At least 85 percent of you use email, according to our 2003 White Paper reader survey.

Gee, what a surprise. One hundred thirty million U.S. workers send 2.8 billion email messages every day, reports the American Management Association. Why, poor old Martha Stewart received 20,000 emails of support in just two days after she was arraigned on fraud charges. Small and medium sized businesses in the United Kingdom said in a survey that loss of email service would be more disruptive than if phone lines went down.

Email is so central to our lives, it gives IT managers nightmares. And why not? One in five of us will instantly blow our stack at work if our email falters, according to a UK poll. If email isn't back up and running within 60 minutes, 82 percent of us are ready to go home. No wonder nearly 40 percent of IT managers feel that a whole week of email downtime would be more traumatizing than getting divorced.

(This just in: While writing this piece I nonchalantly went to check my email - only to be told that access to the mail server was denied. I might as well have been given a one-way ticket to Mars.)

Electronic legends

Of course anything that gets used as much as email gets abused. But I'm not referring to emails about the kidney theft ring in New Orleans. Or 500 ways to drive your boss crazy. Or the private and confidential one from an African widow of royalty who wants to deposit $42 million into your bank account. Or the 90 percent of employees who send and receive personal email at work, according to research by Clearswift, an Internet company. Or the almost one-third of us who spend at least two hours per shift on personal email. Or the fact that nearly a quarter of companies have sacked someone for egregious emailing. Or that spam now accounts for 50 percent of all emails sent worldwide. Or the news that the new chief executive of British mobile phone giant Vodafone Group PLC has it written into his contract that he cannot be fired by email.

Smart move. Two weeks earlier, 2,500 employees of The Accident Group, a British personal injury claims specialist, all received a text message on their cell phones informing them that an expected payday had been cancelled. They were instructed to ring a phone number that played another message: you've been fired.

Talk about treating people as objects. . . This is the ultimate slap in the face to our columnist Dr. Scott Geller, who has preached for years, including in his column this month, that workplace safety requires us to "actively care" for each other's welfare.

"I worry about technology de-personalizing the health and safety profession," says Tom Grumbles, president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association.

Computerized confined space

He's got a point. Professionals can now do almost everything long distance, without leaving their desks. Get a masters degree in EHS. Submit your paper to the journal, your presentation to the conference. Blast the latest association name-change idea on a list-serv. Stockpile certification maintenance points via teleweb seminars. Preview the latest safety training video. Rifle through OSHA's letters of interpretation. Check out the latest respirators and air pumps at a virtual trade fair. Download a lockout-tagout program. Set up your MSDS library.

Naturally, we can't overlook technology's benefits. The pollution we avoid by not driving to meetings and classes. The trees we save by no longer using print journals. The time we save by not having to thumb through the Federal Register. The distress we avoid by hiding behind voice mail and email and not jumping every time the phone rings.

The downside? We risk becoming invisible. Virtual professionals. A profession that has thrived on "management by walking around," touching base with employees, asking about their families, building trust to encourage honest reporting of injuries and hazards, now can let its fingers do the walking across keyboards.

The easy out

The possibilities are endless. Imagine these emails:

Subject: OSHA's last visit; From:; To: "URGENT!!! Attached find the 2,000 page report from OSHA summarizing our $259,863.17 in penalties for 3 alleged willful violations and 27 serious violations. Let's discuss."

Subject: VPP and you; From:; To: "This is to inform you that we are hereby applying for OSHA's VPP program. Report to the cafeteria 7 a.m. tomorrow for your schedule of training workshops, mentoring assignments, documentation guidelines, audit role-playing times, and benchmarking visits."

Subject: About that mold; From:; To: "As you probably are aware, one of our employees, Mr. Hickey, passed out yesterday in the lunchroom. Rumors of toxic mold in the lunchroom ceiling are greatly exaggerated. Mold has been around since ancient times. Any questions?"

Subject: Mandatory obesity classes; From:; To: "Obesity and related illnesses account for $78.5 billion of the nation's $1.5 trillion healthcare bill. Starting tomorrow, we are taking action. Weigh-ins begin at 8 a.m. in the nurse's office. Interventions to follow."

Here's an idea. The next time you're ready to fire off an email to a colleague, pick up the phone instead. Just try it. What the heck, you might even find their voice mail turned off. And you'll make Scott Geller smile.

- Dave Johnson, Editor