A business executive once told me that safety is a “necessary evil.” When I asked him to elaborate, it became clear that his view of OSH had been distorted by expensive projects and equipment upgrades at his company, all driven by regulatory compliance concerns. He was skeptical as to whether these compliance improvements would actually improve his organization’s safety performance. While I was able to turn the conversation around and speak to the proven benefits of having a sound safety strategy with a disciplined approach to operational excellence, it left me with the realization that we still have a lot of work to do in promoting the value of our profession.

"More shrill, more aggressive"

 Dr. Robert Eccles, a professor of management practice at Harvard, had this to say at ASSE’s sustainability symposium last year: “The safety profession has a marketing problem. It needs to get more shrill, more aggressive.” Eccles also said that our profession is competing for “mind share” with other factors driving corporate sustainability initiatives, including global concerns with water resources, child labor and pollution.

While some may take umbrage at the thought of being more shrill, the point is that safety does not have line of sight into the boardroom from a social responsibility perspective. I see this as a marketing opportunity, not a problem.

Public relations (PR) is one form of marketing. In the past, we have used typical PR approaches, such as issuing press releases, to share information about OSH and our profession. That is a traditional method of generating coverage in media outlets such as newspapers, magazines, radio and television, and the Society has developed good relationships with reporters who cover OSH issues. But even when we strategically select our story and determine the appropriate target audience, it takes more than a press release to get the kind of coverage needed to adequately educate people about our profession and to ultimately influence change in the boardroom.

Alliances and partnerships

One way that ASSE raises awareness of OSH is through alliances and partnerships. For example, earlier this year we collaborated with NIOSH to release a joint report, “Overlapping Vulnerabilities: The Occupational Safety and Health of Young Immigrant Workers in Small Construction Firms.” This report shows that Hispanic immigrants, small businesses with fewer than 20 employees and young workers under age 25 are at increased risk for injury and death when working in the construction industry. Through initiatives such as this, we are positioning ASSE as a trusted thought leader of the OSH profession.

Branding is another step in creating awareness of and positioning our profession. That is difficult to do when so many acronyms—EHS, SH&E, HSE, OHS and OSH—are used to describe our profession. To address this problem and to ensure that our messages are clearly heard, we now use the term OSH (and sometimes OHS) more frequently in our communications. This is providing us with a line of similarity across all of our messages and helps create a single, recognized identifier that describes our practice.

Creating a message

This year, we are looking to elevate our public relationship efforts to new levels by refining our brand and creating a strong, resonant message about our profession. We want to develop a message that reaches audiences beyond our normal sphere of influence so more people come to understand the value of safety and what our members bring to the table. Our goal is to foster increased stakeholder acceptance of OSH as a worthwhile endeavor and to do so in a way that creates lasting change.

This will not be easy as the encounter I shared at the beginning of this message is probably more common than we would like. But ASSE is working diligently to refine our message, identify target audiences and influence the opinions of business leaders, investors, analysts, academics and the general public. It is too soon to tell how our PR initiatives will unfold, but we are exploring several options including social media strategies, national advertising/awareness campaigns, press conferences and much more. The best is yet to come.

I would like to hear your thoughts on promoting our profession. Send an e-mail to president@asse.org. I look forward to your replies.