Safety and Health in the New Millennium

Is the changing nature of work and the safety and health profession on your mind as we near the year 2000? Well, it should be if you hope to meet the challenges ahead.

Y2K is fast approaching. What will the new millennium mean for the practice of occupational safety and health? In this column, I review some of the current trends in our practice areas and venture a guess for what they might mean in the future. I realize millennium actually refers to a thousand years" span. I really am only commenting on the very near term; however, it does make for a snappy title.

Some key trends that have been with us for the past several years include:

Hardly a day goes by without headlines that describe layoffs, consolidations, acquisitions and global mega-mergers, all in the same newspaper. Clearly, there is more pressure today on producing shareholder value than ever before. The most closely watched feature up and down the management layers in many corporate offices is their stock price. I am confident that many of you reading this article have your company share price bookmarked on your Web browser so that you can see it several times a day. For many of us, our futures are tied to the rollercoaster of a currently volatile market. >P>So what does that have to do with the price of apple butter? These organizational and structural changes, driven by a need to increase shareholder value, continue to sweep corporate America and other developed and developing countries. They will drive our future and the future of our profession.

There are only a few ways one can fundamentally improve corporate performance. In essence, it is a question of having the best market presence or newest technology, or being the low- cost producer. While this is wildly simplistic, the point is that most companies have now picked all of the low- hanging fruit in reducing overheads. In this regard, we will now see a waning of massive layoffs and re-engineering efforts. Meanwhile, the pace of further consolidation and national and international acquisitions and mergers will increase, due to the desire to gain market share, capture technology and benefit from economies of scale. British Petroleum, Exxon, Yahoo, Chrysler and Ford are some of the latest examples of companies with this business strategy. Back to the price of apple butter. Downsizing, re-engineering and the host of other business strategies applied to the effort to reduce overhead and outsource noncore services have led to a significant reduction in corporate, divisional and plant staffing in safety and health over the past decade. Right or wrong, we are all expected to do more with less.

Mergers and consolidations will have much the same effect by taking two companies and reducing costs through economies of scale (translation: you no longer need two complete management structures). This trend means the ability to eliminate redundancies. Additionally, mergers and acquisitions bring up the issue pairing sometimes very different cultures and philosophies. Some of these are not that friendly or supportive of ES&H initiatives.

However, it is not all bad news. The growth of companies on national and international bases means much greater opportunity for those ES&H professionals who will still be needed. Large companies are more likely to recognize, utilize and reward technical excellence. That is because there is a greater risk to their reputations from adverse safety- and health-related incidents. Simply put, there will be great opportunities with the major national and international companies to integrate very different ES&H systems and to carry out functions in differing environments.

Greening of the Corporate World

The latest buzz crossing the boundaries of industry, government and private interest groups is sustainable development (see the September 1998 "Perspectives" for more on this topic). All the major parties are at least talking sustainability and environmental improvement. This discussion has been combined with initiatives from a number of sectors. These initiatives include such measures as energy taxes to reduce greenhouse gases; promotion of renewable energy sources; regulations to encourage recycling; social accountability in the development and use of natural resources; and numerous others.

These measures, considered individually, may seem interesting, but not significant. However, the train is just pulling out of the station and is quickly gaining speed. Ultimately, this will have a profound effect on our future as both citizens and professionals. In both the short and longer term, this trend bodes well for our profession and the perception of the value that we add to society. In the near future, I see all of us working on projects tied to the concepts of sustainability. The trick is to embrace this approach and find meaningful and value-added applications in our work.

Moving Safety and Health to the Line

A fundamental change that has been taking place within corporate America is the movement of corporate safety and health responsibilities to the line function. The first-line supervisor has always been considered the key to an effective program in occupational safety and health. The difference now is that these responsibilities have been broadened to include everyone from top management down to individual workers or worker teams.

This integration directly into the business has been a goal for many years. However, it has become a necessity because most facilities no longer have the luxury of dedicated safety and health personnel for technical backup. Hence, it truly is a line function in many organizations now. Internal safety and health inspections and audits performed by trained line personnel with minimal corporate oversight (or staffing) has become much more common. In the future, it is likely that more and more facilities (with the exception of very large, complex sites or at regional or corporate levels) will not have in-house staff with special technical expertise or credentials. It also means more opportunity for us to facilitate this change by offering training and the development of standards and procedures to support the integration of ES&H into business operations.

Safety, IH and Environmental Converge

There has been a convergence of the practices of safety, industrial hygiene and environmental at the plant, division and, in some cases, the corporate levels. This is easily demonstrated by looking at the employment ads in the newspaper or on the Internet. It is very common to see an ad for an ES&H manager who can handle environmental, safety and industrial hygiene matters. This convergence has also been demonstrated in the results of work surveys by professional organizations.

However, there is no recognized credential for mastery of these disciplines, nor a professional organization to serve them. Academic programs to prepare one for this work also are sparse. There is talk of developing such a credential by several organizations (e.g., Board of Certified Safety Professionals, American Industrial Hygiene Association,and the like), but the issues of professional turf seem likely to slow progress. It is also quite difficult to develop academic programs that can span this broad range at the undergraduate and graduate levels without totally diluting the knowledge and critical skills needed.

In my opinion, the convergence of the disciplines of safety, industrial hygiene and environmental protection is both logical and beneficial. What this means for the future is the likelihood of more demand for those able to function in the broad areas of EH&S. It also places an increased value on having the experience necessary to develop the needed skills and mastery of the subject areas and issues. I believe that there will be an attempt to credential this broad spectrum of practice.

Proliferation of Certifications

A trend that I find somewhat disturbing is the rapid growth in certifications and other forms of qualification. As they grow in number, the perception of their value and the differences between them diminishes for those not directly involved in the area (e.g., business people and the public).

This problem is certainly not limited to occupational safety and health or the environment. There are lots of certified folks that we deal with everyday, such as home pest controllers, inspectors of all kinds, bookstore operators, computer repair technicians, ad nauseum. In our own fields of practice, there are at least 100 different qualifications, certifications or other declarations of competence. These range from those given by groups such as the Florida Association of Safety Councils ("Safety Professional Certified") to the Safety Equipment Distributors Association ("Qualified Safety Sales Professional") to professional licensing boards in the engineering specialties, such as the P.E. in safety engineering (California State Board).

What is little-known is that there are two nationally accepted not-for-profit groups that accredit the certifying organizations. These bodies have a number of rules and requirements that must be met, including open financial records, public directors, established qualifications criteria and other measures to protect the public and promote quality. Out of the more than 100 credentials mentioned earlier, fewer than a dozen (i.e., CIH, CSP, OHST, CHMM, DEE, QEP) are accredited by these organizations. I believe the proliferation of credentials and qualifications will result in more government regulation to restrict claims of competence that do not meet certain third-party criteria.

Growth in Consulting

Occupational safety, industrial hygiene and environmental consulting has grown considerably over the last several years. This is a result of the general growth in small businesses and individual practices, as well as an artifact of the reduction in corporate staffing and the increase in outsourcing support services.

Clearly, the demand is there and growing, though I believe this growth will slow in the coming decade. Nevertheless, it will remain a significant source of employment for our profession. It will also mean continued pressure on, and competition by, these firms to demonstrate business value for any work proposed. While this will be difficult for those in the competition, it is also likely to drive innovation.

Information and Communication Advances

At a recent meeting, a friend of mine talked about her work on a masters degree on the Internet. This degree program was from a well-known and respected university located more than 1,000 miles from the student.

This is but one sign of the massive and far-reaching effects taking place, due to the geometric pace of change in information sharing and communications advances. What is also profound is that most of us have taken this change in stride without realizing the full implications or pace of this change.

The concept of the global village is no longer a concept. It has become reality. The result is the rapid movement of ideas across political boundaries that once represented barriers.

Speaking in less philosophical terms, unique technical, business or regulatory approaches to EH&S from geographically distant countries such as Australia are now instantly available for discovery and debate. Likewise, the discovery of some adverse effect of a chemical exposure is also widely disseminated, not in a matter of months, but hours.

As a result, our profession is more likely to be shaped by global thinking and information exchange. Information resources and continuing education opportunities will be widely available from practically any point on the globe. This will shape our future professional lives as we share concepts, ideas and approaches. Finally, I would be remiss and out of character not to mention a downside to this trend. Forget about escaping the press of e-mails, voicemails, pager messages and general information overload. It is also the future.

Embracing the Future

There are both threats and opportunities in the picture of the future I have painted. Much has been written about the increasing workload and added responsibilities that we face. This makes it more difficult to engage in professional development in our free time. Nevertheless, this is the path to enlightenment in terms of greater opportunity and personal satisfaction. The path forward is to learn more about those things that will aid you in the quest for professional and personal success. Courses or self-learning in industrial hygiene, safety and environmental protection, as well as an understanding of business systems, are my recommendation. Change is surely the theme of our future. The nature or location of jobs in our profession may not be the same, but there will be plenty of opportunity. Get prepared - the millennium is coming.

Contributing editor Zack Mansdorf, Ph.D., CIH, CSP, QEP, is a past president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association.

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