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NIOSH findings, sustainability's weak link

November 2, 2011
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careerNIOSH findings

NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard gave a presentation on Tuesday on a recent study of the supply and demand for OSH professionals in the next 5 years. Demand (25,000 pros are expected to be hired by U.S. industry) far outstrips supply (13,000 college graduates in OSH will be available).

NIOSH asked employers what skills they wanted in the OSH pros they will be hiring. Employers said: 1) They want people who know how to be change agents, how to be safety leaders. They want leaders who can move large organizations to higher levels of performance using safety and health metrics as measuring sticks. Leaders who can get organizations “unstuck” from old safety practices. Leaders who can help create new organizational cultures, particularly sustainability-oriented cultures.

To create a sustainability culture, organizations will launch countless campaigns and initiatives that will require employee awareness, buy-in, active participation, you name it.  Safety people, especially those equipped with strong “people” skills – listening, probing, breaking resistance, rewarding, disciplining – are well positioned to generate engagement.
Employers told NIOSH they also want 2) professionals who are generalists, cross-trained in disciplines, free from what Dr. Howard called the tyranny of specialization, which places narrow subject matter experts in silos where they often are forgotten, or replaced by a contractor off the payroll.

Employers also expect 3) new OSH hires to be comfortable with technology: data mining, predictive analytics; online training and recordkeeping; using audit findings and exposure readings as OSH “intelligence” that gives organizations insights for human error reduction projects, prevention through product designs, and sustainability campaigns.

Sustainability’s weak link

A Tuesday afternoon session, very lightly attended, addressed a provocative topic:  “Society’s Expectations for a Company EHS Program.” Societal issues are one of the three legs of the sustainability stool, along with economics and environment protection. It by far gets the least attention, which might explain the empty seats.

Presenters talked proudly about sustainability best practices. They included a machine guarding code of conduct, a close calls program, a behavior-based safety program for office workers, and projects that reduced water consumption, lead battery disposal, and improved wood and metals recycling.

We admit we were confused. And we asked the presenters at the end of the session, are these all societal sustainability projects?

Does a BBS program meet a social need? Does a close call program? Or machine guarding? Does the U.S. public expect companies to have BBS, close call, machine guarding programs?

One presenter answered:  “the public expects family members to come home from work at night in the same safe and healthy shape they left home with in the morning.”

You can argue that under that broad mandate any OSH initiative meets a social demand or expectation.

You can also argue that sustainability requires a collective, community-oriented mindset, and in the U.S. our culture is more oriented to the individual taking action.

You can also argue that the U.S. public expects very little for EHS because, like most CEOs, they have no education in the value of EHS. The public has certainly been “undernourished” in terms of OSH education. Very little research is done. The NIOSH study says the entire OSH profession totals about 48,000 OSH pros. That’s miniscule. That makes it very easy for most of the public to know no one among friends and family in an OSH job. It makes it easy for survey respondents to say OSHA is a town in Wisconsin.

And it makes you wonder where all the OSH pros will come from in the next five years to close that gap in supply and demand.

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