A major session at the NSC was introduced by OSHA chief Doug Parker, moderated by NIOSH director Dr John Howard, and had six panelists. The subject? Diversity, equity and inclusion, better known these days as DEI.

There is no universal definition of DEI. Dr. Howard put it this way: diversity is about counting heads and making sure there are different heads in the room. Inclusion means making the heads welcomed in the room and engaged. Equity is giving all the heads equal opportunities, not equal treatment.

He also pointed out NIOSH was studying diversity and inclusion back in the 1990s. For many safety pros, there is nothing indeed new about the need for diverse safety committees and safety teams, with varied years of experience, job functions, ages, a mix of males and females. Nothing new about the need to include employees in safety decision-making. Who knows the job, where the next incident will occur and why, better than the line workers? Also, the value of including employees in safety audits, incident reviews, training and other safety practices. And for many pros, there’s nothing new about giving all employees equal opportunity to participate in safety functions, to speak up about concerns, to report near misses and hazardous conditions, and to follow policies and procedures. Rewards and discipline apply to all equally.

But the practical aspects of DEI can get lost when DEI is discussed in big picture terms, as it often was during this special session. Panelists said DEI was a societal issue, with disparities “baked” into societal framework. Inequities are embedded in systemic attitudes and behaviors. Hispanics and Latinos suffer more fatalities than the average; “people of color feel more unsafe,” said one panelist; “people of color” are less likely to file OSHA complaints – and more likely to have their jobs eliminated by automation and robots; non-English-speaking minorities are more likely not to understand safety training. Females have a hard time finding PPE that fits.

DEI does serve at least two useful purposes in the safety world. One, it is a reminder that biases, discrimination, intimidation and simple ignorance and neglect do exist in safety programs; there are gaps to be identified and corrected.

Two, safety improves by getting to know your workforce – by age, experience, gender, job function, languages, and job status (full-time, part-time, temp, contract employee). Years ago, a NIOSH study showed the best performing, safest companies were likely to have a “family-like” culture where management and supervisors talked one-on-one with employees regularly, not just about safety and health, but about their likes and dislikes, families, hobbies, pets, and off-the-job activities. Bonds were formed. Trust created.

One panelist described her company’s use of “talking circles.” It was an idea brought to her by a Native American employee. The Talking Circle is a traditional way for Native American people to communicate and solve problems. By allowing people free expression in the safe space of a discussion “circle,” those in circle are empowered to find their voice—and to feel heard and supported.

Despite all the big picture talk about DEI, all the current media play, it is indeed applicable to the day-to-day work of safety and health pros. Pros were encouraged at the session not to roll their eyes when DEI comes up. It is not another buzzy flavor-of-the-month topic. Its roots go deep into many core aspects of safety and health programs.