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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: Rockin' your radar

January 1, 2006
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If there’s a language more dense and indecipherable than consultantese, it might come from the think tanks that populate Washington, D.C. and many a comfortable campus. Here, for instance, is the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) introducing its futuristic “Seven Revolutions” presentation:

“The unfortunate fact is that many leaders across the world — whether in politics, business or civil society — are simply not focused on these kinds of longer-term challenges… The longer-term gets little, if any, attention no matter what the results, no matter how profound the consequences.”

Lucky for you, think tank analysts have the time to ponder the course of events 20 years from now, and ivory tower editors can translate their predictions.

2025 is the year picked by the CSIS for its seven revolutions to come home to roost. These Big Picture trends haven’t made it on most radar screens yet. And for baby boomer EHS pros in their ’50s, it might not matter. By 2025 their radar will have been traded in for Adirondack chairs and nine irons. But any pro with an emotional attachment to the EHS field — which means just about every pro — is interested in its future.

Here, then, is the CSIS’s “Seven Revolutions” as adapted to the EHS world.

1 — The new professionals

The population of the developed world is contracting, according to the CSIS. Populations in developed countries are also getting old — in the case of Germany and Japan and a few others, very old.

The same can be said for the “developed” world of EHS. Consider: 57% of pros responding to ISHN’s 2005 “State of the EHS Nation” White Paper survey are more than 50 years old.

Long before 2025, we’ll see a significant demographic shift in the profile of professionals. The OSHA generation of pros, baby boomers whose jobs were jump-started and ranks inflated in the 1960s and ’70s by a flood of federal regulations, are heading off to Adirondack bliss, or at least part-time consultant work. We won’t see their likes, or their numbers, again. Their replacements will be more independent, less corporate. More entrepreneurial, less compliance-centric.

2 — The new treadmill

Careers now come in two speeds — multi-tasking like mad or scrambling for new clients (or a new employer). To the point: in ISHN’s 2005 survey, 50% of White Paper safety and health respondents said their job-related stress ratcheted up; 43% said work hours increased.

Consider the CSIS view: “The issue now is whether increases in productivity can keep up with rises in population.”

The heat’s already on EHS professionals to show how their departments and services make businesses more productive. Where’s the value-add? Demands will only intensify. Most OSHA standards will be about 55 years old in 2025. Organizations won’t look to federal regs to ensure healthy employees and reliable operating systems. But they will look to EHS staffs.

3 — The new manufacturing model

“Nanotechnology will replace our entire manufacturing base with a new, radically more precise, radically less expensive, and radically more flexible way of making products,” states Dr. Ralph Merkle, a leading nanotechnologist, quoted in the CSIS presentation.

Two issues here confront EHS pros. First, radically altered manufacturing processes involving “super materials” whose health effects are a question mark could presage a wave of new exposure concerns and risk assessments. Second, think how these super light, super strong “miracle materials” will change the look, feel, performance and acceptance of personal protective equipment.

4 — The new “know-it-now” workforce

CSIS talks of the “information economy,” “knowledge diffusion,” and “increasing dependence on information flows.” What it boils down to is workers, either in teams or individually, making more decisions and having greater autonomy to meet safety, quality, productivity and profitability goals.

Again, two issues face professionals. One is letting go. Goodbye command and control, hello decentralized EHS decision-making. For a preview of how it can work, attend the annual conference of Voluntary Protection Program participants and listen to line workers talk like safety managers.

Second, virtual manufacturing, with its constantly reconfigured systems and workforce deployments, plus the influx of those new nano materials, will create steady demand for safety and health training updates.

5 — The new theatre for standards

“Advances in technology have not only increased the scope, speed, and efficiency of business operations worldwide,” states the CSIS, “but they have also brought down the costs of distance by gradually eliminating the burdens of communication, geography, transportation, language, and even time.”

Translation: EHS pros working in 2025 will focus on international standards-setting far more than what emanates (if anything) from OSHA. In the 1970s and ’80s, corporations preferred OSHA rules, warts and all, to a crazy quilt of state regs. It’s déjà vu all over again, on a global scale.

In the next 20 years look for one ISO-like safety and health program standard accepted by workplaces worldwide; “globally harmonized” MSDS formatting and nomenclature; and a universally-recognized set of toxic exposure limits.

6 — The new anxiety

The EHS profession has always benefited from anxiety. For decades jobs were created and careers sustained on the fear of OSHA inspectors knocking on the door. Now, “over the next 25 years, it’s expected the lines between lawlessness, crime, disorder, terrorism and war will become increasingly blurred, challenging governments to the limits in terms of managing and containing threats,” states the CSIS.

Businesses will be challenged as well, with EHS pros drawn into preparations. They already are, but what if more terror attacks hit the U.S.? In the old days, pros worried about hazards causing accidents and exposures on the job. Now they tackle a more complicated assignment: assessing and mitigating both internal and external risks to employers where both the uncertainty of danger and the potential magnitude of loss have increased.

7 — The new regulators

What kind of behavior modification is a $10,000 OSHA fine on Wal-Mart, whose 2002 revenues totaled $246 billion, making it the 19th largest economic entity in the world?

The old economic order is undergoing a sea change — 42 of the world’s 100 largest economic entities are corporations, not countries, according to CSIS. And safety and health regulatory agencies are guppies swimming with blue whales.

More capable of navigating these new waters are non-governmental organizations (NGO). And they far outnumber OSHA inspectors. The United Nations Human Development Report states in 2000 there were 37,000 registered international NGOs, and those numbers are expected to grow, according to CSIS.

EHS pros can learn a thing or two about “selling safety” from the strategies of powerful NGOs. NGOs hold giant corporations accountable for EHS practices and outcomes by sifting through data, packaging a message, communicating to broad audiences, and building networks and alliances to strengthen their leverage. For EHS professionals who plan to be around for the next 20 years, it’s a blueprint worth studying.

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