EHS TODAY ROUNDTABLE: Economics, Regulations, Connections and Mentoring

Dec. 1, 2009
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.

Combine five questions, a group of the most well-respected professionals involved in EHS, the economy and a new administration and what do you get: A lively conversation and some answers that might surprise you.

EHS Today sent our list of questions to some of the most prominent experts in different areas of EHS, including safety professionals who manage onsite safety and industrial hygiene programs, consultants, the presidents of major EHS organizations, attorneys who represent employers in OSHA-related cases, the president of a safety equipment trade association and a leader in organizational safety. Unsurprisingly, their answers were intelligent and carefully considered. Interestingly, they didn't always agree. A key to our participants can be found on the next two pages.

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

Daniel 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.

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 OSHA has been raised by moving several issues forward. Budgets have been raised at OSHA and NIOSH, which adds to this feeling that worker health and safety is receiving some early support.

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.

Mike Blotzer: 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.

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.

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

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 and 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.

Cindy 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.

Carl Heinlein: 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. It will update an almost 40-year-old OSHA standard.

James 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 de-emphasize 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.

Chris Patton: One particular area of interest is HR 2067, the Protecting America's Workers Act. If it is kept intact, it will hopefully include provisions to provide OSH regulatory protection for America's public sector workers.

Achieving OSH coverage for public sector workers long has been a key ASSE goal. ASSE's current efforts to advance the issue were spurred on by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board's (CSB) investigation of the 2006 Daytona Beach municipal water treatment facility that took the lives of two workers. As you know, CSB found Florida's lack of OSH coverage for its public sector workers contributed to those deaths, an unprecedented finding by the CSB.

Frank White and James Nash: 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.

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

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.

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. An incident with high potential for severe injury (such as a near miss associated with a failure in the lockout/tagout system) will get the same level of attention as an incident with low potential for serious injury (such as a minor sprain).

Dan Shipp: EPA's noise rule revision that changes the way hearing protectors are labeled. NIOSH's 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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

Carl Heinlein: Never quit learning. Get involved with your EHS-related associations, such as American Society of Safety Engineers, National Safety Council and American Industrial Hygiene Association. Work toward achieving a para-professional or professional EHS certification, such as the certified safety professional (CSP), cccupational health and safety technologist (OHST) or certified industrial hygienist (CIH).

In addition … many of our future EHS leaders will most likely be “wired” to social media … remember that these are all valuable networking tools, but must always be used in a professional manner.

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.

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.

Dan 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.”

Cathy Cole: Invite them to take on leadership roles, no matter how small. Engage them.

Chris Patton: We just had a very successful Future Safety Leader Conference for about 120 ASSE student section members. We hold this event every year in an effort to prepare students for entering the workplace. Not only do they get to hear from, and network with, working professionals, but they also get to create lifelong contacts among their peers.

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.

For the complete text of these interviews, see the full transcript.

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