Silence in the safety and health ranks

May 11, 2000
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This is what you should do an article on," Bill Borwegen, the safety and health director of the Service Employees International Union, tells a reporter. "The safety and health profession has lost a significant number of jobs because industry perceives OSHA as a paper tiger. But the profession is in a state of denial about the need to defend the agency."

Borwegen and other union safety leaders see safety and health professionals as allies in the fight that has raged over OSHA since 1994, when Republicans took control of Congress-and the agency's budget. Powerful industry groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have chalked up victories-blocking a long-awaited ergonomics standard and convincing the courts to halt OSHA's heralded, new inspection strategy, the Cooperative Compliance Program. "These are dark days for the profession," says Borwegen, and he wonders why professionals aren't up in arms.

Union leaders aren't alone in their frustration. "Safety and health professionals sit there and let the lawyers do the talking," says an industrial hygienist for a Fortune 500 company. "We've got to take the initiative back from the political hacks."

Officials at the major professional organizations are quick to refute charges that they're not doing enough. "We were one of the first groups to work to save NIOSH" when Republicans wanted to kill it several years ago, says Aaron Trippler, director of government affairs for the American Industrial Hygiene Association. The American Society of Safety Engineers recently sent five-page letters to House and Senate appropriations committee chairmen urging budget increases for OSHA and NIOSH, and has fired off more than 200 letters to Congress on regulatory issues in recent years.

Still, association officials admit it's hard to rally the troops. "We'll ask for input on a position paper we're developing and get maybe 20 responses out of 50,000 members of AIHA and ASSE," says one association source. "We haven't done a good job of motivating members."

Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO, agrees. "We don't see any safety and health organization providing the leadership to engage members and let them plug into the political process," she says.

The silent majority

Why is it difficult to stir grassroots political involvement among safety and health pros? Those interviewed for this article cite a number of reasons:

  • Safety and health pros working in industry serve two masters-regulators and employers. "You can't publicly say, 'Thank God we have OSHA,' when your boss belongs to an industry trade association with strong anti-OSHA views," says one source.

    It's hard to break ideological ranks, admits Seminario. "The bottom line is businesses don't want government involved," she says. Most safety and health pros are managers, or report to managers, making it difficult to oppose the party line: management has the prerogative to run workplaces without outside interference.

  • Many professionals don't believe intervention is needed. "OSHA does not and has not driven environmental health and safety initiatives in the 'good' companies for years, but it does have an impact on the 'bad' players," explains a plant safety manager for a Fortune 500 manufacturer.

    "OSHA is helpful for sure, it gets you a couple of extra thousand dollars in the budget, but for a lot of people I don't think the safety job relies on OSHA," says another EHS manager.

    Most professionals surveyed by Industrial Safety & Hygiene News last year agreed. Fifty-eight percent said their employer would not cut EHS staff levels if OSHA suddenly disappeared.

  • Many pros in industry are just too busy to get worked up. Barry Weissman, the former president of ASSE's New Jersey chapter, says most members shun extracurricular activities in general. "With the continuing pressures of work-it's not just about safety anymore-members tell me they need to spend more time with their families, and the job ends at five o'clock," he says.

    Asked about his political apathy, one safety manager replies, "For the past three months, I've just been swamped with environmental reporting. My desk was piled six-feet high with data and everything else just went to hell."

  • Professionals with engineering or science backgrounds are easily turned off by the grandstanding and uncertainty of politics. "It's not about science, it's about power on Capital Hill," says one association official. And the political game is just too illogical for many professionals. "If you ask them to support a piece of legislation, they want to know what the impact will be, which you can't predict," says the association source.

    There's also the idea that politics is dull and irrelevant, a feeling that goes far beyond the safety and health field these days. "I read some of these proposals, get bored, highlight some things, and then think to myself, 'If this goes into effect, big deal. It doesn't really make a difference," says one safety manager.

  • Professional groups have trouble closing ranks and speaking with one voice. Safety specialists, occupational physicians and nurses, industrial hygienists, consultants and corporate managers each have their own agenda and turf concerns. Physicians and nurses are now in court arguing over OSHA's new respirator standard, for example. Requirements allow 'non-physicians' to conduct medical evaluations, pleasing the nurses and threatening the doctors. And in attempts to broaden their membership, ASSE is starting an industrial hygiene division while AIHA considers plans to provide safety management services to its members.

    Even if these groups did work closely, they lack true political ammunition-money. Professionals don't come anywhere close to kicking in the millions of dollars spent by anti-OSHA industry groups, according to some estimates. "Who's Cass Ballenger (the North Carolina Republican congressman who has sponsored several 'OSHA reform' bills) going to listen to-me or the lobbyist for UPS waiting to come in after I leave?" asks one association official.



Living in denial?

Safety and health pros are risking job security by lying low politically, say some of those interviewed. "They're goofy, they're kidding themselves" if they believe they don't need OSHA," says one source. "Most association members still have compliance jobs. Most consultants' work is still compliance related."

One source with ties to large businesses says it's "astonishing what's still happening to large corporate safety and health departments. They're being completely wiped out in constant downsizing and re-engineering." Explains an EHS personnel recruiter: "I really think corporate America is trying to do one thing: get the stock price up and increase shareholder value. Wall Street loves downsizing."

Employment prospects have dwindled in the past decade for a number of professionals, especially those in mid-career. At this year's American Industrial Hygiene Conference & Exposition in Atlanta, 60 industrial hygiene jobs were posted-compared to 118 at the 1993 conference. Total postings for all EHS jobs declined from 185 in '93 to 148.

Still, many pros do not feel the pain. ISHN surveys show pros feeling better about job security, and less worried about staff cuts. "There's nothing really to galvanize people right now," says one industrial hygienist.

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