Safety and health practitioners have heard the corporate rhetoric forever, it seems: "We have a long tradition of commitment to safety and health..." say the chief executive officers of any number of companies.

But what's behind the lip service? What do executives really think of workplace safety and health issues?

Throughout the 1990s, there has been concern that businesses have backed away from safety and health commitments and investments due to less OSHA pressure, few new OSHA standards, and the drive to cut costs everywhere in organizations. Horror stories of downsized safety and health departments, layoffs, and increased use of consultants on an as-needed basis have made the rounds.

Everyone working in the health and safety ranks seems to know someone who's been let go from a position in recent years. But there are more concrete reasons to be concerned about executive attitudes:

About one in every four safety and health pros surveyed by Industrial Safety & Hygiene News in recent years for the annual White Paper outlook has been worried about job security.

Less than one-quarter of ISHN readers say safety and health considerations are very important when it comes to corporate acquisitions, new product development, process design, and work scheduling, according to last year's White Paper survey.

To be sure, it's not hard to find companies proudly proclaiming a "positive attitude" through environmental safety and health annual reports and executive speeches:

"Our business is healthcare," writes Vernon R. Loucks, Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of Baxter International, Inc., in the company's 1997 Environmental Health and Safety "Performance Report." "We can not fight for life at one moment and harm it the next. At Baxter, we believe that caring for health and caring for the environment are inseparable." "Our commitment to the environment is a value we bring to potential customers, part of the value proposition we offer," said Dr. Margaret Kerr, senior vice president of environment, ethics, and quality for Nortel (Northern Telecom), at a quality conference in 1996.

Partnering and employee empowerment are keys to breakthroughs in accident prevention, environmental protection, and bottom-line performance that businesses must make in the next century, John T. Dillon, chairman and chief executive officer for International Paper, told an audience of safety and health managers last month at the annual meeting of OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program participants.

Of course, skeptics in the audience, or reading the annual reports, take such proclamations with a grain of salt. So what's the real story with executive attitudes? For this article, ISHN asked corporate officers:

What are their safety and health priorities?

How can safety and health personnel be valuable corporate assets?

What skills should safety and health personnel possess?

If they could change anything about how safety and health departments operate, what would it be?

Others are trying to get answers to these questions as well. The American Industrial Hygiene Association plans to survey CEOs to better understand how worker health and safety fits into today's fast-changing business environment.

This only makes sense, really. Many safety and health pros, especially in smaller plants, report to the owner or senior manager on site (42 percent of ISHN readers, according to the 1997 White Paper survey). Professionals have been told for years to "talk management's language." To do so, it helps to understand where the boss is coming from. We hope this article will shed light on the subject. For, as you know, it's hard to pin down busy execs and get them to open up. Especially about safety, which can be a touchy subject.

Corporate priorities

Not surprisingly, the executives who are most open to talking about their views on safety and health come from companies that have achieved superior safety performance. Those include companies that have won awards, and have injury and illness rates often far below the average in their industry. These organizations are least likely to have a knee-jerk reaction to OSHA's ups and downs because compliance is a means to broader goals, not an end in itself.

Leading-edge companies tend to see how safety and health connects to other organizational issues. Two critical issues here in the late 1990s are employee relations and bottom-line improvements.

For example, U.S. Steel's Mon Valley Works near Pittsburgh, which won a "Best Plant" award last year from Industry Week magazine, puts a heavy emphasis on safety to improve its union-management partnership. Wainwright Industries in St. Peters, Mo., another 1996 award winner, uses assurances of a safe workplace to help build a feeling of trust--a key company value.

With labor markets tight in much of the country as the nation's unemployment rate remains quite low, many companies don't want to lose their skilled workers--to accidents or competitors. Employees are seen as a greater asset than in the past, says Duane Amato, vice president of environmental, health and safety compliance for Baxter International. Operating a safe shop is one way of keeping workers on the job and motivated. Avoiding the cost of lost-time accidents, particularly the indirect costs of hiring and training replacement workers, is now a priority for companies like Baxter.

It's not only large firms like Baxter that value employee contributions. Wayne Tamarelli, chairman and CEO of Dock Resins Corporation in Linden, N.J., says his safety goals are more people-oriented than financial. "People who are motivated and feel the company is looking out for them are good employees. Practical results come from looking out for employees first," he says.

Tamarelli says his company's workers' compensation premiums are low, and no more a concern now than five years ago. Compliance is the third reason for supporting safety efforts, he says, following employee relations and financial benefits. Finances are certainly on the mind of every executive. "You must pursue any opportunity to reduce expenses," says Wyman Robb, midwest region manager for Mobil Oil Corporation. Since Mobil joined OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program in the late 1980s, workers' comp costs have dropped from $300 million to $5-$10 million. But comp costs "are a downstream measure" of safety performance, he says. "We focus upstream on training and setting clear expectations."

Several other executives say that financial rewards, while certainly appreciated, are a spin-off of safety efforts, not the prime target. There are monetary benefits, such as reduced manufacturing costs and higher quality yields, "but that's not the focus of what we're doing," says Charles Bailey, vice president of Tennessee Eastman division, a chemical company.

For many companies, the bottom-line pay-off is just not great enough to be the main reason for investing in safety and health. The strongest corporate backing often comes when safety and health is viewed as supporting numerous priorities--such as world-class operating status, better employee relations, improved quality, cost containment, core cultural values and corporate identity, and regulatory compliance.

OSHA isn't the force it once was, but executives interviewed for this article make it clear that they haven't forgotten about federal rules and regulations. Many say they are the starting point for their safety and health programs.

"Compliance is a given," says Baxter's Amato. "But using the OSHA stick is not the way to go."

"They provide us with another set of expert eyes which we find very valuable," says Mobil's Robb.

In her speech at the Juran Institute conference last year, Nortel's Kerr summarized a corporate attitude that many safety and health pros would find heartening: "Environmental programs that are put in place because it's the 'right thing to do' or because governments require them are vulnerable. They're subject to the whim of legislators, swaying public priorities, and financial cycles. For long-term sustainability and impact, environmental activities must be seen by decision-makers at all levels of the organization to be clearly supportive of business objectives and a contributor to competitive advantage in the marketplace."

What's the value?

This is the $64,000 question: What makes safety and health personnel valuable to the corporation? There's no single answer, because every company defines "value" in terms of its own culture, mission statement, and goals. In general, executives interviewed for this article described the value of safety and health in business terms.

What makes a safety and health professional valuable to Mobil Oil? "Developing business solutions that are a competitive advantage," says Robb. The advantage does not have to be monetary. Robb uses Mobil's lockout-tagout program as an example. "We've had many companies benchmark with us and adopt our practices," he says.

"Create value for stockholders first," says Eastman's Bailey. For instance, stockholders value clean, well-run, productive companies. In this regard, expert knowledge in process chemical hazard analysis can help keep operations up and running.

Of course it helps to be able to document a direct bottom-line impact. "You add value by understanding the business," says Philip Hillman, corporate director of health, safety, and the environment for Polaroid Corporation. "We've saved Polaroid $9 million in workers' compensation."

Several executives say they value communication abilities. "Today we have much more intense (internal) communication," says Ed Smithwick, vice president of biochemical manufacturing for Eli Lilly & Co. This heightened level of interaction is due to everything from e-mail and voice-mail to increased benchmarking activity and employees "empowered" by new management styles.

Thus, it's important to be able to communicate to a broad range of safety and health "customers." These can include machine operators, supervisors, executives, and the general public. "Don't just be a cop," says Ralph Grotelueschen, director of safety, environment and engineering standards for John Deere. Point out risks clearly and concisely, he says, and develop the ability for employees to be proactive in risk recognition.

Performing effective risk communication is also emphasized by P. William Kaspar, acting vice president of supporting operations and compliance for Lockheed Martin Energy Systems, Inc. He looks for safety and health professionals who "can recommend and communicate various alternatives to line management to solve problem areas." Note the choice of words, "various alternatives." Many executives value assertive, knowledgeable employees who nonetheless are flexible. They must have resolve, says Kaspar.

Top managers value problem-solvers, and recommendations based on a sound understanding of how the business operates and its goals. Says Mobil's Robb: "We expect our people not only to anticipate or identify problems, but to find effective solutions." He says safety and health personnel are held accountable for searching out best practices, finding innovative, cost-effective means to solving problems, and providing the services internal customers need.

Finally, traditional compliance and technical skills are not dismissed by these managers. Kaspar says it's critical for safety and health personnel to be professionally competent. He looks for diversified work experience, strong academic background, industrial hygiene and safety crossover capabilities, and continual professional development. "One excellent measure of qualification is whether they are a Certified Industrial Hygienist and/or a Certified Safety Professional," he says.

Skills of choice

The values of these executives indicate the skills they expect from safety and health professionals. Here's a review of the talents they emphasize:

Up-to-date, broad knowledge of regulations is a given.

So too is technical knowledge of chemical and operational hazards.

Risks need to be identified and communicated clearly and concisely.

"Can do" problem-solving abilities are used individually and in teams.

The same holds true for innovative, creative thinking.

Alternative solutions are made with resolve (Baxter's Amato suggests this tone: "We've done the research, here are the costs, this is what we should do") and openness;

Corporate values, goals, and operations are studied and comprehended. (You have to understand the processes in order to have enough credibility to suggest changes in manufacturing, says Bob Parke, vice president of human resources for Hughes Electronics Corporation).

Make a strong case for recommendations using inside knowledge and sound business rationale. ("EHS initiatives need to be expressed in terms of a business case," says Mobil's Robb).

Network with peers, professional associations, and industry groups to search out best practices in safety and health.

Anticipate emerging regulatory issues through contacts with regulators and other sources.

Craft a vision, a mission statement for safety and health that supports corporate business goals.

Have a sense of timing--know when managers might be more willing to listen and act (perhaps after a crisis) and when they will not (in a bad budget year).

Know how to gain management's attention, and how to negotiate, influence, and build consensus.

Delegate responsibilities.

Develop safety and health skills (hazard recognition or behavioral coaching, for example) in employees.

What to avoid

Those last two skills relate to a problem some executives perceive with safety and health personnel: an inability or reluctance to spread the work around. "It can be a recipe for disaster," says Eli Lilly's Smithwick. Safety and health must be everyone's responsibility; "it's not just for safety guys," he says.

Along the same lines, some safety and health practitioners need to get away from an us-versus-them organizational attitude. "Some feel that they are on the other side of a wall," says Deere's Grotelueschen. He's concerned about "silos of excellence." Here you find safety and health pros who preach with well-meaning passion about their fears and findings, but with no regard for how to deal with practical manufacturing issues to get results.

It's also apparent from discussions with executives that safety and health pros shouldn't slack off continuing education. In fact, the broader the education--encompassing both technical and business management topics--the better.

In general, these execs encourage safety and health pros to take a broad view of their roles within organizations. Focus on employee relations, financial, and other key corporate issues, not just compliance, they say. Look at employees, supervisors and managers all as customers of safety and health services. Don't horde your knowledge and problem-solving skills--develop them in others. Network. Communicate. Assimilate. Integrate. Be capable of balancing safety, industrial hygiene, and environmental responsibilities. Anticipate future concerns as you deal with day-to-day priorities.

Executives displaying the most supportive attitudes about safety and health today take expansive views of what safety and health can accomplish--and they urge you to do the same.