or tools. More consideration must be given to the return to work process and this can only be done with thorough job descriptions and an understanding of the elements of the job that created the risk factors causing injury. In this way, the employee/patient can be safely returned to a productive and meaningful work situation.

Daniel K. Shipp: I can't think of anything that came out of OSHA or EPA this year that will have a major impact. OSHA agreed with us (and everyone else) that it should continue to refer to voluntary consensus standards in its PPE rule, but this was really a continuation of policy and not a change in approach. Next year may be a different story, especially if OSHA moves on a safety and health systems standard or ergonomics, but even the more activist agency is conducting business as usual.

3. What are some of the significant issues coming up next year or in the future for your organization?

Mike Blotzer: Worker health and the profession suffers from the inability of the regulatory community to update occupational exposure limits so that they reflect current scientific knowledge. We need a better system for standards setting. Where there is limited data, there is room for alternative approaches, like control banding, to assure worker protection. And while control banding can play an important role, the effectiveness of the various control banding strategies need to be validated.

Construction hygiene continues to be a challenge. The construction environment is unique, with conditions changing from moment to moment, requiring collaboration and innovation on part of the hygienist, the contractor, and the contracting party.

We need to attract more youth into the Industrial Hygiene profession. The AIHA is doing a good job in this area, but more can be done. Individually, Industrial Hygienists need to spread the word. It’s an exciting field where individuals make a difference in people’s lives.

Cathy Cole: For AIHA, we have a strong desire to address the issue of the outdated OSHA PELs and occupational exposure limits in general. It is unclear if this administration has any intention on moving forward in addressing the issue of the outdated PELs. Some may say that the agency does not have the resources to update the PELs, but we don't believe that is an acceptable answer. If the lack of resources is true, then the agency needs to begin looking at other options to update exposure levels. Regarding OELs, we are currently working with ACGIH to determine a sustainable process for the development of TLVs, WEELs and ERPGs. Having these guidelines is critical to our profession and ensuring their future is a high priority.

Carl Heinlein: We are hearing about and seeing more mergers and acquisitions. As a result, a common issue to address is the blending of two possibly different safety cultures and what works best for the newly merged organization as it moves forward.

Tom Krause: Life-altering injuries and fatalities will continue to be a primary concern for industry. Maintaining and improving the systems that reduce the probability of serious injuries and fatalities is the right thing to do and it also has cultural impact. Many organizations, particularly in good times, suffer from spending too much time on low energy/low potential events. Leaders will discuss every OSHA recordable equally. An incident with high potential for severe injury (such as a near miss associated with a failure in the lock out, tag out system,) will get the same level of attention as an incident with low potential for serious injury (such as a minor sprain.) While all injuries are important, the potential for life-altering injury is most important.

Long-term, one of the most significant issues we see in the next year and beyond is how to create a coherent and consistent framework that encompasses all the elements required for safety excellence. We have gotten to the point where there is a general consensus that safety excellence takes the right systems together with attention to leadership, culture, and behavior. What hasn’t been developed yet is a way to understand how to execute these parts well in concert—as part of a whole strategy. Right now, we see many organizations continue to add system upon system to the point where it becomes unwieldy, or have good tools end up abandoned because they started something newer. I think we are on the cusp of a seismic shift in thinking as safety leaders begin to focus on by putting these pieces together in a way that makes sense and that creates comprehensive and sustainable performance.

Jim Lastowka: As an attorney representing companies on OSHA issues, the most significant issues faced will be those presented by the promised aggressive enforcement by the “new Sheriff in town.” There is a need and a place for strong enforcement when and where it is deserved. But a commitment to bring major enforcement actions to “send a message” that does not also include a focused and objective effort to sort out the truly bad actors from those companies that actually do commit resources to safety is misguided. OSHA must be careful to not sacrifice the reputation of a company that makes substantial safety efforts to a perceived need for a dramatic headline to demonstrate its toughness and leverage its enforcement clout. If OSHA does so it one consequence will be that it will experience the same result that MSHA’s across the board issuance of higher penalties has resulted in – an overwhelmed appeals process that directs the limited resources of the both the government and companies more towards litigation than to more productive safety efforts.

Zack Mansdorf: With occupational injuries and illnesses continuing to decline over the last decade, more attention has been going to issues related to sustainability. Energy conservation (and subsequent reductions in GHG emissions), water conservation and waste are the major issues of the future.

Frank White and James Nash: a) OSHA’s effort to align HCS with GHS
b) Helping ORC members comply with REACH
c) Combustible dust – addressing the hazards as well as participating in OSHA’s rulemaking
d) Influenza preparedness
e) Improving EHS metrics so that they more accurately reflect EHS performance. Relying solely on the current OSHA recordkeeping approach is problematic because it is a lagging indicator intended for surveillance purposes. Therefore some OSHA recordable incidents have no connection with EHS management performance. Conversely, leading indicators, such as near misses, are not recordable. In addition, it is difficult to translate the OSHA approach to overseas operations. Some ORC members are beginning to work on developing a more useful way to measure EHS performance.
f) Aligning EHS with corporate social responsibility and corporate ‘sustainability’ efforts

Cynthia Roth: Assisting other companies in identifying occupational risk factors and mitigating the risks. Assessing tools and equipment and finding the most appropriate products for the job and the employee.

Another important role would be the training of employees the awareness in exposures and the best practices.

Daniel K. Shipp: EPA's noise rule revision that changes the way hearing protectors are labeled. NIOSH examination of a possible wider role in PPE testing and certification. Continuing international cooperation leading to more harmonization of PPE standards and designs around the world, and expansion of markets for PPE in emerging industrial economies. Understanding the promise and hazards to workers from new materials, using new materials to enhance protective technologies, and designing PPE to protect workers in industries where these new materials are manufactured or processed.

4. If you had advice to offer someone starting out in EHS, what would it be?

Mike Blotzer: Hone your communication skills. The ability to communicate complex data in a way that is understood by diverse groups is probably the single most important skill in EHS.

Maintain high standards. Strive for continual improvement in yourself and your organization. Build partnerships and collaborate in a way that adds value to your organization.

Practice mindfulness. Don't let the demands and pressures of the moment keep you from taking time to understand and reflect on the problem and issues so that you make the best decision. You may not have all the time you'd like, but use the current moment to your best advantage and think.

Cathy Cole: I would advise them to make the most of each and every opportunity, even if it doesn't seem remotely related to a career in EHS as you learn from every job that you perform. Be patient, careers don't happen overnight. Always have a mentor. And last, but by no means least, volunteer your time and talents to your professional organization and your community. Volunteers reap rewards that are impossible to quantify.

Carl Heinlein: Never quit learning. Get involved with your EHS related associations, such as ASSE, NSC, and AIHA. Work toward achieving a para-professional or professional EHS Certification, such as the Certified Safety Professional (CSP), Occupational Health and Safety Technologist (OHST) or Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH).

In addition, on a more personal level, I know that many of our future EHS Leaders will most likely be "wired" to social media such as LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook. I would like for them to remember that these are all valuable networking tools, but must always be used in a professional manner.

Tom Krause: Fundamentally, I would say that having an impact in today’s changing business climate requires more than technical expertise. EHS professionals increasingly need to be change agents, which requires leadership skill and organizational savvy. A change agent is in the business of advancing performance by identifying how to get there and enlisting others in that endeavor. Change agents in safety do not leave their technical expertise behind; they simply leverage it to develop strategies for sustainable, high-level performance.

Being successful as organizations change, no matter where you are in your career, means continually learning how to leverage knowledge, skills, and experience in new ways. For even the best safety professionals, being pegged as a “technical expert” without strategic capabilities can limit options and opportunities — and ultimately the ability to shape EHS functioning within the business.

While there will always be a need for technical expertise, assuming a strategic capability positions you to become an invaluable asset to your organization, enhance your professional satisfaction, and ultimately advance your mission as a safety professional: protecting lives and livelihoods. If you are a technical expert in EHS, the good news is that you already have the skills and knowledge to contribute to safety strategy. The hard part will be gaining fluency in organizational change management and recasting yourself as an agent of change.

Jim Lastowka: That they are in a very rewarding career that field that holds much promise. Increasingly, key components for the most successful businesses will be their demonstration of respect and care for the welfare of their workforce, and their concern for the environment. ESH professionals can be key leaders in this effort and they will derive much personal and job satisfaction from what they can accomplish. But being successful in the ESH field does require a strong person as well as a strong personal commitment, and they need to be prepared to give the profession the effort it deserves.

Zack Mansdorf: I would recommend an academic and training background that emphasizes a multimedia approach to EHS. Given the need to do more with less, there will be more opportunities to those able to broadly apply their expertise.

Frank White and James Nash: Learn how to connect EHS performance with the business objectives of your organization. At a minimum, this means that in addition to developing EHS expertise, you must understand the ‘language of finance’ spoken by CFOs and CEOs. It also means working to relate EHS with broader corporate objectives, such as corporate responsibility and sustainability. To be successful, EHS professionals must broaden their skill sets and competencies – businesses are looking for professionals who have a broad understanding of the many technical and business issues within the distinct yet related fields of safety, health, and the environment.

Becoming an effective advocate for the business case of safety and health does not mean you should ignore a second effective way to harness the energy of the people in your organization for continuous EHS improvement. Learn how to make an effective appeal for EHS performance, when appropriate, in moral terms to everyone in your organization, from hourly workers to your CEO.

At the end of the day, EHS is about protecting the lives of human beings. If you never forget the ultimate importance of what you are doing, it will unleash your own potential and help you to continuously improve your own performance.

Cynthia Roth: My advice would be to go to the highest level of education for your chosen discipline within the professions.

Join the professional societies that best represent your EHS discipline and stay connected to others through communication and attendance at Professional Development Conferences. Read the professional journals, gather ideas, speak to problems and discuss solutions that can be shared and the discussions are invaluable.

Daniel K. Shipp: Learn how to make the connection between EHS performance and the bottom line, and how to make the person in the corner office understand. Getting top management buy-in helps EHS job security, as well as all the people on the job.

5. How can we nurture future leaders in the profession?

Mike Blotzer: Be a mentor to a young professional. Encourage active membership in our professional societies. Young professionals should volunteer to serve on a technical committee where they can contribute to the advancement of the profession and gain valuable contacts that will serve them throughout their careers.

Cathy Cole: Be a mentor. Seek out the younger professionals in your company or association and encourage them to get involved. Introduce them to other professionals and leaders. Invite them to take on leadership roles no matter how small. Engage them.

Carl Heinlein: We must keep reminding our future EHS leaders what a wonderful and rewarding career path they are embarking on! We can never quit mentoring, coaching, and advising our future leaders, and we must, as importantly, listen to what they have to say.

Tom Krause: Even as methodologies evolve, new tools emerge, and thinking changes, organizations will continue to count on the safety professional to guide the core of EHS functioning. Still, changes in the business landscape have begun to infringe even here. Businesses have moved to flatter organizational models, leaders have less discretionary time, and competition is increasingly global. Whether you are a safety professional working at a plant site or in a corporate office, the new reality is that what made you successful in the past may not be enough for success in the future. Nurturing future leaders in the profession will take equipping EHS professionals with the tools they need to partner with leadership effectively on performance and strategy.

Realizing this level of personal and professional growth requires new capacities. Chiefly, EHS professionals must develop competencies in knowing and maintaining focus on the safety objective, understanding behavior, and understanding culture and safety climate. Supporting these are qualities such as remaining ever curious, continuous learning, and building fluency in the behavioral sciences, consequence management, exposure recognition and reduction, and other tools for safety improvement.

Safety is one business function that allows an organization to demonstrate genuine concern for the well being of the individual, and give life to the ethics that are becoming more important to employee satisfaction. Safety professionals have the skills and ability to help implement processes and technology with reliability and sustainability. In this way, safety professionals can position themselves as consultants to the organization and trusted advisors to the line organization and its leaders.

Zack Mansdorf: My experience is that the best way to nurture future leaders is through mentoring with an experienced senior manager. Success in EHS is not just a measure of technical competence, but requires understanding business needs and company culture. This is best learned with the advice of a mentor.

Cynthia Roth: We need to educate the public on “what is safety” and the “value of the safety professional” starting in elementary schools. Kids think of safety as “look both ways” and “don’t talk to strangers” and “fire safety” but not the essence or the understanding of safety.

Adults still believe ergonomics is about the office environment only and never consider the ergonomics of product design, industrial workstation layouts, work organization, cycle times, controls and control rooms, logistics and any job that requires a human interface.

We need to provide information to middle school educators, high school guidance counselors and representatives of the professions must be the torch bearers for communication.

Daniel K. Shipp: Encourage them to take responsibility, to innovate, to look for new solutions and ways of doing things. Reward results and initiative, even when they challenge entrenched assumptions about “the way things work.”

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