Conventional wisdom says that whenever a business cuts jobs the environmental health and safety pro is one of the first out the door. Did this wisdom hold true in 2001, when the total number of jobs lost in the U.S. was the most of any year in the past decade?

Yes and no.

A company undergoing bankruptcy filled a vacant EHS position at its corporate headquarters even though it had other pros in the corporate offices who could have covered the slack. But another business facing tough economic times cut its EHS corporate staff in half when belt tightening was ordered.

Plant-level EHS pros in manufacturing - the backbone of the EHS profession - felt the sting of job losses. Linda from Arkansas, Connie from Ohio, Ray from Michigan, and Norm from Tennessee - each of these EHS pros worked at the plant level in the manufacturing sector for more than ten years. When tough times hit their plants in the latter part of 2001, each of them lost their job or were encouraged to leave their EHS position.

But then there's Bob from Ohio. Bob lamented to me that his company is hurting financially. One of its three plants is closing and large staff cuts are ordered for the remaining two plants. But Bob feels his position is secure and not in jeopardy.

What's the difference?

So why are some EHS pros cut loose while others are retained during tough times?

Do companies that hold the line with EHS staffing care more about EHS issues than those that cut professionals loose?

Appearances can be deceiving. The corporation that filled the EHS slot despite undergoing bankruptcy was in trouble because of past asbestos exposures. The last thing it wants a creditor or investors to see is a lack of attention to EHS issues. The company that cut its EHS staff in half isn't known to have pressing EHS problems. And it does have a reputation for caring about EHS issues.

Let's look at the plant level. The facilities where Linda and Connie worked both received OSHA Voluntary Protection Program status in 2001. Ray's plant has a stellar EHS record and the plant recently achieved more than one-million employee hours worked without a lost-time injury. And the environmental management system at the plant where Norm worked received ISO 14001 certification last year. Management at these plants has visibly shown support for strong and active EHS programs.

The plants where Linda, Connie, Ray and Norm worked all have EHS hazards controlled and managed by structured polices and procedures. And true to VPP and ISO 14001 philosophies, many employees address EHS concerns at these plants. In effect, Linda, Connie, Ray and Norm worked themselves out of a job by building successful programs.

What about Bob's plant? An environmental group ranks his plant as one of the "dirtiest/worst" polluters in the U.S. Bob hangs on because management made him into mostly a production supervisor. And since no one else at Bob's plant is trained to handle EHS problems, Bob holds onto a job. But he's not happy and he'd like to find a job where he can use his EHS skills full-time.

The bottom line

These examples are just a snapshot of a larger picture. The picture shows that, especially during a recession, most businesses value EHS pros for one thing: dealing with EHS problems that no one else can handle. When economic crunch time comes, if other employees can shoulder some EHS work, a pro's job is vulnerable.

So where does this leave us?

We push to eliminate hazards and drive EHS consciousness throughout the organization. We strive to educate, inform and include all managers and employees in performing various EHS activities. And if we are very successful at these efforts we may work ourselves out of a job.

On the other hand, we may find ourselves at a job where management does not support a structured EHS program patterned after OSHA VPP or ISO 14001. EHS remains a mystery for most managers and employees, and we are required to do everything in the EHS area alone: train, audit, inspect, complete government reports, and so on. We have a job but we complain and we are not happy.

Is this our lot in life?

Yes. And the sooner most pros recognize this condition the better.

Once you achieve success at installing an excellent EHS program, don't rest on your laurels. Begin to look elsewhere for other EHS challenges. Forget the loyalty debate. If you do not seek other challenges, in tough economic times, the company may help you with this decision. It has nothing to do with whether they like you, but rather do they absolutely need you.

Clinton bested Bush Sr. for the presidency back in 1992 mainly by promoting the campaign slogan, "It's the economy, stupid." The slogan ridiculed Bush for not focusing on the overriding concern of the public during a recession: regaining a strong economy that provides good jobs.

For EHS pros, our slogan must be about problems. If we are not at a job that has real problems that only an EHS pro can solve, then we miss what working in the EHS field is all about. We're valued primarily for being skilled trouble-shooters, not simply EHS program administrators or managers. This is especially true where an EHS program is a well-oiled machine that may have many tasks, but many different people can handle these many tasks effectively.

For the EHS profession to succeed, everyone involved must seek out, identify and provide solutions to real or perceived EHS problems. An EHS pro has limited value if there are few problems, and not just tasks, to solve.

Academic, association and business task forces are being formed now to determine why the EHS field is declining. Perhaps if they read the title of this article a clue may come to mind.