A flier announcing a meeting on "Y2K - Sharing Findings and Solutions" was mailed to about 800 local environmental, health, and safety people a few months ago by the Safety Council of Northwest Ohio. It's rare for the council to cancel a meeting due to lack of interest, but the Y2K topic was a bust. Too few people signed up to warrant the meeting.

I imagine the EHS population and profile in northwest Ohio is similar to other parts of the country. Would a Y2K meeting planned for this fall go bust elsewhere? If so, then I think there is cause for concern. After all, EHS people should be among the most diligent groups addressing Y2K issues. Health, safety, and the welfare of people are the greatest concerns associated with the Y2K problem.

By the time you read this article there will be only a small number of days left to prepare for Y2K problems. You don't need to approach this risk in alarmist fashion, but you do need to elevate its priority and give Y2K its due attention. This may be your last chance to get things done right.

Have we done enough in our jobs to conclude that Y2K is no big deal? I don't think so. Having a Y2K meeting go bust when there are important concerns to be reviewed is not a good sign. Also, many of my colleagues have not completed key actions that are important to prepare for the Y2K problem (see sidebar).

Complacency sets in

No one knows what impact the Y2K bug will create come January 1, 2000. A few experts predict a global calamity. Others say the issue is way overblown. All experts say it's best to be prepared regardless of the eventual outcome. But complacency is now a concern among some Y2K experts.

The lack of interest among EHS people in northwest Ohio mirrors attitudes nationally. On the same day in September that the safety council should have held its Y2K meeting, USA Today ran a special report on what the experts really think will happen when the Y2K bug hits. The Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem also issued its "100 Day Report" (100 days until the new year) on that day.

USA Today reported that the prevailing attitude in the United States is that Y2K is not a problem. The Senate's 100 Day Report estimated that nearly half of all small to medium-sized businesses are taking a wait-and-see approach to Y2K. What's the source of this optimism?

Attitudes primarily result from the self-assessments of businesses. The 100 Day Report states that self-reporting "is analogous to letting students grade their own tests." Thus, there's reason not to be over- confident. Reliability of the Y2K data must be considered. Also, large businesses that had the resources to attack the problem early on are most likely to report Y2K readiness. What about smaller businesses?

Putting this all together, maybe we shouldn't be so optimistic that Y2K will just be a momentary bump in the road. As the Senate report states, "Uncertainty with regard to Y2K's impact dictates that preparation is prudent."

By Dan Markiewicz, MS, CIH, CSP, CHMM. Dan is an independent environmental health and safety consultant. He can be reached at (419) 382-0132, or by email at dmarkie60@aol.com.

Sidebar -

Three Action Steps

1. Have you updated your facility's emergency action plan to address potential Y2K issues?

This action requires a through analysis of "what-ifs" followed by suitable remedies. And yes, this issue should be written and rehearsed similar to other emergencies.
Consider this point: we're already starting to hear that this will not be a normal New Year's Eve at most businesses. More people will be required to stand watch and "wait-and-see" if anything happens. These people deserve special attention in the facility's emergency procedures. If the need arises, will fire, ambulance, police, hospital and other services be available to them?

2. Visit and examine information at Y2K sites on the Internet.

If you go to OSHA's Home Page (www.osha.gov) you'll find a link to Y2K sites that are important to people in the EHS field. For example, NIOSH's information about embedded chips and Y2K concerns should be reviewed and applied to your workplace.

3. Discuss this issue with many of your colleagues - soon

Yes, talking about Y2K is like eating spinach. More than a couple bites become intolerable for many people. But Y2K is not a common tried-and-true risk. It's unique. Bouncing ideas off of other people facing similar issues may bring obscure risks to light, so they can be properly addressed or prepared for.