Occupational Safety and Health: United by Best Practices (and Lots of Acronyms)

Sept. 1, 2010
An affinity for acronyms may not be a prerequisite for a career as a safety and health professional — but it helps. Our day-to-day responsibilities require us to know dozens of abbreviations. And though we share the same fundamental mission —

Occupational safety and health (OSH) is one of the most widely accepted terms in the vocabulary of occupational safety and health professionals — which makes sense as it echoes the federal act that brought the industry to greater prominence. Some organizations flip the order to OHS. Others add environment to the mix: EHS, HSE, SHE.

Integrating security into the mix yields a few more variations, like HSS and HSSE. And, as leading-edge companies continue exploring the synergy between quality management and workforce safety and health, we're also seeing greater use of acronyms like EHSQ.

Still, I'd argue that “occupational safety and health” best describes the heart of these programs. It also is appropriate because those two functions are so closely intertwined — or should be. Although they are separate “silos” in many organizations, today's most successful programs achieve greater efficiency and effectiveness by uniting safety and health management enterprise-wide. Consider the following areas where safety and health professionals can, and should, work together:

Hearing conservation — All good programs involve health professionals conducting audiograms to monitor the hearing of individuals working in noisy areas. Safety personnel typically provide training, hearing protection and other controls as part of the effort.

What's a noisy area? That's best answered by safety and industrial hygiene personnel using noise sampling equipment. If it is determined that an employee has experienced a substantial loss in hearing, health and safety professionals work together to document the occurrence, investigate likely causes and, if appropriate, take corrective action.

Chemical and biological exposure control — Reducing or eliminating exposure to hazardous substances is very much a team effort between health and safety professionals. While health care personnel are responsible for monitoring and preventing the harmful effects of exposure (e.g., through immunizations, etc.), safety and industrial hygiene personnel typically are the best source of information about the specific substances involved and which employees and job categories are most likely to experience exposure risks. Safety professionals also are likely to be responsible for the training required to support employee knowledge of hazards and precautions.

Respiratory protection — Safety and industrial hygiene professionals work to control the potential for harmful exposures through ventilation and other means, but when they can't eliminate the risk, wearing respirators becomes the best way to protect employees. But before respirators can be worn, health care personnel must conduct pulmonary function tests and other physical exams. Recurrent health checks and training then must be provided to ensure each wearer's continued health and safety.

Drug and alcohol testing — Transportation regulations mandate drug and alcohol testing for commercial drivers, pilots and other transportation professionals. Drug/alcohol testing also may be performed post-incident, periodically as part of corporate policy or “with cause” related to safety, health, productivity or human resources concerns. Clearly, drug and alcohol issues have a major impact on workplace safety — and safety professionals may be the first to spot a potential problem. But actual testing or administration of a formal program usually falls under the jurisdiction of health care personnel.

Return-to-work and wellness programs — Return-to-work, wellness and work hardening programs can have significant bottom-line value, particularly in high-risk industries where workers are susceptible to more injuries and illnesses. These programs also are gaining importance as the workforce ages. Increased absenteeism (or even “presenteeism,” i.e., working while in some way impaired) undermines productivity, quality, morale and ultimately profitability.

Wellness programs and safety training and procedures help minimize risks, but can't prevent everything that causes employee absences. That makes it equally important to have strong return-to-work programs that help employees suffering from injuries and illnesses to get back to work more quickly. Such programs often require health and safety professionals to work closely together. For example, a health professional may monitor an employee's condition — but a safety professional may help evaluate when it is safe for that employee to resume their duties, or what alternate duties might facilitate their return.

There are many more examples that illustrate the same point: cross-functional collaboration between safety and health professionals can drive improvements in safety, health, efficiency and profitability. In short, “safety” and “health” are united by more than our industry's many acronyms — increasingly they are united by industry best practices as well.

While the benefits of a united approach to occupational safety and health are easy to understand, implementing such an approach has its challenges. Yes, safety and health professionals share common goals, and in most organizations there is at least some overlap in their responsibilities, including the areas I described above. But sometimes these still are very separate departments with separate cultures. Communication and process breakdowns easily can occur, and with so many safety and health professionals being asked to “do more with less,” it may be difficult to find the time to even explore opportunities for deeper collaboration.

Options, such as software systems, are available to help safety and health professionals overcome these challenges by improving the flow of information, facilitating clear communication and driving workflow efficiencies that will free up more time for cross-functional collaboration. Ideally, such a system would cover the broad range of functions associated with occupational safety and health, with training being at the top of the list.

Even if your organization juggles multiple point solutions for safety and health responsibilities, or still handles many tasks manually, moving toward “uniting” management processes is worth the effort. Whatever acronym your organization happens to use, you will achieve better results if your occupational safety and health professionals work as closely together as the acronym suggests.

Jonathan A. Jacobi, MS, CSP, CHST, serves as senior EHS manager on the strategic resources team at PureSafety headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., where he helps implement and oversee strategic courseware and software development initiatives. Jacobi is an OSHA-authorized outreach trainer with over 15 years of safety leadership experience.

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