At a safety industry event a few months ago, a long-time veteran with friendships in the field going back 25 to 30 years stepped to the stage to accept his retirement booty. Squinting into the stage lights, he talked about the changes he had seen — consolidations, globalization and the like — and then added: “Unfortunately, I think we’re in for more changes, and not all of them good.”

His wistful look at the good old days mixed with a dubious sense of things to come is a tone that has been sounded by other safety and health vets.

American Society of Safety Engineers’ President James “Skipper” Kendrick has bluntly spoken of his profession’s survival being at stake.

Jeff Burton, past president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association, lectured at AIHA’s annual conference last month on “Industrial Hygiene in Decline? What Can We Do!”

There’s a lot that can be done to counter the outsourcing and off-shoring of professional jobs, if you sift through recent articles, speeches and overviews by safety and health thought leaders. But the problem is, pros can’t agree on any of them.

Build the business case for safety. No thanks, say some pros, fearing it sends a callous message to employees about the value of their safety. Others will tell you that the bottom line benefits accrued through workers’ comp savings amount to pennies in corporate coffers. Nothing that the accountants will get excited over.

Generate outrage. Over what, some pros ask. Alice Hamilton is revered for fearlessly taking on industry over exposure abuses nearly a century ago. But today it takes a lot to shock and awe the public.

Consolidate the associations. The idea is to gain more clout, but depending on who is leading the various safety and health organizations, relations between groups ebb and flow. Sometimes there is chemistry, sometimes conflict. It will take more pain (dwindling memberships and shrinking revenues) than any group has felt so far to overcome the professional pride that keeps the groups guarding their traditions and identities.

Support strong regulations. We don’t need more headaches, plus OSHA only knows how to write rules for lawyers, say some pros. Most industry vets appreciate how OSHA chief John Henshaw works 13-hour days trying to make his agency more valuable to those who need safety assistance, with a slew of new Web-based training tools and hundreds of alliances and partnerships.

Use better performance measures. But OSHA injury and illness rates are so institutionalized after decades of use many companies are in a comfort zone. Execs want bottom line numbers, which OSHA data deliver. Plus, the benefits of developing activity-tracking measures has not been widely documented. What’s the return on the time and effort that goes into counting near-misses, safety suggestions acted upon, or safety meetings led by managers? And those perception surveys that predict future performance open up a can of complaints, many companies fear.

Go global. Ah, but by the time developing nations mature enough to seriously enforce regulations we’ll all be retired, a number of pros believe. Outside of those working for multinationals and far-reaching consultancies, there is scant interest in international issues — even if global EHS regs might one day hit our shores.

Get proactive. Every professional intends to be a leader, and accepts that part of his or her job is to anticipate risks and alert the organization. But what you assess to be a risk I might define as acceptable. “Risk assessment data can be like the captured spy,” said former EPA chief William Ruckelshaus. “If you torture it long enough, it will tell you anything you want to know.” Look no further than the tortured ergonomics debate to confirm that.

Europe is coming to embrace the proactive “precautionary principle” — reasonable suspicion of harm plus scientific uncertainty equals a duty to act to prevent harm. In the U.S., the notion that science is not the end-all of knowledge, and warm fuzzies such as “artistic perceptions, spiritual knowledge and cultural values” matter (as espoused by one advocacy group, the Environmental Research Foundation) simply makes eyes roll in many boardrooms.

Roll up the sleeves

A house divided cannot stand, Abe Lincoln once advised. The safety and health professional community has long withstood divisions within its ranks — disagreeing over OSHA policies and workplace strategies ranking from behavioral safety to motivational pep talks. But as the retiring industry veteran alluded to, the world keeps turning and what propped up the safety and health house and papered over differences — fear of OSHA, public outrage, the obvious risks of old smokestack America — have turned over as well.

Now it will take concerted consensus-building by safety and health’s association leaders and others with influence, as well as individual pros stepping back to assess big picture trends, in order to fortify the house’s foundation. Ready to roll up your sleeves to build a future?

— Dave Johnson, Editor