Safety's Mid-Life Crisis?

September 12, 2003
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    Dear Subscriber,

    SAFETY'S MID-LIFE CRISIS?

    A 56-year-old safety consultant stands in an aisle on the exhibit floor of the National Safety Congress, held earlier this week in Chicago. He's describing his current assignment, revitalizing the safety program of a manufacturer suffering an OSHA recordable rate of more than 30 cases per 100 employees, with the plant's union placing calls to the local OSHA office almost daily.

    "You know, I'm having fun. I love what I'm doing," he says. "But I'm seeing more of my peers starting to wind down. They're still doing the job, but they're at the point where they're starting to ride it out. I hope I don't get that way. I don't think I will. I hope I don't."

    Later, the president of one of the exhibiting companies stands in the same spot and scans the mostly barren aisles. "Remember when this used to be fun?" he smiles. "We'd be competing here, bringing out new products every year. Now the safety guys are beat up by purchasing, told to cut costs, cut costs. It's all about price. You know what the problem is? Nobody gives a damn anymore." He's not smiling now.

    Is safety being sapped of its passion? A troubling, but fair question to ask after three days spent at the National Safety Congress, the nation's historic showcase event for workplace safety. It's a question we'll explore in this edition of ISHN's e-newsletter.

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    POCKETS OF PASSION

    To be sure, you find pockets of passion in the workplace safety world. While the National Safety Congress was running in Chicago, close to 2,000 pumped-up safety reps were in Washington at the annual meeting of the Voluntary Protection Programs Participants' Association. VPP companies are committed, their representatives excited as evangelists, and their meeting plays like a spirited pep rally.

    And earlier this year, the American Society of Safety Engineers set an attendance record at its annual meeting, drawing almost 2,900 members to Denver.

    But no records were set at the 92nd annual Safety Congress. Rows of empty seats lined many session rooms. And the vast halls of McCormick Place did not buzz with electricity. Some exhibitors will tell you that's because large national trade shows are going the way of mass market magazines and network TV. Tottering behemoths done in by niche shows like the VPPPA meeting, regional conferences like the All-Ohio safety conference, travel cuts and online learning courses.

    But something more than economics and technology is weighing on psyches in the safety and health world.

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    MOOD INDIGO

    Maybe it was exhibitors grumbling about lonely hours and light booth traffic that shaped the mood in Chicago. But there will always be restless vendors. No, it was more than that.

    It was the speaker at a breakfast meeting saying the greatest threat to the safety field in his mind is the loss of passion by its practitioners.

    It was psychology professor and well-known safety speaker Dr. E. Scott Geller imploring a packed room: "We're not doing the job in safety. We've got to act on our caring."

    It was Charlie Morecraft, a burn victim turned motivational speaker, telling an audience about a severely burned 55-year-old worker who probably "won't make it." His voice rising in anger, Morecraft boomed, "I hear these stories every single day, and I feel it's getting harder and harder to give these people and their families hope."

    Then there was a 49-year-old safety manager talking over dinner. "I'm tired of the politics, the agendas, the egos in my place. I'm ready to tend bar in Europe."

    Maybe this is safety's mid-life crisis. The typical safety and health professional is in his or her mid to late 40s, according to various association membership studies and subscriber research by Industrial Safety & Hygiene News. In fact, more than one in four pros (27 percent) surveyed by ISHN last year is nearing retirement.

    Maybe anger and burnout are to be expected after 20-30 years on the job. It happens in work that requires compassion, empathy and ideals. Where you're exposed to grief and pain time and again. It happens to ministers, social workers, doctors and nurses. It happens when budgets are slashed, staffs are cut, and problems are ignored. "Very few cultures really support safety," said the safety manager at dinner.

    Nothing new there. Safety and health managers have fought for resources and fought against ignorance forever.

    Maybe that explains some of the weariness, the bitterness, that came across in Chicago at the Safety Congress. "You only have so many fights in you," said the safety pro at dinner.

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    WHO'S IN CONTROL?

    Or maybe it's a matter of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the most popular term in clinical psychology today, Scott Geller told his audience. "So what the hell is self-efficacy?" asked Charlie Morecraft, the old New York Teamster who was co-presenting with Dr. Geller.

    It's the belief that you can do it. That what you're doing will work. It's "can-do" optimism.

    Why is self-efficacy in vogue? Maybe because it's being put to such a strenuous test in the U.S. today.

    "It's a tough economy," you heard again and again on the exhibit floor at the Safety Congress. "Manufacturing's lost 2.7 million jobs since 2000," said one vendor. "We're gassed. Sales are down. That's the way it is for a lot of these people," he said, waving his hand across the rows of booths. "Everybody is consolidating - manufacturers, distributors, end-user companies. Why would I want to bring my kid into this business?"

    Can-do optimism is hard to sustain when you don't feel in control. And many people today - not just safety and health pros - don't feel they have a tight rein on their career or their future.

    "All the work is going overseas," said one Congress vendor. "When you call an insurance company for medical advice you can end up talking to a doctor in India. Telemarketers call from overseas. We don't make anything in this country anymore. We just package things."

    You didn't have to go far to find people roaming the aisles at the Safety Congress scrambling to make a living. Fighting to maintain that self-efficacy. Looking for clients, or a job. Handing out business cards. Networking, on the lookout.

    One was a former ad manager for a PPE manufacturer. Another, the ex-president of a global glove company. There was a safety consultant whose current project would wrap up by the end of the year. A sales and marketing manager who was "consolidated" out of a job described getting up at four in the morning to work on his fledgling business before seeing his kids off to school. "My wife's the one with the big-time job," he shrugged.

    "You've got to have a contingency plan," said a PR specialist attending the show for a major manufacturer. "I'm bartending on weekends for my brother-in-law. You never know. In five years I'd like to be bartending in the Florida Keys."

    What is it with the lure of bartending, anyway?

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    YOU NEVER KNOW

    A can-do spirit is hard to hold onto when "you never know." And we're reminded every day that we live in a time when "you never know." It affects attitudes in the safety and health field, and far beyond.

    The September 11 anniversary is a reminder that "you never know" when the next terrorist attack will come.

    "You never know" how long your next CEO will stick around.

    "You never know" who might buy your company.

    "You never know" if your kids are really safe in school, on the bus, at a party, or on the playground.

    Who knows how long we'll have troops in Iraq?

    Who knows if you'll be able to retire at 65?

    Who knows when a coworker might lose it and go postal?

    Safety and health pros aren't the only ones feeling a loss of control. Maybe that's why we read headlines like, "Dark Mood Descends Over American Public as Iraq, Jobs Take Toll," from the Investor's Business Daily. Or from USA Today: "Two years after (9/11), nation is somber?

    A Gallup Poll conducted in August lends statistics to this theme. One out of three employees surveyed (34 percent) say their employer has laid people off during the past six months. Nearly one out of three employees (31 percent) are personally worried about their benefits being reduced in the near future. One out of five employees (19 percent) are personally worried about being laid off in the near future.

    Anxiousness might explain why nearly one-third of Americans have hypertension, and almost two-thirds are overweight.

    Or why only 38 percent of safety and health pros surveyed by ISHN last year say they feel a rewarding sense of job satisfaction.

    Maybe it's the stress of not knowing. Or having fought too many battles. Or thinking ahead to that bartending gig in the Keys.

    Maybe that's why Dr. Geller sensed a flatness in his audience. "I want you to feel emotional. I want to rock your boat. Rock your world," he shouted at his audience in Chicago. "We want you involved. You've got to challenge us."

    It never happened. Scott Geller and Charlie Morecraft - two of safety's most "powerful and dynamic speakers," as described in the Congress program, closed their session with not a question or comment from the crowd lined wall to wall.

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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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    BEHAVIORAL SAFETY NOW CONFERENCE

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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

    We will also consider articles you've already written but not submitted to any safety magazine.

    Thanks.

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