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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: A house divided?

January 4, 2011
KEYWORDS careers / management
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How far can a profession advance when it’s at odds with itself?

I asked myself this question after reviewing the results of our 27th White Paper reader survey. By “advance,” I’m speaking in terms of credibility and influence with business management, politicians, regulators, non-governmental organizations, the media and the public.
 

Progress to date

To be sure, the occupational health and safety profession has come a long way. National workplace fatalities are at an all-time low. Professionals in large corporations have global responsibilities and vice president titles. The field is slowly but surely moving beyond the long shadow of OSHA and making contributions in business critical areas of sustainability, reputation management, risk management, product stewardship and organizational leadership.
 

Many safety and health pros are undecided about their beliefs.

Low profile "brand"

But still, the OHS profession struggles with communicating its role and value to executives, lawmakers and the public and in trying to get more and better press coverage. Its “brand identity,” 40 years after OSHA created a booming demand for professional services, is not strong.

People associate a brand with certain values. In this year’s White Paper survey we asked professionals a number of questions about their values, about what they believe. This is where the division within the ranks became apparent.
 

Consider these critical areas of disagreement:

  • Does management understand safety issues? 49% of pros believe business executives “think they get safety but in reality do not.” Almost as many (44%) believe execs “get it thoroughly and act accordingly.” Pros in large facilities, with 1,000 or more employees, are much more pessimistic. Only 34% believe execs “get it” and 61% say they don’t. This is scary - larger operations generally pose the greatest risks to the most people, inside and outside the plant gates.
  • What causes accidents? 44% of professionals believe the majority of accidents are attributable to human error. 22% disagree, and 33% are on the fence; they neither agree nor disagree.
  • What is management’s role in accidents? 31% believe most causes of incidents are ultimately attributable to management priorities and decision-making. 33% disagree, and 21% are undecided.
  • Are safety professionals true leaders? 41% agree with the statement “safety professionals have not devoted enough time to instilling a culture of safety leadership in their organizations, at the employee, supervisor and executive levels.” 38% beg to differ, and 21% are on the fence.
  • Do safety pros have the courage of their convictions? Almost half of pros (48%) agree with this statement: “Most professionals will not put their careers at risk by standing up and speaking out about problems.” Only 24% disagree, and 24% are undecided. Honesty and candidness have always been values of the safety and health profession.
  • Should safety pros stir public outrage? 43% believe pros, individually and collectively, should become activists and do more to arouse safety outrage among employees, their families and the general public. 22% are opposed to increased activism, and 35% are undecided.
  • Is too much time spent on compliance? 42% say yes, they spend too much of their time on OSHA compliance versus non-compliance risk reduction. 58% disagree, believing that is not the case. In facilities with 250-999 employees, the debate is much closer: 47% say too much time is spent on compliance, and 53% disagree.
  • What is the profession’s public image? 41% believe they are perceived by the public and their business colleagues as “OSHA Professionals” rather than “Safety and Health Professionals.” 28% disagree with this image, and 31% are undecided.
  • Are injury and illness rates accurate? Across the board, 58% accept the data and 42% do not. The split is closer in large (1,000+ employees) operations, where 53% believe in the Bureau of Labor Statistics annual reports, and 47% do not.
  • Does OSHA need to be strengthened? Legislation was proposed in Congress last year that would have raised OSHA penalties and made it easier to file criminal charges against company executives following fatalities or serious injuries. 52% of pros believe this legislation is not needed; 48% support it. There is a big split in the thinking of pros in mid-size facilities (250-999 employees) compared to large facilities (1,000+ employees). In mid-size operations, 39% support OSHA reform and 61% oppose it. In large operations, the feeling is almost opposite: 59% support reform and 41% oppose it.


Numerous disagreements

So let’s recap: Safety and health professionals cannot agree on 1) the competency of their bosses; 2) the quality of their own leadership; 3) their ability to take a stand for safety no matter what; 4) whether outrage is an appropriate tool for professionals to use; 5) whether or not OSHA demands too much of a professional’s time; 6) how the public perceives professionals; 7) the accuracy and credibility of the profession’s one universally accepted benchmark; and 8) whether the safety and health field needs stronger enforcement. Put aside these disagreements for a moment. What is striking is the large percentage of professionals who apparently can’t make their minds up one way or the other about these critical issues. When it comes to what safety and health pros believe, a large block are simply undecided, or unwilling to say.
 

Lack of answers

I can understand the fractious nature of the profession. It suffers dearly from a lack of research that could answer some of these questions and build consensus. It also suffers from a lack of peer-reviewed, evidence-based published articles, say in comparison to medicine or other sciences. No accurate count exists anywhere to even definitively state the size of the profession. NIOSH came up with estimates almost 40 years ago. And there’s been nothing since. Suffice to say the profession is small and under-funded compared to medicine certainly, and many other scientific disciplines.

The American Society of Safety Engineers has about 33,000 members. The American Industrial Hygiene Association has approximately 10,000. The U.S. workforce numbers about 154.5 million. That’s about a generous and ridiculous ratio of one safety and health pro for every 3,511 workers, if you account for no overlap between ASSE and AIHA, which of course isn’t true. As for research findings, Google “patient safety research” and you get about 9.6 million results for a field that’s been around only since 2000.
 

Fence-sitters

Still, what I don’t understand is why so many professionals are undecided about the issues of the day. Perhaps those percentages represent practitioners, not professionals; those who only work part-time in safety with their minds mostly preoccupied elsewhere. But even in the largest facilities we surveyed, where you would expect to find most full-time safety and health pros at work, large blocks of respondents (between 25% to 33%) will not commit one way or the other to taking a position.

After all, a large percentage of the population does not vote on its beliefs or convictions, staying away from the polls.

And democracy marches on (though the Tea Party may beg to differ). But can the safety and health profession truly “build brand awareness” of its values when so many are undecided about which way to go?

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