Mixed Signals

June 27, 2003
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Dear Subscriber,

MIXED SIGNALS

In this edition of ISHN's e-newsletter we offer you notes from mile-high Denver, site of the American Society of Safety Engineers' 42nd annual Professional Development Conference and Expo, held earlier this week, June 22-25.

Gatherings like this are a good chance to take the pulse of the profession - moods, concerns, hot buttons, buzzwords, trends, topics drawing the biggest crowds.

But, you know what? There is no single current of thought coursing through the profession.

Consensus themes are tough to identify. Consider the diverse array of safety professionals flying into Denver: multinational VPs, small company managers, consultants, insurance company reps, construction contractors, college professors, and government bureaucrats. That's why it's hard for the safety profession to speak with one voice on any matter.

Here's an example - Late Monday afternoon at the conference, an open forum was held to address: "Just what is 'World Class Safety'?"

More than an hour's worth of discussion among 40 or so professionals ended with these conclusions:

"Everyone measures World Class differently, there is no standardization," said one participant.

"World Class is like beauty, it's in the eye of the beholder," said another.

Johnson & Johnson was raised up as a world class safety organization. But a representative from J&J said no, "We're not World Class yet because we can still do better."

Is World Class perfection, zero incidents? Hands went up around the tables. No, it's a moving target. No, it's a journey that maybe never ends. No, it's an advancement process. How about a matter of sustainability, continuous improvement and flawless execution? Or a specific list of criteria you must meet. Or Voluntary Protection Program "Star" status. Or best-in-industry injury rates.

You get the idea. Roundtables on "What is culture?" or "What is behavior-based safety?" would produce similar circular debates.

So it's not surprising that mixed signals about the state of safety came out of the Rockies. Consider these developments:

  • Doldrums, what economic doldrums? Attendance at the Denver meeting was the highest ever in ASSE's history. Close to 2,900 people attended from 22 countries.

  • Money's tight? Members stood in line at the microphone during Sunday's House of Delegates meeting, pledging $62,231.50 to the ASSE Foundation for student scholarships and research. This was the largest amount of donations ever presented to the foundation in a single day.

  • Meanwhile, sessions on leadership and management sounded like pep talks and group therapy. Safety pros were urged to compete and fight to survive. Take control. Be strong. Have confidence, said speakers. "Get out of your comfort zone. Stop doing what you've been doing," said Robert Pater, one of the presenters in a session titled, "The Future of Safety Leadership."

  • And why the references from speakers to "being in a hole" and "being stuck in traffic"? That doesn't sound like a profession on the move, breaking attendance records, donating record sums of money.

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    WHERE'S THE FIT?

    Here's what could be happening: "The profession is in one of those state of fluxes," said safety consultant David Sarkus. "We're trying to figure out where we fit in."

    Such is life in the post-OSHA era. One theme at the Denver meeting could have been dubbed, "Where's OSHA?" The program featured only four sessions with "OSHA" in the title.

    Safety pros used to know where they fit in with OSHA. For decades they were the compliance cops and rules interpreters. But now what? OSHA is more interested in alliances than standards. How do pros fit in with the new, more cooperative OSHA?

    Where do safety pros fit in with today's economy? What is the profession to do when the most hazardous industries export the dangerous jobs overseas? When the number of blue-collar workers needing protection continues to shrink? How does safety fit into the new, global economy?

    How do safety departments fit into today's organizations? Cost-cutting is paramount to maintain profits. Staffs and budgets are lean and leaner. Outsourcing is increasingly attractive. (Procter and Gamble just farmed out its office management functions. P&G's IT is already handled by a contractor, and the company is considering contracting out parts of human resources and accounting.)

    And how can safety "start at the top," as the old saying goes, with constant turnover in the executive suite?

    Speaking of current trends, where does safety fit into the buzz surrounding sustainability and the corporate social responsibility movement? Is there anything there but a buzz?

    And where does safety fit into the public, media and political arenas? All seem to have little time and interest in workplace safety.

    Finally, where does safety fit in today's classroom? ASSE has been concerned for several years now about "fueling the pipeline" - reversing the declining student enrollment in college safety programs. "I don't see many young heads," said one pro at the ASSE conference. "I see a lot of balding heads."

    "The times they are a changin'," said ASSE's new President, James "Skipper" Kendrick, at the session on the future of the profession. Indeed.

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    GETTING NOTICED

    These kinds of changes and pressures make it more urgent than ever for safety pros to get senior management's attention. This issue dominated the Denver conference. Forty-four sessions were devoted to safety management, by far the largest issue category. By comparison, the old staples of technical, engineering, and standards topics were covered in 17 sessions.

    Here's how Skipper Kendrick explained the shift in focus: What safety pros do day-to-day is "out of synch" with what they need to be doing. Safety pros say they need more management support. "In 17 years on the job I haven't been able to get management to hold their top people accountable for safety, like they do for quality and productivity," said one professional.

    But surveys show that most pros spend their days on training, compliance, audits and policies. "We fall back to the technical side of the business," said Kendrick. "We're still in the trenches, with no time for the high level stuff. We've got to do something different than just lockout-tagout and hazard communication."

    Speakers in Denver give pros a long litany of tips for "getting out of the trenches" and how to "dinosaur-proof your career," as one session was titled. Here is a sampling:

  • Don't assume execs understand anything about safety beyond the need for compliance and fixing imminent liabilities. You must document and market the value of safety in improving quality, productivity, customer satisfaction, employee retention, and organizational culture.

  • Let go of your beliefs - stereotypes and generalizations about execs, supervisors, employees, OSHA, you name it. That's how you get out of the rut of just doing the same old same old.

  • Think like a product manager. How can you change the packaging of your safety message to make it "stick" with employees and manager?

  • Know your limits. Know when to back off. Keynoter Andrew Razeghi of StrategyLab, Inc. used Microsoft's Bill Gates as an example. Gates "demoted" himself out of the CEO's chair because he's more of an innovator than administrator.

  • Don't be risk averse. In fact, be a little crazy, Razeghi said. Be reasonable in your risk-taking, but don't be afraid to voice a dissenting opinion.

  • Learn how to recover, bounce back, from inevitable failed pilot programs, initiatives, rejected budget proposals and so on.

  • Make sure any new initiative or plan of yours carries influence beyond safety, said Robert Pater. Analyze the connections to productivity, quality and morale in whatever you propose to do. That's where management sees real value.

  • Read, read, read - especially publications outside of safety. Apply lessons from consumer marketing, human resources, sales and psychology, for example, to safety.

  • Be open to new ideas, new subjects. ASSE is introducing 17 new seminars at its "Seminarfest", Jan. 25-31, 2004, in San Diego. Among them: reducing human error, stress management, operationalizing safety to impact profits, six sigma, managing safety as a business, safety measurement systems, safety aspects of lean manufacturing.

    Who says safety is a mature field?

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    EMBRACING FLUX

    Finally, the ASSE Denver meeting offered many lessons in how to adapt to flux.

    A consultant in Houston is back working out of his home office after ramping up in the past several years to meet heavy demand for his expertise in mold matters. At one time he had 12 employees and offices in the Wells Fargo building. Now it's him and his wife and one other partner.

    Kathy Seabrook up and moved her family and her business, Global Solutions, Inc., from New Jersey to Surrey, England because that's where the demand for her services is strongest.

    After a 30-year career in safety that included stints as a corporate EHS manager at General Electric and Enron, Tom Drake was at booth 108 in Denver touting his $500,000 Mobile Technology Unit. He drives his motor coach to clients' sites to develop Web sites, Intranet sites, customized training, online forms and data management applications. Drake's mobile workshop contains a Dell Dual Processor Workstation 620 with flat panel monitor for graphics and video production; a Mac G4 graphics workstation; a Dell server with an external network connection for client data access; and a MotoSat two-way Internet satellite system for high-speed broadband connectivity.

    Two veteran safety pros, Fred Rine and Ken Brock, have teamed up to launch The Online Safety & Security Store, offering online shoppers a "one-stop source" for personal protective equipment, security products, training, and consulting services.

    Dot-coms made something of a comeback at the Denver meeting. Vendors included Trainingonline.com, Click Safety, TheComplianceCenter.com and Internet-based services such as 3E Company and MSDSpro. Every training company promoted "Web-based solutions." Terry Mathis, a longtime behavior-based safety consultant, unveiled www.BehaviorBasedSafety.com. His objective: sell BBS products to do-it-yourselfers. "That's the way the market has evolved," says Mathis.

    You don't have to tell that to Tom Krause, co-founder of Behavioral Science Technology. Returning from what he described as "my so-called semi-retirement" in New Mexico, Dr. Krause packed a room with 500 attendees for a talk on "Leading with Safety." He says BBS was a great ride, a lot of fun, but ended up a commodity. Now BST's focus is on broader organizational and performance management issues.

    Dr. Scott Geller, another of the BBS gurus, has also branched out. His focus: a blend of social, behavioral, and what he calls "people-based" safety. His consulting firm, Safety Performance Solutions, conducts a workshop on the human aspects of safety, including attitudes, communication styles and conflict resolution skills. SPS's menu of services now encompasses safety management systems assessments and "leadership skills to encourage mindfulness and reduce error."

    One more example: Rick Pollack, a safety professional who started his own training video business in the 1980s, promoted a new Web-based system at the ASSE meeting that combines interactive education, accountability tracking, and recognition awards for performance. That's a long way from video cassettes.

    Yes, signals were mixed in Denver. You could find positive indicators and negative trendlines. But it's clear that many people, like those above, aren't trying to figure out which way the wind is blowing. They have a plan for changing with the times, and they're taking the plunge, taking the risk.

    How about you?

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    Dave Johnson is the ISHN E-News editor. He can be reached at djsafe@bellatlantic.net, (610) 666-0261; fax (610) 666-1906.

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    WE NEED YOU!

    Are you a safety and health pro or a manufacturer or provider of occupational safety and health products or services who enjoys writing?

    Shakespeare need not apply, but ISHN is looking for authors to publish short articles (1,000 words) in our monthly issues.

    Topics include: safety success stories, close calls and personal experiences, training tips, use of software, engineering controls (machine guards, lockout-tagout), gas detection and air monitoring, confined space safety, personal protective equipment, and OSHA compliance issues.

    If any of these topics interest you - or if you have other ideas - e-mail editor Dave Johnson at djsafe@bellatlantic.net

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