Attendance climbed 31 percent at last week's American Society of Safety Engineers annual meeting in Las Vegas, compared to 2003 numbers. What's up with that? In this edition of ISHN's e-newsletter, we look at what attracted the record crowd.
"Vegas. Vegas. Vegas. Vegas."
That was one safety proâ€™s simple explanation for the record 3,800 registrants at ASSE's annual conference, topping the previous high of 2,900 in Denver last year.
Glittering casinoland, with 70,000 hotel rooms and the Strip now the size of an interstate highway, is a hot convention destination, no doubt. "We're out-pulling all the other cities," crowed a cabbie on his way to the mammoth meeting hall.
"Companies used to resist sending their people to Las Vegas," said one attendee. "But now the flights and rooms are so cheap it makes the decision easier."
Especially with the economy on the upswing. "That's another factor," said this attendee. "People finally believe that business is coming back and they're traveling again."
Indeed. ASSE officials were smiling back in March when 500 professionals trekked to their two-day symposium on World Class Safety in New Orleans, soundly beating attendance projections. And last month, American Industrial Hygiene Association leaders were pleased to see their annual meeting bounce back, with growth in both attendees and exhibiting vendors.
(ASSE and AIHA now draw comparable attendance to their annual meetings. One difference: About one-third of AIHA members attend their meeting (3,900 this year in Atlanta out of a membership of 12,000) while ASSE pulls in 13 percent of its members (3,800 out of 30,000.)
Location and economy aside, ASSE officials would like to think their conference program had something to do with the record turnout. "The executive level management program is something you can't find anywhere else," said one attendee.
SORTING OUT THE SHOWS
ASSE has found its niche among the major EHS conferences:
"I attended the industrial hygiene conference the last three years but it's too technical for me," said one safety director in Las Vegas.
"Safety is about changing behaviors and cultures. This is where I learn about that," said one safety director. "This is where the rubber meets the road."
Here's an example of how the shows stack up: Eckenfelder's talk, as well as eight other educational sessions at the ASSE meeting, had "culture" in the title. At the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Expo, only three of 125 session titles featured "culture." At the Safety Congress, there will be four.
CULTURE IS KING
Why is the people side of safety so popular with pros today? A convergence of trends:
1) Been there, done that. After education, engineering and enforcement, what do you focus on? "You have to learn how to talk to people, listen and persuade. Pushing numbers and formulas and regulations won't motivate people," said a safety manager at the ASSE meeting.
2) Outsourcing. Technical EHS work is more and more the province of consultants, leaving in-house pros to focus on organizational issues.
3) All quiet on the compliance front. ("Henshaw had absolutely nothing new to say," said a reporter, shaking his head after the OSHA chief's ASSE speech.)
The only standard talked about currently is the voluntary ANSI Z10 requirements for safety and health management systems, due out for public comment later this year. One Z10 committee member said in Las Vegas his biggest fear is that the standard will be greeted by yawns from the public.
4) Beyond behavior. Consultants who led the cheers for behavior-based safety in the late 1990s have moved on. At the ASSE meeting, Behavioral Science Technology co-founder Tom Krause's seminar focused on motivating safety leadership. Dr. E. Scott Geller discussed personality traits and "your safety IQ."
5) No traction for other issues. Many pros resist the so-called business case for safety, arguing it undercuts safety's moral imperative.
New performance metrics for safety, indicators more reliable and relevant than OSHA data, have been floated for years without gaining a following.
An open forum brainstorming session of about 50 pros at the ASSE meeting offered clues why: Every company measures something different â€” near misses, audit scores, observations, job safety analyses, safety contacts, corrective actions, complaint logs, etc. â€” and there's no urge to agree on a consensus metric dashboard.
6) Make way for the bandwagon. "Management thinks culture change is the answer to everything," said Dr. Steven Simon, introduced at his session in Las Vegas as the "father of safety culture."
"Everyone is talking about this," said Eckenfelder. "Louis Gerstner, former IBM chairman, said, 'Culture is the game.'"
So it seemed in Las Vegas:
7) The fear factor. Who wants to miss a seat on the bus? "We've worked on all the other things and ignored culture," said Eckenfelder. "Ignore this at your own professional peril. We need to take the lead with social sciences and not get left in the slipstream."
A LONG, BUMPY ROAD
"This is a whole new way to look at safety," said Eckenfelder, referring to what he called a "safety culture enrichment program."
Not so fast. Long-time management consultant Dan Petersen wrote about safety cultures in his first two books, published in the early 1970s, and he admits he "borrowed" from the concepts of Rensis Likert, who researched organizational cultures in the 1960s.
There are reasons why it's taken decades for organizational culture to become a hot safety issue. And these barriers could eventually suck the air out of the current boom:
Culture change strategies are not typically the stuff of safety committees, said Simon, pointing to the need for executive leadership, perception surveys, aligning with business objectives, and plans and projects to change organizational norms.
Eckenfelder was more succinct: "Safety cultures don't rely on manuals, safety departments, new equipment, procedures, committees and statistics," he said.
These cultural cracks can't be fixed by Monday. Canned programs wonâ€™t help. Nothing changes until execs are willing to open up to perception surveys and climate assessments.
The social side of safety might be where the rubber meets the road. But it's long, bumpy road to travel. Letâ€™s check back at ASSE's annual meeting, in say, 2008, to see if culture sessions still draw the standing room only crowds. Maybe it will depend if the meeting is in Vegas.
Dave Johnson is the ISHN E-News editor. He can be reached at email@example.com, (610) 666-0261; fax (610) 666-1906.
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