10 benchmarking questions

May 16, 2000
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Do you value communication skills?

For years EHS pros have been told to supplement technical knowledge with communication skills. The message seems to have sunk in. When asked about skills that are critical to career growth, 88% of the pros surveyed say communication skills are very important. In fact, the ability to communicate is considered more important than technical knowledge (considered very important by 72% of respondents) and regulatory knowledge (cited by 70%) Experts say if tech and reg information can't be articulated to managers and employees, EHS pros are left stranded in organizations. It's clear that pros don't want to be in that position.

Are you reluctant to "sell" EHS? Selling skills don't score high on the list of what's needed to get ahead in EHS careers. Only 32% consider salesmanship very important. Not surprisingly, the percentage is higher among consultants (47%) who have to sell for a living, and EHS pros in large facilities (40%), where dealing with corporate politics often requires salesmanship.

Yet 47% of respondents say selling management to gain commitment for EHS is a very important issue. So how can managers be sold on EHS if good selling skills aren't used? Perhaps EHS pros see the need to sell, but as technical experts they're still uncomfortable with the idea of using sales tactics. Or perhaps they bring in consultants to do the selling for them.

Do you pay attention to the bottom line? Only 31% of respondents say documenting the financial impact of EHS activity is a very important skill. Only 37% believe measuring the cost-benefit, value-added aspects of EHS is a very important issue.

Yet 53% say integrating EHS programs at all management levels is a critical issue. How will managers accept EHS as an important business function without its bottom-line contributions being documented? Applying business metrics to EHS has always been difficult--hard data regarding return on investment is not easy to come by--which could be why pros don't emphasize the dollars. It could also be that most pros (58%) do not see the costs of incidents and workers' comp as a critical issue.

Still, it's going to be hard for EHS to come into the business mainstream without the dollars-and-cents data used to measure the value of other departments.

How centered on compliance is your program? 70% of respondents emphasize regulatory knowledge as a critical skill. Understanding OSHA regs is the most important issue faced on the job, considered very important by 73%. The top two training priorities for 1998 also relate to regs: hazard communication (mentioned by 70%) and lockout-tagout (64%). These stats confirm that OSHA continues to dominate the day-to-day plans and activities of most EHS pros.

This despite the fact that OSHA standards-setting has slowed dramatically, inspection numbers have declined, and the agency is widely perceived as less aggressive than in the past. It could be that justifying safety programs based on factors other than compliance is hard to do.

Will OSHA shape your job in the future? Despite the '90s being a relatively quiet decade for OSHA, 74% of respondents predict that its regulations (along with EPA's) will drive the growth of the safety and health profession in the next five to ten years. Nothing else comes close to exerting such influence. Other drivers include health issues relating to job stress (cited by 58%), emergence of safety and health hazards as yet unknown (47%), and safety and health hazards in small businesses (43%).

Why will OSHA continue to be the life force of the EHS field, even in the absence of major standards and with most employers seeing inspectors as frequently as Haley's Comet? After more than a quarter-century of regulatory activity, it's probably hard for most EHS pros to imagine OSHA not shaping the agenda.

Who are the customers of your EHS program? For all the time and effort spent complying with regs, the irony is that most EHS pros say regulators are not the key to successful programs. When asked who will be most influential in determining the success of EHS programs in the next 5-10 years, 69% of respondents in manufacturing plants point to executive management. 61% cite supervisors and employees as keys to success. By comparison, 47% say regulators will be very important influences.

Outsiders in general don't exert much influence over safety and health programs. Only 11% of EHS pros in manufacturing see community public interest groups playing very important roles in coming years; 11% see the media playing a pivotal role; and 12% say consultants will be very important to success. This is one difference between job safety and environmental affairs--outside influences such as grass roots groups and the media are more powerful when it comes to "green" issues.

Are you confronting ergonomic issues? 58% of respondents tout ergonomics as a training priority in 1998. That's up from 30% in 1997 and 26% in 1995. In manufacturing plants, 40% of EHS pros say dealing with ergonomics is a very important issue, and only 9% say it's not important at all.

This interest comes while OSHA has been slow to regroup after its draft ergonomics proposal was pummeled by critics in 1995. The fact that ergonomics is a training priority for more than half of the EHS pros surveyed could be a sign that most expect OSHA to eventually issue a standard, and they want to stay ahead of the curve. The stats also indicate that ergonomic hazards are an accepted reality in most manufacturing plants, and the prosperous economy allows many pros to spend money abating those risks, even with pressure from OSHA.

How important are EHS media issues to you? Substance abuse, indoor air quality, diversity in the workforce, workplace violence, and international EHS issues are frequent topics in the press, but they don't rank high on the list of issues personally important to EHS pros. Only 22% say handling problems relating to illegal drugs, alcohol, and tobacco smoke is a very important issue (40% say it's a problem in construction). 30% say managing an increasingly diverse workforce is a critical issue. 20% say understanding international standards and managing international EHS programs is critical (29% in process industries and 24% in plants with more than 1,000 employees). Substance abuse education will be a 1998 training priority for only 20% of respondents, and only 19% will make workplace violence a training priority.

These issues seem to be important to pockets of EHS pros in certain industries, but not to the profession at large.

Are you nearing retirement? Almost one in every four respondents (23%) indicate that they'll be approaching retirement in 1998. That's interesting, since the EHS field is now dominated by baby boomers. But in the government sector and large plants in particular, a wave of retirements is coming up. This is where you find some of the longest-tenured professionals, and also where downsizing could prompt early retirements.

Or are you young and restless? No surprise here, really. It's part of the normal career cycle for young professionals to be hunting for jobs and contemplating career changes. Start with this stat: 39% of EHS pros under age 40 are satisfied in their jobs, compared to 54% of those over age 50. It's little wonder, then, that 25% of pros under age 40 will be looking for a new job in 1998 (compared to 12% of those over age 50), and that 20% will seriously consider a career change (compared to 10% over age 50). With many career miles still to go, it's no wonder that pros under 40 are more likely to pursue graduate degrees (29% vs. 10% over age 50) and pursue or maintain certification (71% versus 51% over age 50) to improve their marketability.

Checking the health of the EHS profession As we head into 1998, how's the profession faring? White Paper research results gauge the mood and vitality of EHS pros in several ways. Most indicators appear positive, which mirrors public opinion polls in general. Consumer confidence is near a 30-year high. 70% of executives predict profits will rise next year. Layoffs and downsizing are at their lowest levels of the 1990s. Unemployment and inflation are at their lowest rates in a generation. Why shouldn't the good times rub off on the EHS profession?

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