Do you have a career plan? This month, I’d like to describe various conditions buffeting the environmental health and safety field, and how they will shape your future and mine.

In a nutshell: there have been many successes in the EHS field in recent years, but I believe some gloomy times lie ahead.

Since the mid-1990s, we’ve worked hard to produce a continuing decline in employee injuries and workplace fatalities. Both are now at all-time lows. Overall pollution is down and environmental quality is up.

But many EHS professionals are not being rewarded for these gains. During the 1990s we’ve also witnessed a record number of companies being merged, acquired, and reconfigured. In all this churning, the EHS ranks have taken heavier casualties than most other professions.

Lack of definition

I think we are hurt by the fact that the EHS field is not well-defined. No single credential has emerged to represent the generic qualifications of EHS personnel. With more than 150 credentials in the EHS field, it is nearly impossible to distinguish which ones are credible.

Plus, EHS professional organizations in some cases lack a clear identity and are redundant. The American Industrial Hygiene

Association is struggling now to define and brand itself. About 50 percent of AIHA members want to be identified as industrial hygienists; the remainder support a more generic EHS name for the group. Traditionalists have secured enough votes during the past few years to reject attempts to change the association’s name.

Outside influences

If you don’t define yourself, someone else will do it for you. This is happening in our field. Here are two examples:

  • Popular EHS programs such as OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program and the ISO 14001 Environmental Management System should stir demand for EHS talent. But EHS personnel play mostly a limited, technical role in these programs. Leadership roles are more often handed to people with management experience or quality-control skills. Most of the early ISO 14001 registration audits have been managed by people with limited EHS technical experience.

  • As environmental, health and safety measures improve in plants, management seems more inclined to saddle EHS personnel with non-EHS projects. This causes many pros at plant sites to feel overwhelmed. Likewise, EHS consultants are constantly being challenged to handle projects outside their main expertise, adding to their existing stress level.

    Management’s actions reflect the fact that it’s been a long time since any major EHS regulation has been issued. Standards have helped define this field and give it focus. With little pressure from new or potential regulations, managers turn their attention elsewhere.

Where are we headed?

This lack of a clear professional identity, combined with dwindling regulatory pressure and EHS performance metrics that indicate decreasing problems, have contributed to several trends:

  • EHS as a career choice seems to be waning among college students. For example, in the 1970s, when workplace hazards and new regulations were plentiful, Ferris State College (now University) annually turned out platoons of new EHS soldiers at the undergraduate level. Today, FSU can barely muster a squad of EHS recruits. During the past five years, the University of Toledo has seen almost a 70-percent reduction in graduate level students interested in the EHS field. Many traditional university programs across the nation are seeing a similar decline in students interested in working in our field.

  • The passing rate for a prestigious EHS credential, such as the Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH), is hovering near record lows. Low scores may indicate that few people taking the CIH exams concentrate just on industrial hygiene issues.

  • EHS professional organizations are undergoing major transformations. Similar to the evolution of species, the National Safety Council is finding that it must adapt with the changing environment or it could eventually become extinct. The NSC has been implementing an aggressive business and financial plan that will significantly alter or end its relationship with many of its existing local chapters within the next few months.

    Many of the local chapters of the NSC must also adapt to major changes. Some may find that the NSC’s national business and financial strategy does not fit local needs, leading them to sever their relationship and compete with the NSC in providing EHS services.

    Like the NSC, the AIHA Board of Directors is trying to ensure the organization’s long-term survival. To protect and hopefully increase business from its main revenue base, AIHA’s annual conference and exposition, the board voted to change the conference name to the Environmental Health and Safety Conference & Exposition. Vendors paying for exhibit booths want the conference to promote all EHS issues, not just those with an IH slant. This allows for greater attendance and an opportunity to sell more than just IH products. But AIHA members recently voted to overturn the board’s decision.

    Confronting the challenges

    The coming years will see two great challenges to our career plans. One, we need to clearly define what we do and who we are. And two, we must ensure that employers continue to support our efforts for achieving even greater success. Prevention should be a full-time job, and zero injuries and zero pollution should be realistic and laudable goals. Otherwise, the perceived need for professional EHS services will probably decline, and our work will be under-appreciated.

    We need to confront these challenges as a group and not alone. It’s time to provide more support and get more involved, both locally and nationally, with EHS associations that represent our interests, careers and future.