From a systemic view, anyone paying attention to numerous employment dynamics during the past decade would conclude the safety, industrial hygiene and environmental fields are bleeding from a thousand cuts.

1 – Student disinterest

One serious problem challenging the professions began in the 1990s when college-bound students began to migrate away from the more difficult science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) curricula. Even though there has been a recent uptick in students’ interest in STEM courses, few are interested in pursuing a safety or industrial hygiene curriculum. Interestingly, a number of students pursue environmental science curriculum. But once employed they become disenchanted with their chosen field because they find themselves saddled with unreasonable regulatory compliance reporting instead of what they thought they would be doing after college – saving the world.

2 – Job hopping & career hopping

Another characteristic of so-called millennials affects the EHS profession. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that college graduates are expected to have between 10 and 14 jobs by the time they are 38 years old. Some of these job changes will occur within a specific company; the vast majority will involve moving from one company or organization to another. This churn also involves moving from one career to another. A number of young safety, environmental, and industrial hygiene professionals moving about will likely abandon their chosen professions to pursue less stressful occupations with better opportunities for advancement and increased money.

3 – Fewer employees

Here’s a third challenge to the EHS profession: fewer employees translates into less need for safety, environmental, and industrial hygiene professionals. In 2014, the Congressional Budget Office predicted the Labor Force Participation rate would be 60.8 percent in 2024. In May 2016, the rate was 62.6 percent.  The reason for this projected decline? Continuing retirements in the baby-boomer ranks; the painfully anemic economic recovery since the recession of 2008; and the increasing number of 16 to 24 year olds who will decide to attend college or post-high school institutions versus entering the workforce. Couple this trend with the push to increase the minimum wage from $15/hour to $18/hour and you could have more individuals in the unemployment line.  Also consider the impact of automation on employment.

4 – Off-shoring dirty & dangerous work

Globalization is the fourth employment dynamic that has had and will continue to have a demonstrative impact on safety and industrial hygiene careers, both within the private sector and consulting. There have been significant layoffs of U.S. employees -- including safety, environment, and industrial hygiene professionals – as many manufacturing companies continue to relocate their plants to foreign countries. There’s no end in sight to off-shoring, particularly dirty and dangerous jobs, to cheaper labor markets.

Economic fallout

You can analyze these systemic dynamics this way: As members of ASSE and AIHA either retire or become victims of the prevalent corporate reduction-in-force programs being experienced in U.S. corporations, many realize after retiring or losing their job that they either have not saved enough money to retire in the lifestyle they want, or they never find something to keep their interest during retirement.

Some have, and will continue to, take a stab at consulting. But a number of pros who try their hand at private practice safety and environmental consulting discover they can’t find any work. Why? The laws of supply and demand kick in, resulting in the marketplace becoming flooded with retired safety, environmental and industrial hygiene professionals.

There’s another possible hurdle to jump to get into the consulting world. Say you are highly credentialed professional who has been hired by one of the top EHS consulting firms. After joining the firm you learn that your new employer expects you to either come with a customer base in hand or be able to rapidly create one. You might find establishing a customer base to be a huge challenge if you did not previously hold a corporate job that would have resulted in a ready-made network. So without a hefty Rolodex or the digital equivalent, you resign from the consulting firm after six months.

Indeed, performing safety, environmental, and industrial hygiene work is the easy part; securing clients is the hard part. This affects professional association participation. How? Safety, environmental, and industrial hygiene professionals who decide to continue to work must decide whether to spend their hard-earned dollars on airfare, hotel, other expenses, and conference costs to attend an annual or regional meeting, or spend the same dollars on marketing to potential clients or attending a vertical industry sector meeting where it’s easier to connect with potential clients who have similar issues that need solving. 

What’s next?

The decline of the safety and industrial hygiene professions perhaps started in the early 2010s when associations fell prey to the age old danger of not paying close attention to their members as they aged. Participation began to decline at some annual meetings and workshops.  And this drop-off was duly noted by some sponsors and exhibitors at annual conferences.  At the same time, local chapters of associations for years now have struggled to find volunteers and attendees for local chapter meetings.

So we may be looking at this hypothetical scenario down the road, say five years from now: After protracted negotiations ASSE, AIHA, and ACGIH merge with the National Safety Council. With consolidation could come more clout and resources:

• Academic outreach efforts could offer safety and industrial hygiene curricula to universities, perhaps at no cost, to raise awareness among students and enable faculty to incorporate materials into their courses. 

• Advocacy could be leveraged for OSHA regulations that truly advance and enhance the profession rather than add burdens and antagonize employers – putting some EHS professionals at risk.

• The quality of conferences and workshops could increase thanks to tapping into a select pool of speakers who are in the trenches doing innovative work, surviving and improving safety.

• Another area of attention could be supporting and showcasing practicing safety and industrial hygiene professionals who are experiencing success using innovative approaches.

To be sure, many pros today are dubious that this hypothetical scenario will ever play out. But from a systemic view, the EHS profession in 2016 could be described as experiencing the throes of death by a thousand cuts. Professionals might be in denial or not perceive the dynamics at work. Just go back and read about four major challenges facing the field right now.