It’s nearly a half century since President Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970), in effect creating our modern workplace safety and health world, but it’s clear from the results of ISHN’s recently tabulated Media & Technology Survey of EHS professionals that planet safety has two distinct cultures.

Sophisticated safety & health

One is populated by Certified Safety Professionals (CSP), Certified Industrial Hygienists (CIH), multinationals with global EHS issues, and so-called high reliability organizations. The language of this culture includes terms such as brand equity, supply chain management, codes of ethics, VPP, Big Data, management systems, thought leadership, engagement, human performance, risk assessment, mindfulness, and beyond compliance. Tools of the trade: laptops, intranets, elearning, smartphone videotaping of hazardous conditions, iPad and tablet devices, instant messaging, GPS vehicle tracking, safety apps, wearable sensors (still in its infancy), wireless gas detection and electronic databases. Cultural characteristics include hierarchical EHS staffs, routine use of consultants, often sizeable EHS annual investments (though no accurate macro measure of spending exists, unfortunately), travel budgets, networking at national conferences, and memberships in vertical industry peer groups and consultancy user groups. This side of the safety and health world is wired and relatively well-connected.

The silent majority

The two cultures are separated by a wide, some will say vast, gulf. On the other side sits the much, much larger of the two. Despite its size, to many it is largely invisible. It’s populated by mostly smaller enterprises, many tucked away and off the radar. Most have no full-time EHS staff person. Human resources often doubles as the safety and health department – if a serious safety and health effort exists at all. Here there is no concern for maintaining professional certification points or about networking. No association memberships. No annual reunions with chums in Vegas, Orlando or San Diego. No travel. OSHA recordkeeping, if it’s done, is mostly a paper exercise. Safety data sheets reside in binders, not clouds. There is no travel, no consultants, often no specific budget for EHS. Concerns are very local, far from global. If safety and health is a concern, it is a matter of basic blocking and tackling. Machine guarding. Lighting. Housekeeping. Adequate ventilation. Adequate PPE.

Startling differences

These two realms of the safety and health world rarely if ever cross paths. There is, however, one common meeting ground: OSHA’s website. Almost everyone (well, 77 percent according to our tech survey) visits OSHA’s website.

The survey, conducted by email December 3-17, 2014, and covering every major industry and service sector in the U.S. economy, reveals the sometimes startling differences between these two cultures of workplace safety and health.

Almost half of the respondents still maintain a paper system for logging injury and illness data (48 percent). Nearly as many (43 percent) still use paper binders for safety data sheets.

More than four in ten (42 percent) do not use a smartphone with internet and photo/video capabilities for safety and health work; 44 percent don’t possess a laptop specifically designated for safety and health purposes; 57 percent do not have an internal intranet set up specifically for safety and health coordination and communication. Tablet devices are even rarer, used for safety and health by only 22 percent. GPS for tracking/monitoring employees and/or vehicles is employed by 15 percent.

The use of elearning to train employees is split almost 50-50 – used by 46 percent, not used by 54 percent. Software to manage and analyze audits, investigations, training performance, reports of hazards and near misses is utilized by 39 percent. About one-quarter (26 percent) make use of software to record behavioral observations, near misses and other leading safety and health metrics. Safety apps also are used by about one in four (23 percent). Exactly 25 percent use software for predictive analytics – assessing who, where, when, how and why accidents will occur based on past history.

The approximate 50-50 split is also evident in participation in the most common EHS communication platform – EHS internet discussion groups and networks. Forty-seven percent partake in these communications; 53 percent do not. LinkedIn is used by about one in every five respondents with safety and health responsibilities (18 percent). Only seven percent use Facebook for workplace safety and health purposes.

Reaching out

Internet access is indeed nearly universal in 2015 in businesses. As mentioned, almost everyone with an interest in workplace safety and health pokes around OSHA’s website. More than two-thirds (67 percent) of survey respondents visit safety product manufacturers’ websites; 32 percent search distributors’ websites for safety and health products and information.

In the bricks and mortar world, real-time face-to-face group or society meetings occur much more frequently at the local level – 67 percent of respondents attend “neighborhood” workplace safety and health regular gatherings. Participation percentages not surprisingly drop off as distances increase: only 35 percent attend regional safety and health meetings, and about one in four (23 percent) make the trek to national confabs. About one in five (21 percent) never venture out to any sort of meeting of safety and health practitioners.

“Have’s’ and “have not’s”

I doubt these findings come as much of a surprise to worker safety and health subject matter experts and thought leaders. The cultural divide in the safety and health world has long been recognized. Do the math, as they say: there are more than seven million workplaces in the U.S., and the combined membership of the American Society of Safety Engineers and the American Industrial Hygiene Association doesn’t total 50,000, and that’s not accounting for dual memberships. OSHA, NIOSH, the professional societies, and thought leaders have spent decades trying to figure out how to deliver even the most basic safety and health services to the millions of workplaces operating without full-time, many times even part-time, EHS staff. The challenge is daunting and the resources too scarce, in money and manpower. Yes, probably millions of workplaces in the ever-increasing white collar, service-oriented U.S. economy can get by without investing in EHS staff.  They have, they are, and they will continue to do so.

Still, our survey reminds us that the gulf between the “haves” and “have not’s” in the safety and health world is a discomforting norm. Various tech tools for safety and health are not always necessary, and indeed their use will only continue to grow regardless. But the need for access to safety and health information, evidenced by the traffic to OSHA’s website, is nearly universal. White collar, pink collar, blue collar, some risks to employee health and safety – job stress; burnout; related anxiety and depression; presenteeism; shift work; on-call work; fatigue; sleep deprivation; distracted driving; indoor air quality; infectious diseases; violent assaults; bullying and more – are not bound by factory walls, construction zones or high-rise offices.