Some years ago a subscriber protested a cover story we ran on environmental health and safety in China: “What are you doing? I read your magazine for ideas. I’ve got my hands full and long articles about foreign countries don’t help.”

Our research backs up his mindset. For years we’ve asked readers about their priorities — international issues always rank at the bottom with workplace violence and infectious diseases, with about one in ten readers professing an interest.

It’s not just us, either. Every other year the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) surveys its members to determine the top public policy issues of concern to professionals in the next two years. Global harmonization of MSDSs? International EHS management systems? Exporting of dirty jobs? No, no, and no. AIHA’s top ten list is all about backyard domestic issues.

Next month, the American Society of Safety Engineers holds its annual conference in Las Vegas. Of more than 150 educational sessions, seven focus on international topics. And those sessions will be less than half full, judging by past attendance.

Only for elites?

The explanation most often offered is that only multinational EHS professionals need to follow international laws and trends. Sure enough, Organization Resources Counselors, a Washington, D.C.-based consultancy founded more than 30 years ago around OSHA issues, now finds its fastest-growing segments include its European Union Health, Safety and Environmental Forum and its International Safety & Health Forum.

The motivation for companies doing global business is clear. “Almost 99 percent of regulation will come from the EU over time,” said Jeffrey Immelt, General Electric’s CEO, in a 2002 Wall Street Journal article.

This is why major U.S. corporations — Goodyear, GM, Dow, Alcoa, Lucent, and about a half dozen others — are members of the ANSI Z10 Committee setting a voluntary standard on EHS management systems. They’re on board after roundly rejecting an ISO proposal to set the same kind of standard in the late 1990s. Why? In a shrinking world you’ve got to get into the global regulation game, or stand on the sidelines and have the regs written for you.

But that’s of little consequence to the typical safety and health manager trying to make do with dwindling budget and staff resources in, say, Kansas City. He’s got headaches like this fellow: “Our operations manager appointed a new EHS executive who doesn’t know and doesn’t want to learn what the job’s about,” said a safety manager over lunch at a recent conference. “That’s why I’ve gone bald in the last 18 months,” he said, rubbing his head.

Out of sight, out of mind

Remember the time-management matrix from Stephen Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”? Most of us live in Quadrant I, getting pounded all day long by reacting to what’s urgent and important — crises and deadlines, boneheaded bosses, putting out fires. Quadrant II is where we should spend more time: planning and recognizing new opportunities. International EHS issues reside in Quadrant II; they’re important but not urgent for most pros. The problem is, if it ain’t urgent, it’s not an issue.

As Covey describes, it takes vision, perspective and discipline to tend to important, long-range emerging issues. Apply this to global EHS activity. You need the vision to see how international laws and policies will eventually shape the work of U.S. pros. The perspective to understand the irreversible trade motives driving globalization and bringing foreign EHS concepts to our shores. And the discipline to carve out the time to learn about these laws, policies and concepts.

Here are three to keep your eye on:

1) Watch out for REACH.

It’s shorthand for Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals, a new system of regulation of chemicals winding its way through the legislative process of the European Union (EU).ISHNcolumnist Manuel Gomez’s article on REACH appeared in January, and can be accessed at

The REACH proposal will require the registration of any chemical made or imported into the EU in amounts larger than 2,200 pounds. Basic information must be provided about properties, intended uses, likely exposure scenarios, potential risks to human health and the environment, and how these risks will be managed. When serious risks exist, such as carcinogenicity, mutagenicity, reproductive toxicity, or bio-acccumulative and persistent properties, the use of these chemicals may be severely restricted.

As Manuel said in his article, downstream companies that process chemical products and intend to export to Europe will have to make sure the components they get from their suppliers meet the requirements. “Companies that are ahead of the pack in responding to these new requirements will gain competitive advantages, and those of us who are prepared to help them adapt will increase our value to our employers,” he wrote.

Part of this preparation is to understand the concept of the Precautionary Principle, which has taken hold in European environmental thinking, public opinion, and political discourse. The principle dictates a prudent or protective response to suggestive but not definitive scientific evidence of a risk. Contrast that thinking to the ergonomic debate in this country.

2) What is the Globally Harmonized System (GHS) for classification and labeling of chemicals?

You can learn about it at OSHA’s Web site:

Here’s how OSHA chief John Henshaw described the GHS to Congress at a hearing in March: “In the long term, global harmonization of chemical information and labeling will improve communication of chemical risks. Standardized presentation of information on labels and MSDSs throughout the industrialized world can address many of the concerns about comprehensibility of chemical-hazard information.

The GHS was adopted by the United Nations in December 2002. “The United States is now considering adoption of the GHS,” according to Henshaw.

States OSHA: “The GHS is likely to result in some changes in each existing system of hazard classification and labeling.”

The agency’s position statement continues: “We believe that strong U.S. participation in the international effort is in the best interest of the United States.” If the U.S. buries its head in the sand, “companies would continue to bear the costs of complying with multiple, inconsistent national requirements,” states OSHA.

3) Some version of a global occupational safety and health management system standard, tailored after ISO 9000 and 14000 standards, is inevitable in the eyes of many multinational EHS pros.

As with the REACH proposal, U.S. corporations were late to mobilize, having to work through years of denial, fear and anger. But now the ANSI Z10 standard will be the card U.S. industry plays in the high-stakes game of which standard ISO eventually adopts.

In 2000, ISO members voted 29 in favor, and 20 against making BS 8800 an ISO occupational health and safety management system standard. Requiring two-thirds of members in favor to pass, the attempt fell four votes short. Industry predictions see a third attempt successfully passing, writes Robin O’Connell in this month’s issue (p. 55).

Stephen Covey writes that effective people think preventively. That’s a natural description for EHS pros. And that’s what major U.S. corporations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, the AFL-CIO, the United Auto Workers, and OSHA are doing through their participation in the global issues mentioned here. Look beyond your backyard. See those global regulators and policymakers? They’re going to be our new neighbors.

— Dave Johnson, Editor