Who owns the best workplace safety and health programs in America? Everyone has their favorites, but there’s no definite way to answer that question. And the field of EHS is once more fragmented and suffers for it.

Imagine President George W. Bush and the Secretary of Labor stepping up to a bank of microphones later this year to announce the organizations receiving the 2005 National Workplace Safety & Health Award.

Last November, the President and former Commerce Secretary Don Evans announced four organizations as recipients of the 2004 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. In making the announcement, former Commerce Secretary Evans spoke of the Baldrige themes of ethical leadership, sustainability, innovation and continuous improvement. All are transferable to occupational safety and health. Turning the national spotlight on these best practices would help thousands of safety departments that struggle with issues such as leadership and sustainability.

Sharing best practices

“We are confident that the 2004 Baldrige Award recipients will serve as role models for every U.S. organization striving to improve,” said Harry Reedy, chair of the private-sector Baldrige Award panel of judges and vice president and director of quality for State Street Corp., Boston, Mass.

Every U.S. organization striving to improve its safety and health performance needs role models, too. Right now, OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program work sites come closest to serving as models. But there are almost 1,200 sites, which dilutes the ability to capture national media attention — and also attract the broad audiences of industry execs and safety and health professionals.

Now’s the time

Named after the 26th Secretary of Commerce, the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award was established by Congress in 1987 to boost the competitiveness of U.S. businesses. The time for a similar National Workplace Safety & Health Award is past due. But it’s needed more than ever:

  • Interest in organizational safety cultures is at an all-time high among professionals. But translating interest into action when it comes to cultural values and systems is a thorny challenge. A national award would teach how successful safety and health cultures are created and sustained.

  • Promoting safety and health best practices to small businesses continues to be problematic. Publicity surrounding an annual national award would be an outreach effort above and beyond what OSHA can do with its small budget.

  • The U.S. is in danger of falling behind Europe in setting the standards for global safety and health (some will tell you this is already a fact). Annual national awards for safety and health performance, emphasizing innovation and performance strategies, would help elevate the U.S. leadership position.

  • Decades of trying to promote safety and health’s competitive benefits have met with limited success. The same is true for pushing companies to think beyond OSHA compliance, and for convincing executives to judge safety and health performance on more than injury numbers. A national award would provide new ammo.

    What do you think?

    Is this some kind of pipe dream? Get Congress to create the award — fat chance, you say.

    Have the award administered by an alliance of non-profits, such as the National Safety Council, the American Industrial Hygiene Association, and the American Society of Safety Engineers? These guys would rather go it alone, you say.

    Hmmm… maybe coordinating a national awards program is a job for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Ah, but NIOSH answers to the Department of Health and Human Services, you say. How would you fit the President, Labor Secretary, OSHA chief, and HHS Secretary on the same podium? And good luck getting the President to make time for EHS in his schedule.

    But we have to start somewhere. Email your suggestions to djsafe@bellatlantic.net. We’ll discuss your ideas in a future issue, and share them with our network of contacts in Washington and among non-profits. You never know…

    — Dave Johnson, Editor