"Speak up for safety" is a hot phrase. More than a million hits will come up if you run a search for the phrase on the Internet. But what does it mean and how do we put it into action?

Some examples:

  • This past March the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) and officials from Medicare launched the program "Speak Up: Help Prevent Medical Errors in Your Care." The program encourages patients to question the care they will be given, and to seek another caregiver if they do not get good answers. The American Medical Association supports the Speak Up program.

  • The heading for the American Society of Safety Engineers' new membership application is "Speak Up for Safety: Join ASSE Today."

  • The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health employs the "speak up" concept in pamphlets targeted for working teens. NIOSH wants teens to know they can speak up to employers about their workplace rights.

  • Safety management programs such as OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program requires employees to freely speak up not only for their own safety but for others as well. Injury and illness rates at VPP work sites are often 50 percent or more below industry average.

    Gaining momentum

    Speaking up is gaining momentum in the U.S. today for three main reasons. One, people feel they can remark without fear of punishment. Two, people feel that their input will make a difference. And three, speaking up is easy to do with modern information technologies such as the Internet.

    The Internet clearly permits people to speak up. The Toledo Better Business Bureau installed an Internet system in 2000 for people to file inquiries and complaints on area companies. Inquires and complaints rose nearly 300 percent in the first year for the new system, from 105,578 in 1999 to 305,094 in 2000.

    The AMA found in 2000 that more than 60 million U.S. residents went online in search of health information and more than 70 percent of them said what they found influenced their decisions. People are speaking up when it matters to them.

    Pros are quiet

    How do we get environmental health and safety pros to speak up for issues that should matter to them? From my point of view far too many EHS pros do not speak up when they should.

    Here's an example. This past May the national ASSE organization voted to revoke chapter status for the Maumee Valley ASSE in Ohio. Apparently the slate of officers for Maumee Valley was asleep at the wheel for a long time and most of the obligations to remain a chapter were not met. This approximately 20-year-old safety organization fizzled and died because no local member spoke up when things seemed amiss.

    I'm impressed with the number of list serves on the Internet that provide a forum for EHS pros to speak up on issues. What I note, however, after monitoring industrial hygiene, safety, environmental health, and other EHS list serves is that only relatively small groups of people speak up on these lists. If it were not for people who repeatedly speak up, some of these list serves would be quiet.

    Scan the author lists for your favorite EHS publications over the past couple of years and what do you find? There's a small group of people who write a lot. It goes for speakers at EHS conferences, too. We hear often from the same individuals. I guess the return rate on EHS surveys, even though most only take a few minutes and most can be returned by email, will show a similar pattern. Only a small group of EHS pros speak up.

    Consider the three main reasons why people are encouraged to speak up: little fear of punishment, feeling that their input will make a difference, and easy means to speak up. Which reason is inhibiting most EHS pros? Probably the second one - they don't feel their views mean much.

    I would tend to agree that one lone voice sounding off might not be that valuable, but when many people speak up in a democratic system the value is clear. And remember, whether speaking up is in the form of a complaint, compliment, point of view, or just advisement doesn't seem to matter. It's the information that is conveyed which is valuable.

    What to do

    Here's a six-point challenge to speak up:

    1) Contact a local EHS organization this week and offer a suggestion for a training topic. You don't need to volunteer to give the program.

    2) At least once each month provide your point-of-view on an EHS list serve.

    3) Answer all EHS surveys and EHS organization election ballots you receive within the next year. It will probably take less than one hour total of your time.

    4) Write an article for an EHS publication next year. Contact Dave Johnson of this magazine for ideas for articles and where to publish.

    5) During your next attendance at an EHS seminar, inform a speaker why you agree or disagree with what they presented.

    6) Within the next three years provide a presentation at an EHS conference.

    There are other opportunities to speak up, but if everyone meets this six-point challenge a tremendous flow of valuable information will occur.

    Our EHS field is feeling significant pressures. Foremost is the availability of meaningful jobs in the face of dwindling hazards and a growing number of EHS programs that are on cruise control. If more EHS pros speak up everyone can mine the information and better prepare themselves for upcoming challenges. I will do my part - will you do yours? I firmly believe your views can make a difference.