Rocking the ivory tower
An industrial hygiene teacher himself, Levine is quick to admit, "I’m fully as guilty as anyone" in perpetuating teaching traditions that are now out of step with business thinking and organization needs, he believes. A professor of industrial health at the University of Michigan, Levine has helped guide hundreds of students in their IH careers since 1982. He’s also director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Occupational Health at U of M.
Levine believes undergraduate IH courses should continue to focus on the basic building blocks of the profession -how to detect, evaluate, and control hazards posed by chemicals, noise, dust contaminants, radiation, and other longstanding workplace problems. But to give masters and doctoral candidates basically more of the same technical courses is to keep creating specialists at a time when businesses want multiple talents.
New focus: Levine would rather see new courses covering subjects such as policy analysis, international issues, finances, and organizational management. Right now he says only a handful of schools require IH students to hit the books in these areas.
Success at the higher levels of industrial hygiene will require a different set of skills, says Levine. For instance, he says IHs will need "situational awareness," the ability to walk into a company and understand what’s going on with cultural values and dynamics, and how environmental health and safety issues fit with existing policies, priorities, and internal politics.
If IHs can’t master these issues, their influence will be minimal and the profession overall will be marginalized, says Levine.
"The corporate core of any company is going to be very small for health and safety, and really all departments. Those who are left in health and safety will be responsible for regulatory interface, strategic planning, financial analysis, and core corporate auditing functions. Everything else will be outsourced," Levine says.
He also sees companies adopting a holistic approach to managing occupational health and safety, building on experience gained through designing organizational systems for ISO quality and environmental certification. Levine is a certified ISO auditor, and he sees future employment in the IH field depending on professionals becoming qualified systems auditors.
To meet this need, Levine proposes reconfiguring traditional IH courses into systems modules covering different industries. For example, health and safety in the automotive industry would include courses in hearing conservation, ISO 9000 quality standards, assembly line ergonomics, and the health effects and toxicity of industry-specific materials.
This systems approach to educating IHs is how Levine proposes to get around the thorniest issue when it comes to changing curriculums: What courses are dropped to make way for the new ones? "It’s the heart of the fight," says Levine.
And the professor has taken some rhetorical shots from his critics. "I’m seen as cutting the heart out of traditional, valuable industrial hygiene educational programs," he says.
Levine knows traditional IH education has helped the profession grow for decades. But unless educational strategies change, not only is the IH profession threatened, but its learning institutions as well, he believes. Competition for students has heated up, with IH programs vying with epidemiology, environnmental engineering, natural resources, and atmospheric sciences departments.
"With our small class sizes and expensive labs, real cost accounting methods will show that many safety and health programs don’t make a profit, he says. "If our programs don’t earn profits, if we’re not unique, we may disappear," he says.
But one problem, he says, is the age-old ivory tower syndrome, with tenured faculty members comfortably disconnected from the real world. Giving it a 1990s twist, Levine says there’s a lack of customer focus in academia.
"It’s not like Baskin-Robbins; the flavor doesn’t change if no one is buying. Change takes years and years in academia," he says.