1) Wave of violence

Scoop: Eight incidents of fatal workplace violence in the span of two months this summer. The toll: 28 employees murdered, 18 injured, all by gunshot.

Two of the incidents were suspected robberies. One of the killers was a worker on probation, two were former employees who had been fired, another was angered over a vacation dispute, and another had just stormed out of sensitivity training.

The workplaces included a real estate office, a credit union, a restaurant, warehouses and manufacturing plants. Most of the violence targeted managers and owners.

Five of the eight incidents ended in suicides.

2) Combustible dust

Scoop: After investigating two fatal explosions in manufacturing plants, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has concluded: The dangers of explosive dust are not well known, and helping industry to understand this hazard is a priority.

In January, a West Pharmaceuticals plant in North Carolina exploded, killing six people, and resulting in 86 safety violations. Investigators concluded that a dust explosion occurred above an area where rubber strips were coated with moistened polyethylene powder.

"We never had any training. We were never told that the dust could explode," one employee said.

In February, an explosion fatally injured seven workers at the CTA Acoustics plant in Corbin, Ky. Investigators said the blast was likely caused by a fire in a malfunctioning production line oven that ignited flammable dust particles.

Less serious explosions linked to combustible dust have occurred in California, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

3) Reactive chemicals

Scoop: New Jersey recently added reactive chemicals to the list of "extraordinarily hazardous substances" that trigger the risk management planning requirements of the state's Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act.

Last fall, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board approved recommendations to EPA and OSHA on the need for additional regulation of reactive hazards. A CSB study identified 167 reactive incidents that caused 108 deaths over a 20-year period.

"We have found a need for plant management to study potential reactive hazards before they make changes to their processes because accidents occur when inadequate safety and control measures are in place," said the board.

4) NASA's cracked safety culture

Scoop: It's a story with parallels to workplaces in industry: Tight schedules. Resource constraints. Managers pressed to show results. Employees concerned but intimidated. Fluctuating priorities. Conflicting goals of cost, scheduling and safety. Mixed signals sent from on high. Near miss incidents ignored.

Those were some of the pressures that caused NASA's safety culture to crack, leading investigators to conclude that the space shuttle Columbia was doomed by failures in judgment and communication as much as it was by the chunk of foam that punctured one of its wings.

What happens now? Top NASA officials vow to look into the mirror, own up to mistakes, and follow recommendations by the independent board to the letter.

Culture vultures will be watching this high-profile case of safety soul-searching. Says one investigator: "It's easy to be receptive six months after a major accident. The question is whether it's going to last."

5) OSHA outreach backlash

Scoop: Every hot topic in safety eventually experiences a backlash. Think behavior-based safety. Incentive programs. Ergonomics. So it's inevitable that OSHA's current emphasis on outreach and compliance assistance would run into resistance.

But the latest squawks are not coming from organized labor. The Safety Publishers Council, a trade group of safety training vendors, will meet with OSHA chief John Henshaw in October to discuss their complaints of unfair competition.

OSHA's Web site carries an inventory of 29 downloadable "e-tools" and a dozen "expert advisors," plus 11 videos and 20 PowerPoint presentations. They're all free of course, developed with taxpayer money. The training companies don't like the idea of having their tax dollars used for products that compete against their own.

Rick Pollack of the Safety Publishers Council argues: "OSHA should focus on enforcement" and "get out of the areas of compliance assistance that are well-served by private industry."

6) Distress & fatigue

Scoop: Monster.com's 2003 Work/Life Balance Survey shows that 80 percent of Americans are unhappy with their work/life balance. As for job satisfaction, 83 percent said they are unsatisfied. And 57 percent thought that they are overworked.

Despite these stats, stress - or more appropriately distress - continues to get more attention abroad than here in the U.S. New Zealand recently enacted workplace stress laws. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work has targeted job stress for major educational campaigns.

Have you heard any OSHA officials mention job stress in speeches lately?

U.S. employers might eventually change their attitudes about job stress if links to health care costs can be documented. Currently, nearly one-third of American adults have hypertension, and two-thirds are overweight.

7) Presenteeism

Scoop: Call it, "The lights are on but nobody's home" syndrome. Employees so scared of losing their jobs that they hide illnesses, show up for work, but don't get the job done.

Bottom line, present but unproductive employees cost employers more than $180 billion annually in lost productivity, according to one report. It's a burden largely ignored by employers because it's invisible.

Employers Health Coalition of Tampa, Fla., analyzed 17 diseases and found that lost productivity due to presenteeism was 7.5 times greater than productivity lost to absenteeism. Conditions include allergies, arthritis, heart disease, hypertension, migraines, and neck/back/spine pain.

Solutions: Health and productivity management programs, total employee health programs, health risk appraisals, screening programs, education. Typical disease management programs attack diabetes (5 percent of work population), asthma, heart disease and depression. Depression accounts for half of health care disability costs - more than alcohol or drug abuse.

8) Health care costs

Scoop: 2004 will be fourth straight year of double-digit increases in health insurance premiums, according to The New York Times. Rising prices of health benefits is the "biggest issue on our plate that we can't solve," Ford Motor Co. Chairman and CEO Bill Ford Jr. said earlier this year.

What can employers do?

After two health screenings revealed that 21 percent of Portland General Electric employees had significant health risks for diabetes and other metabolic disorders, the company launched an aggressive wellness program, according to the Business Journal of Portland.

PGE's "Energy for Life" program aims to raise awareness, educate and get employees to lower their blood pressure, lose weight and eat better. "Random Acts of Fitness" are organized walks outside the workplace or in locations like the Columbia Gorge or the Pearl District of Portland.

9) ANSI Z10

Scoop: A group of 55-60 representatives from industry, labor, government, and professional associations have been hard at work since February 2001 on a U.S. voluntary standard for occupational health and safety management systems.

Why the interest? Members of the American National Standards Institute Z10 Committee want to influence the development of a potential ISO safety and health management systems standard.

They also want to craft a document that could be used as the model for an OSHA safety and health program standard, which could become a front-burner issue if Democrats ever regain control of Congress and the White House.

Work on the ANSI Z10 standard is 90 percent complete, according to a presentation at the recent National Safety Congress and Expo. A final draft will be reviewed at a meeting in December. The draft will then circulate for a "sanity check" for 60 days early in 2004. Committee members will vote to approve the standard in April 2004. A public review of the standard and the committee's responses will take up the rest of the year. Then, possibly, a final standard will be published in early 2005.

10) Safety's funk?

Scoop: Experts call it low-grade career funk. And many safety and health pros are at the stage of their careers when blahs and boredom can set in. The typical professional is in his or her mid to late 40s, according to various association membership studies and subscriber research by Industrial Safety & Hygiene News. And last year, only 38 percent of safety and health pros surveyed by ISHN said they felt a rewarding sense of job satisfaction.

Other signs of a funk: low attendance at local professional society meetings, a dearth of submissions to professional journals, and difficulty finding volunteers for professional activities.

Says one industrial hygienist: "There's the sense that all the dragons have been slain. It's just a mop up operation now."

Maybe it's the spirit of the times. Safety and health pros aren't the only ones feeling out of sorts. Check headlines like, "Dark Mood Descends Over American Public as Iraq, Jobs Take Toll," from the Investor's Business Daily. Or from USA Today: "Two years after (9/11), nation is somber. . ."