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MANAGING BEST PRACTICES: Been there, done that?

November 27, 2002
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The numbers don't add up. ISHN's most recent White Paper survey found job satisfaction among environmental health and safety pros at 37 percent. In large firms (more than 1,000 employees) job satisfaction drops to 28 percent. In comparison, 51 percent of workers, in general, like their jobs.

You'd think that EHS pros have a beef with management or they are disgruntled about how things are run, but this isn't the case. The White Paper survey found that 80 percent of EHS pros are satisfied with management's support and less than 10 percent had complaints about budgets, staff, stress or time to do their job.

What's going on?

I believe it's mundane challenges. EHS pros seem to hold the perception that all the dragons have been slain. Been there, done that.

Lower job satisfaction in large firms is understandable. Almost all large firms have policies, procedures, and programs in place to keep recognized hazards under wrap. In these situations, an EHS pro's talents are reduced to paint-by-the-numbers.

Most EHS pros are now mostly quick lube workers, not mechanics. It's hard to be happy when your brain is asleep - or at least the right side of the brain is asleep.

Getting creative

Stephen Covey (author of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People") would put a finer edge on this thinking. Covey describes the brain dominance theory. The left hemisphere of the brain is more logical, deals with analysis and sequential thinking. The left side of the brain helps EHS pros do their methodical job.

The right side of brain is intuitive and creative. Covey says, "The more we are able to draw upon our right brain capacity, the more fully we will be able to visualize, to synthesize, to transcend time and present circumstances, to project a holistic picture of what we want to do and be in life."

EHS pros are not tapping the right side of their brains.

Higher needs

Abraham Maslow, the granddaddy human motivation guru, might propose in his "Hierarchy of Needs" that EHS pros are stuck in the lower-level needs and must achieve higher levels before they become satisfied.

Maslow's lower needs include:

1 Belongingness: affiliate with others, be accepted; and,

2 Esteem: to achieve, be competent, gain approval and recognition.

Maslow's higher needs are:

1 Cognitive: to know, to understand, and explore;

2 Aesthetic: symmetry, order, and beauty;

3 Self-actualization: to find self-fulfillment and realize one's potential; and

4 Transcendence: to help others find self-fulfillment and realize their potential.

It's understandable that EHS pros are stuck in Maslow's lower need levels. Pros are struggling with a sense of belongingness and self-esteem. As "generalists" most pros don't know which group - safety, industrial hygiene, environmental, or even general management - to affiliate with. EHS groups today offer little differentiation. Each group wants to say in their mission statement, "We protect people, property, and the environment." Pros are seeking esteem by pursuing more credentials. Take your pick. There are nearly 200 EHS credentials to choose from.

Covey provides solutions for the plight of EHS pros. His first habit is to "Be proactive." The second: "Begin with the end in mind." Get back to the basics of why we do what we do. And wake up the right side of your brain. Follow Covey's seven habits and you'll be led to Maslow's higher needs.

Many EHS pros have closed minds because they don't want to challenge their company with emerging concerns that may require voluntary efforts. Pros are worried about job security (security is another one of Maslow's lower needs). Jobs are out there but not at the salary they want. Most (80 percent) EHS pros probably have management support because they're not rocking the boat. Pros may feel if they keep quiet (don't cause problems) they may keep their jobs.

Being proactive

This observation has a rationale. Almost every serious problem is preceded by warnings. Peter Sandman, a world-renowned risk communication expert, calls these warnings "yellow flags" - an analogy to auto racing, meaning to proceed with caution.

In terms of business risk, Sandman says there are only three possible ways to cope with a yellow flag:

1 Keep actions/inactions secret;

2 Don't let yourself know about it; and,

3 Acknowledge it and involve stakeholders' help on how to deal with it.

Too many EHS pros may fall into Sandman's second option. But this is dangerous. In this Information Age there is a thin line between claiming to be ignorant and being viewed as incompetent or dishonest.

EHS pros can get out of their funk by being proactive to yellow flags. In Covey's words, "act or be acted upon." Action helps achieve Maslow's "cognitive" higher need: to know, to understand, and explore.

We apply Sandman's third option by involving the stakeholder. Covey supports this approach with his fifth habit: "Seek first to understand, then be understood." When there is an EHS yellow flag we must ask and listen to what stakeholders think about it.

EHS yellow flags are abundant. Examples include my last two ISHN articles on human genome technologies and reproductive health concerns. Can you see how they add together? Employ the right side of your brain.

Plenty of new discoveries and challenges await us. There are many dragons to be slain. I believe if all EHS pros seek out and conquer new challenges, job satisfaction will grow significantly.

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