Safety Culture / Psychology

Safety First... Or Family First?

February 14, 2011
KEYWORDS careers
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"I don't like what's going on out there," a 48-year-old safety vet protests. "Last time I left a job (and he’s left a few), I had another one in ten days. I always wanted to have the upper hand with my boss. Then I could speak my mind. If they didn't like it, I knew there'd be another job. Now I don't know. It's scary out there. All these jobs going to India. The economy's coming back and where are the jobs? I don't like it."

Putting your job on the line for safety’s sake is never an easy call. But pros tell you it comes with the territory. Years ago in an interview with ISHN, former OSHA boss and Johnson & Johnson's head safety man Jerry Scannell put it this way:

"You've got to point out what's at stake - a plant is out of compliance, training is not being done, whatever. You've got to be a little assertive. I felt I owed a responsibility to the company and to the employees to push as hard as I could to get things done I felt needed to get done, even at the risk of irritating my boss."

How many employees today - safety and health managers and everyone else - will take that risk? We're talking about a climate where "folks are just hoping to stay employed and companies are just trying to keep their heads above water," says safety and health consultant Henry Lick

Bending backwards Pushing hard while hoping to stay employed - you need to be a contortionist to pull that off. And you’re working without much of a safety net if you lose your balance. We’re witnessing this phenomenon called a “jobless recovery,” where the economy has failed to generate a single new job, according to economists. In the past three years, 2.7 million jobs have vanished, 93,000 in August alone, making it seven straight months of losses totaling 595,00 jobs.

No wonder consumer confidence is falling faster than autumn temperatures. “Jobs are disappearing faster than you can say boo,” states a column posted on the Web site ChronWatch. “The same goes for your job, too.”

Great. So what does this fear-mongering do to the confidence of safety and health pros? It’s hard to push the envelope without confidence, without a Plan B, just in case. According to ISHN’s recently tabulated White Paper survey on the state of the EHS Nation, most pros aren't worried. More than three-quarters of about 500 readers polled profess no fear about losing their job.

No fear? Talk to guys like that frustrated 48-year-old and you wonder. He used to be one cocky professional. On the same day we talked, I tracked down an industrial hygienist, a technical specialist, trying to get his bearings after losing his seat in the game of corporate musical chairs called "reorgs." “I never did play politics well,” he remarked. “Never took sides. Maybe I should have. I think people were expecting me to. I just spoke my mind. You know me, I’m pretty direct.”

Out on a limb Straight shooting team players walk a fine line. The Associated Press ran a story in September about an auditor for Coca-Cola who was let go from his $140,000-a-year job five days after telling the company’s top lawyer about what he believed to be shady accounting and fraudulent marketing practices. Coke said he was simply restructured out of a job. AP obtained his most recent performance review, which noted that he needed to “adopt a more positive and constructive leadership tone…”

Said an employment law expert: “What companies normally do is fight you tooth and nail, file thousands of discovery motions, put you through the wringer, until they wear you out.”

How many safety pros are worn down? Only a minority (30 percent) is satisfied in their jobs, according to the White Paper survey. Many are nearing retirement - 30 percent. How many have decided to go along to get along, like the NASA engineer who fruitlessly pestered superiors to obtain satellite images that could have shown possible damage to the space shuttle Columbia’s wing. “I lost the steam, the power drive to have a fight, because I just wasn’t being supported,” he told The New York Times.

Or do you remain defiant, like the safety pro in New York who left his employer of 30 years this past January because of budget, staff and benefits cuts. “Nobody who knows or works with me will ever go away without knowing what I believe and where I stand on nearly any topic,” he wrote in an email. “If you don’t speak your mind, you don’t sleep well at night.”

Tough times make for tough choices. Is it safety first, or family first? After Columbia went down, that NASA engineer had nightmares that he was in the shuttle as it broke up. Are you sleeping OK?

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