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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: Flunking as a futurist

May 1, 2007
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With our cover story this month taking a look at the future of industrial hygiene, I thought I’d dust off some predictions I made a dozen years ago and see how they turned out.

Back on a sunny spring Saturday, May 13, 1995, I had the pleasure of addressing the graduates of Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Safety Sciences in Indiana, Pa., the hometown of actor Jimmy Stewart about an hour east of Pittsburgh.

My 20-minute talk was filled with predictions about the world of safety and health that these grads would inhabit 10-20 years down the road. Let’s see, almost exactly 12 years later, about the clarity of that crystal ball I brought to Indiana that day.

PREDICTION: Most safety and health pros will be working from home offices.
Not exactly. The numbers of telecommuters is indeed growing. I didn’t know that I myself would be working from a converted carport in 2007, and many of my publishing brethren and safety and health professional contacts would have offices in their basements, bedrooms, dining rooms, etc.

But as Glenn Fishler of EORM, Inc. pointed out in a presentation at last year’s Professional Conference of Industrial Hygiene, since 1970 the number of multinational corporations has exploded more than 800 percent, from 7,000 to 60,000.

Reports of the death of Corporate America have been greatly exaggerated, and I’d give my prediction here a Grade C at best.

PREDICTION: Voice recognition technology would be opening our refrigerators, turning on and off our TVs and operating our computers.
What we have today are those eerily humanoid telephone voices that recognize our prescription refill orders or train reservations. And they cheat by asking us to use our touch-tone keypad. “Let me be sure I have this right,” chirps the humanoid. Not what I had in mind. Prediction Grade: D

PREDICTION: Safety and health professionals would receive their morning news on their commuter screens, customized to their personal interests.
The wailing and gnashing of teeth you hear from newspaper publishers tells you this prediction was fairly right on. Thank you Google and Yahoo and MySpace and YouTube. Prediction grade: B (People still read the paper for the sports page.)

PREDICTION: Basketball superstar Michael Jordan would be a star on golf’s Senior Tour.
Turns out MJ can make a ton more money endorsing Wheaties, McDonald’s burgers, Christmas stockings, edible cake decorations, golf club covers, shower curtains, beanbag chairs, wall calendars, nightlights, yo-yos, toothbrush holders, school boxes, action figures, flashlights, magnets, and of course sneakers. As Salon magazine says, “What’s good for Michael Jordan is good for America.” Prediction grade: D- (MJ does make some money off of golf club covers, anyway.)

PREDICTION: Rick Santorum, former Republican senator from Pennsylvania, would be President of the United States.
Santorum, once the number-three man in the Senate leadership, got bounced out of office by voters in 2006. He’s now, big surprise, a Washington attorney and commentator for Fox News. I need to leave political prognosticating to the likes of Frank White at ORC Worldwide; Aaron Trippler, the American Industrial Hygiene Association’s government affairs guru; and Dan Glucksman, who does similar divining for the International Safety Equipment Association. Prediction Grade: F

PREDICTION: OSHA and EPA would merge into the Environmental Health and Safety Administration due to federal cost-cutting.
I should’ve known better. Aaron Trippler told me a long time ago once a federal agency is created, you simply cannot, never, ever kill it. Prediction Grade: F

PREDICTION: I told the grads an ergonomics standard would be issued by the end of the year 2015.
The clock’s still ticking on this one. Who knows, if Hillary wins the White House in ’08 and names Peg Seminario of the AFL-CIO the head of OSHA, all bets are off. Prediction Grade: Incomplete

PREDICTION: Nursing homes and healthcare facilities will be big clients for safety and health consultants, due to the aging population, shift to a service economy, and the many lifting, falls and infectious disease hazards in these workplaces.
Ha! Talk about safe practices in healthcare; today you still can’t get many docs to even wash their hands before and after seeing patients. According to a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, docs followed hand-hygiene protocols only 57 percent of the time. Most hospitals are so squeezed by competition and insurers, they can’t afford patient lifts and safety consultants. Prediction Grade: F

PREDICTION: My fictional safety and health pro of the future would be traveling to Rome for an international harmonization meeting on uniform reporting of chemical spills.
Before we get to reporting chemical spills, we need globally harmonized chemical safety data sheets. OSHA’s working on it, but with the average OSHA standard taking about 16 years to be finalized, I think I got a little ahead of myself on this one. Prediction Grade: D

PREDICTION: There will not be sufficient local EHS talent to handle the hazards of the booming manufacturing industry in Malaysia.
EORM’s Fishler in his PCIH presentation said many multinationals are using consultants to supplement the lack of qualified local EHS staff. I’m looking pretty good on this one, though progress is slowly being made developing EHS curriculum at some local universities in the Asia-Pacific region. Prediction Grade: B

PREDICTION: Employees will have “smart cards” with each individual’s complete medical and occupational exposure history to be downloaded into computers.
Instead we have “smart passes” that commuters use to save some bucks and time. Prediction Grade: F

PREDICTION: Mental stress claims will cost companies a ton of money.
Maybe in Sweden, but in the U.S. we don’t file a claim, we ask our doc for Xanax, Paxil, Zoloft, etc. I got it wrong: mental stress will make pharmaceutical companies tons of money. Prediction Grade: F

PREDICTION: Safety and health pros, working from home offices without the traditional boundaries of 9 to 5 hours and commutes to HQ, will pretty much be available to work seven days a week, any time day or night.
Of all the predictions that I could’ve gotten right, it had to be this one, eh? Sorry. Prediction Grade: A

Looking back over these mostly misbegotten educated guesses, I glean three lessons: 1) The problem with predicting the future is it doesn’t come fast enough; 2) Money, or more specifically the lack thereof, drags down many a prediction; and 3) Dr. James E. Leemann has it right: “Crystal balling the future, at best, is a dubious endeavor.”

— Dave Johnson, Editor, djsafe@bellatlantic.net

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