Tipping Points

May 14, 2004
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Dear Subscriber,

"The Tipping Point is the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point." This definition comes from Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling book, "The Tipping Point," which explains how ideas and trends can build and build and then suddenly tip or transform into the new reality.

At the annual American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Expo in Atlanta this week, some long-simmering developments in industrial hygiene — and the environmental health and safety profession more broadly — showed signs of reaching the boiling point.

"Industrial hygiene is gone as we have known it," said one certified IH.

Where has it gone? The answer lies in four tipping points we'll examine in this edition of ISHN's e-newsletter.

TECHNOLOGY

Here's a tipping point for you: At a luncheon with reporters on Monday, outgoing American Industrial Hygiene Association President Tom Grumbles mentioned that last year, for the first time, AIHA's distance learning courses attracted more total participants (2,450) than professional attendance at the association's annual conference.

Said one AIHA official: "We've been budgeting for distance learning for three or four years, wondering when the payoff was going to come. Now it's really growing."

An American Society of Safety Engineers official at the Atlanta meeting reinforced the acceptance of virtual education. ASSE last month had 600 paid registrants for an audio conference on the new ANSI lockout-tagout standard.

Most of AIHA's success has come via TeleWeb Virtual Seminars. AIHA has budgeted eight of these mega-telephone conference calls with the feel of a radio talk show in 2004. Participants don't have to leave their home or office — and neither does the speaker, as long as he or she has a phone and a broadband Internet connection. Presenters can poll their audience, field questions, and lead discussions. TeleWeb seminars run 2.5 to 3 hours, always in the afternoon to maximize attendance, and offer certification points.

Training companies are getting into the game, too. J.J. Keller has launched a series of free, monthly one-hour "Safety Executive Conference Calls." One coming up later this month has a corporate safety director facilitating a discussion on how to get your CEO to buy into (and spend money on) your safety program.

SERVICE MINDED

Industrial hygiene has been tagged as a prime candidate for outsourcing since the early 1990s, when the asbestos panic created a demand for consultants and corporate downsizing began to create a pool of available IH's. In 2001, about 32 percent of AIHA members were employed in services (consulting, education, insurance, research, etc.). Slightly less than half (47 percent) had jobs in private industry, and 14 percent worked in the government.

But AIHCe's trade show this year gave the impression industrial hygiene is all about services. Aisle after aisle of small booths for asbestos and lead abatement contractors, mold remediators, laboratories, environmental consultants, emergency response teams, hearing and other medical testing services, legal services, MSDS management providers, equipment rental and repair operators, software providers, risk and exposure assessors, and general safety and health management consultants.

A similar plethora of services was on display last week at the American Occupational Health Conference in Kansas City. The story is familiar, too. Widespread outsourcing has pushed many company docs and staff nurses into clinics, consulting firms and self-employment.

At both of these exhibitions, vendors of hard goods — gloves, goggles, hearing protectors, hard hats and clothing — were conspicuous by their low profile. They've cut back on floor space and sales reps manning booths. Why? They don't see most IH's as volume buyers of PPE. Respirators and instrumentation are the exception, and were the two most prominent hardware categories on display in Atlanta.

Where has industrial hygiene gone? It's tipped from corporate departments to entrepreneurs working from bedroom offices, to cadres of client advisors, and to networks of affiliates that handle employee complaints in Beijing and mold assessments in your local post office.

Say goodbye to technical career tracks inside most companies — only 32 percent of 50 major corporations surveyed by personnel recruiter Richard Fiore still have technical ladders for EHS pros. Say hello to Master Service Agreements — usually one- to three-year contracts between consultants and corporations that have eliminated internal IH resources. "Here's my home phone number," one consultant told his client to clinch a deal. "Call anytime."

There's nothing wrong with IH's becoming independent business operators like accountants or attorneys, Roy Buchan, an AIHA board member, said at the press luncheon. "Maybe it's a sign that the profession is maturing," he said. "Plus, consultants make better money than IH's in government jobs."

DIVERSIFICATION

Every time the Labor Department announces another million manufacturing jobs lost, it's debated if environmental health and safety can sustain itself. Traditional breeding grounds for professionals — represented by venerable smokestack America — are disappearing. Now developments are tipping demand for EHS services toward nontraditional workplaces.

Listen to one consultant at the Atlanta meeting describe several of his markets: "In Vermont we're working in Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream factory, VA hospitals, and post offices. In Monterrey, California, residential mold, lead and asbestos are keeping us busy, driven by insurance companies. I'd like to break more industrial factory accounts, but in some regions we'd be sunk if we depended on industry business."

From ice cream plants to federal agencies, here is where some of the new demand for EHS expertise is coming from:

  • The Department of Energy is dealing with a health scandal involving contract workers at its Hanford, Washington nuclear weapons complex.

  • The State Department is stocking embassies around the world with escape hood breathing devices and must give new weight to risk assessments.

  • Post-Columbia NASA, shell-shocked and in dire need of shoring up its safety culture, is proving to be a boon for some consultants. One CIH in Atlanta flew in from a NASA center in Ohio, where he's helping the site develop integrated ISO 9000, 14000, and OSHA VPP audit protocol. "Probably all NASA centers will go this way," he said. And one exhibitor at the AIHCe, Behavior Science Technology, landed what could end up as a $10-million contract to facilitate a three-year NASA-wide culture change initiative.

    Homeland security and anti-terrorism planning are taking EHS pros in new directions. But AIHA officials admit they're struggling to define their members' roles and contributions. Conducting risk assessments at disaster sites has not been part of most professionals' training.

    "There are a lot of regs out there mandating to do something, and we're trying to define what 'something' is for industrial hygienists," said incoming AIHA President Donna Doganiero. Three Army IH's were among the first responders at the Pentagon after the terrorist attack on September 11. "We know we have a role to play, a seat at the table; we need to tell the people who are sending invitations."

    GLOBALIZATION

    One more tip: AIHA's International Affairs Committee has been something of a voice crying for attention (and funding) in the wilderness. Now international affairs is emerging from the backwoods. Foreign faces and accents were everywhere in Atlanta, in elevators, hotel lobbies, lunch tables, in vendor booths, at the poster session and on speaker platforms.

    A session on the future of the EHS professional seemed to attract as many foreigners as U.S. attendees.

    Berenice Isabel Ferrari Goelzer, editor of the newsletter of the International Occupational Hygiene Association in France, gave the Jeffrey S. Lee Lecture on Monday.

    While Goelzer was lecturing, Deborah Imel Nelson, AIHA's control banding guru, excitedly described to a reporter the budget-busting success of an international control banding workshop in Cincinnati earlier this year. AIHA, one of the sponsors, projected 75 attendees and was wowed when 150 showed up to learn about the United Kingdom's strategy for assessing and controlling exposures that is designed for non-professionals in small businesses.

    References to the UN-backed Globally Harmonized System for Hazard Communication came up frequently in Atlanta. The GHS might one day codify an MSDS format for U.S. manufacturers. Even Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), no fan of the regulatory calendar, wants OSHA to explore adaptation of the GHS.

    A PPE vendor talked of burgeoning sales in Asia and South America — "if only the volume approached what we've got in the U.S." — along with growing competition from cheap, imported "commodity crap" and the need to build plants in Brazil to avoid duty taxes.

    More cultural cross-pollination: Consultant Dan Markiewicz explained to a pre-conference workshop how he uses guidelines to assess reproductive health risks from the Commission of European Communities. Martin Ralph, managing director of Western Australia's Industrial Foundation for Accident Prevention, in Atlanta to meet with NIOSH researchers, said he would be sending several staffers to next month's ASSE meeting in Las Vegas. And standing in the middle of rows of poster presentations, Antonio Attias, safety and hygiene coordinator for Petrolera Ameriven in Venezuela, proudly explained his organizational system for adding EHS value to his company's performance measures and strategic objectives. And where did he learn the concept? From a class led by Dr. Rick Fulwiler, former worldwide health and safety director for Procter & Gamble.

    "Did you know only 40 percent of EHS pros know their company's business plan," said Attias. "To integrate EHS, you must start with the business plan and work your way back."

    AIHA now has 800 international members — there's that critical mass taking shape — and the association is putting more time and effort into global outreach. IH associations are being organized in Poland, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil, Romania, and Latvia. IH graduate programs are being established in Colombia, India, Poland and Latvia.

    AIHA has appointed "ambassadors," individual members serving liaison roles to countries including Pakistan, Vietnam, Japan, Brazil, Israel, Poland, Nigeria and China. Mark Katchen, the ambassador to Israel, is bringing Israeli security experts to California this fall for demonstrations in the latest anti-terrorist technology and an exchange of ideas.

    NOT YET…

    By the same token, several hot topics in the EHS world are still distant from the tipping point, based on discussions with professionals in Atlanta:

    Making the business case for safety and health lacks comprehensive documented research. It's still intuitive, not empirical.

    Rare is the CEO who champions implementing new performance measures that track proactive EHS activities.

    Using EHS to help protect brand reputations is grasped only by a handful of consumer products, chemical, and energy companies whose businesses hinge on public trust and acceptance.

    The notion that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are more powerful than government regulators in shaping corporate policies only crosses the minds of multinationals.

    Safety and health management systems — methods for systemizing and documenting responsibilities and procedures — have little traction in North America beyond OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program (about 1,100 sites out of six million U.S. workplaces) and multinationals seeking standardization. Interest here won't reach a boiling point unless (or until) ISO writes a safety and health companion standard to its quality and enviro standards.

    Dr. Bob Arnot gave the opening keynote at the AIHCe, touting the benefits of roller blading, rock climbing, pumping iron, eating right, and regular medical checkups. EHS pros are increasingly interested in helping their companies control health care costs. The only problem: health education and wellness programs aren't the answers execs are looking for. The pay-off is too long-range. Faster bottom line savings come from employees assuming more of the benefits cost burden.

    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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