When times were good, you might have participated in more than one occupational health and safety organization. Time and budgets are tighter now and employers are telling pros to limit their memberships. If you had to choose just one organization to belong to, which one should it be?

The premier organizations for occupational health and safety professionals are the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) and the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE). AIHA was formed in 1939 and it has about 12,000 members. ASSE was formed in 1911 and it has approximately 30,000 members.

AIHA and ASSE are not the only occupational health and safety organizations with national and local presence. There is also the National Safety Council, the American Association of Safety Councils, World Safety Organization and others. AIHA and ASSE, though, focus on individual professional membership while the others seem more aligned with corporate and group membership.

Generally, if your job primarily addresses hazards that can cause employee illness, you are probably better suited for membership with the AIHA. If your job mostly involves hazards that might cause injuries, ASSE could be the better membership choice.

But as jobs have become more generalized, so too have AIHA and ASSE. Each seeks to serve and represent the broad occupational (and environmental) health and safety professional community.

Difficult distinction

Distinguishing AIHA from ASSE today is not easy, reflecting the complexity in separating an illness from an injury.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that injuries occur instantaneously from a single event and illnesses do not. So. . .

  • A nurse who contracts hepatitis from a needlestick sustains an injury that may progress into an illness.

  • A "bad back" from a single lift is an injury. A back problem from multiple lifts is an illness.

  • Chemical exposures may cause illness and/or injury.

    In addition, training and management practices cross both lines; so, too, does employee behavior.

    And so it goes. Overlaps and blurring of causes for illness and injury make it hard to clearly say what is a health issue and what is a safety issue.

    Policy issues

    Comparing the top policy issues for 2003 for AIHA and ASSE, developed from member surveys and "best-guess" of committees, furthers the parallels between the two groups. If policy titles were worded the same, the similarities become even more evident.

    The common mindset on broad policy issues between AIHA and ASSE stirs even more debate over the identity of these organizations. On the surface the mindset is common, but there may be strong disagreement on which organization is better suited to address the details of an issue. Take mold for example.

    The terms "industrial hygienist" and "certified industrial hygienist" (CIH) are showing up in proposed mold legislation across the U.S. This probably pleases AIHA members but might offend some ASSE members who want to include "safety professional" and "certified safety professional" (CSP) in mold legislation.


    If you're a CIH, or plan to become a CIH, belonging to AIHA seems logical. The same holds true for the CSP and ASSE. But there is no requirement that a CIH must belong to AIHA or a CSP to ASSE. And AIHA- or ASSE-sponsored continuing education activities that offer certification maintenance (CM) points almost always apply to both credentials.

    Journals, annual conference, other resources

    The clearest difference between the AIHA and ASSE lay in their respective journals. Both the AIHA and ASSE provide their members with a periodic journal. The articles in the AIHA Journal are more theoretical and "high brow" compared with the more practical and "blue collar" articles in ASSE's Professional Safety.

    To a lesser extent, the theoretical vs. practical difference between AIHA and ASSE also shows up in training sessions at each organization's annual conference and seminars. As expected, training topics for both organizations cover broad occupational health and safety issues.

    AIHA and ASSE both have good Web sites and both organizations offer a wide array of publications covering occupational health and safety topics. You can evaluate each organization's site at www.aiha.org or www.asse.org.

    All politics is local

    What AIHA and ASSE do on a national or state level is important, but more importantly, which organization represents and serves you better at the local level?

    It depends on local chapter activity. Which chapter provides more effective meetings? Which chapter offers more local resources? And which chapter do most of your friends attend? The answers come down to the involvement and enthusiasm of chapter officers, and that may have to be measured year-to-year.


    AIHA and ASSE are competing for the same member. Safety is listed as a primary practice area in AIHA's membership application. Likewise, ASSE has an industrial hygiene practice specialty. Should you join the organization that emphasizes your strengths or helps you address a perceived weakness?

    It's a tough call.

    Each organization's board of directors has long recognized the similarities between AIHA and ASSE. Partnerships and alliances have been proposed and established. But as each organization becomes more like the other, the choice of which organization to join becomes tougher.

    Does this competition make each organization stronger, or does one organization prosper while the other struggles? And what does this say for the field and practice of occupational health and safety? Does the competition help or hurt?

    The pool of actual and potential members for AIHA and ASSE is limited. And one person joining both organizations continues to make less sense. Occupational health and safety pros no longer have the luxury to support and participate in two organizations that are becoming indistinguishable from each other.

    Pros must make choices. Membership in either AIHA or ASSE is very important for professional growth. Alternating membership year-to-year could weaken loyalties and commitment. Merging the organizations has been considered, and this possibility looms in the future.

    There's not a wrong choice in which organization to belong to now. Both AIHA and ASSE are top quality. But if they can't distinguish themselves for the betterment of members, then actual or potential members will have to choose one from the other - and that's a tough choice.