Thirty years ago, many people actually retired from the same company they began their career with. A health and safety career was often marked by long tenures with one or possibly two employers in the same community. Stability made it rather easy to chronicle a history of health and safety activity in these companies; past programs, incidents and controversies could be culled from the memories and experience of just a few people, or they were amply recorded in paper files.

Today, any ties that bind have been largely severed. How many people have held your health and safety job before you? Where have they gone? How long before you move on?

Mergers and mobility are not all that rob organizations of their institutional memory. In many companies, any documents — including health and safety — more than two or three years old that do not have a legal retention time have been purged. Cost and space savings are reasons for the housecleaning. But the biggest motivation is to lessen a company’s vulnerability in any future litigation.

Modern practice

Laws mandate a degree of health and safety records retention. Occupational medical and health exposure records must be kept for a minimum of 30 years, for example. But we’re taught to keep these records in a sterile fashion. Your legal counsel will scream if they find that you created an exposure record that includes descriptions such as, “The work area was dark and dirty and there was a strong solvent odor during the sampling period.” As your lawyer will tell you, these are subjective opinions, not objective facts. Only objective facts are to be recorded in exposure records.

Broader losses

Local health and safety associations are also losing their sense of history. Recording secretaries come and go, and records get lost or slip through the cracks. Turnover has an effect here, too. One year a chapter abides closely to Robert’s Rules of Order and the minutes of all meetings are kept in a dutiful manner. The next year, with a new slate of officers, meetings may become mostly chitchat among buddies.

Old tools of the trade are also fading away. We probably won’t find any safety products at antique road shows. Used respirators and outdated sampling equipment are usually viewed as potentially dangerous. We’re told to get rid of those liabilities.

It’s easy to overlook the trends I’m pointing out here. History isn’t lost all at once. It gradually erodes without notice until that day you need a past document or record and it’s gone. That’s what is happening now. The history of health and safety, both within companies and across our profession, is eroding slowly. And what’s left is less useful in order to protect against lawsuits.

Our accomplishments to reduce and prevent injury and illness in the years to come should rival and exceed any era before us. We all have a role to play (see sidebar) to collect and protect an accurate picture of our individual, and collective, health and safety work.

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 e-mail at