The maturity of many safety committees says something about the safety and health profession as a whole. When we surveyed several thousand readers on career plans last year, nearly one in three said they were nearing retirement.
Most readers (52 percent) are age 50 or over, qualifying for membership in AARP, which used to be known as the American Association of Retired Persons before Botox and Viagra came along.
But the maturing of the occupational safety and health field is more than a matter of demographics. Age, after all, is just a number, right? More important is how the fieldâ€™s thinking and outlook have matured.
Stages of developmentLook at it in terms of human development. Infancy, adolescence, adult and older adult (AARP) stages are roughly akin to Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing.
The modern workplace safety and health movement was born in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Thatâ€™s when OSHA came on the scene â€” Our Savior Has Arrived, declared pros at the time. Indeed, the scope, goals, and sense of purpose characterizing many if not most safety and health programs today date back to the early dictates of OSHA.
And while the National Safety Council, the American Industrial Hygiene Association, and the American Society of Safety Engineers had been formed in the first half of the century, safety and health employment boomed (for a time) only after OSHA inspectors took to the field.
Adolescence arrived later in the 1970s and the â€™80s. The growing profession was full of ideas and energy. Anything seemed doable, and everything was open to debate. OSHA contemplated sweeping standards that would have required employers to set up safety programs, exposure monitoring, medical surveillance, motor vehicle safety programs and indoor air programs. The future seemed loaded with potential. NIOSH issued projections that more than 100,000 professionals would be needed.
But in significant ways, OSHA never grew out of the adolescent storming years. A case of arrested development. Too many interest groups, too much politics. Disputes over OSHAâ€™s power and reach still storm (budget appropriations, criminal penalties, TB, ergonomics, permissible exposure limits). It takes an authority figure, usually the courts or Congress, to step in to settle matters.
Too many safety programs are also developmentally challenged, never growing past the need to rely on an authority figure (OSHA) to decide purpose and goals. In the minds of many execs, compliance is the endgame.
Individually, though, most of todayâ€™s pros continued to move up the ranks and into prime time in the 1990s. Corporate titles, large staffs. Good press â€” U.S. News & World Report singled out industrial hygiene as one of the fastest growing professions in the country.
Reality bitesMost of us wouldnâ€™t mind stretching out those years marked by the adult stage of performing â€” and reaping the rewards. But the â€™90s brought downsizing, reorganizations, relocations, smaller department budgets and staffs and a â€œcustomer-friendlyâ€ OSHA. Events seemed to slip beyond oneâ€™s personal control. Who moved the corporate ladder?
Fast forward to 2004, and welcome to the older adult stage. Itâ€™s marked by resistance to change and new ideas. Less appetite for new challenges. Consider the industrial hygiene profession and its failed attempts to come up with a new name and identity. The focus, not only for IHs, can turn from looking ahead to looking inside.
In military jargon, itâ€™s â€œshort-timerâ€ thinking. Ride it out. Donâ€™t take a chance. Donâ€™t fight the boss or the board. Whereâ€™s the rubber stamp?
But todayâ€™s safety and health pros donâ€™t have the luxury of cruising to the finish line. Who does? Many pros have been forced to reinvent themselves, moving from corporate offices to consulting businesses run out of their homes. Some move across country, if not oceans, for better jobs.
Few industrial hygienists today spend most of their time practicing the traditional IH science of detecting, evaluating and controlling toxic exposures. After all, you can eat lunch off of many factory floors in the age of robotics. So IHs have morphed into chief safety officers, management systems auditors, product stewardship directors, even behavior-based safety coaches.
Itâ€™s an interesting contrast. Individual pros â€” not handcuffed by boards, stakeholders or politics and staring at mortgages and college tuitions â€” take on new identities, goals and boundaries. But safety and healthâ€™s institutions â€” OSHA, many company programs, some associations â€” donâ€™t have the same urgency and struggle to grow.
Too bad more of prosâ€™ individual enterprise canâ€™t be channeled into invigorating the safety and health field as a whole. But there just doesnâ€™t seem to be the time. Local association meetings have real trouble attracting a crowd. Volunteers are hard to find. Individuals move on, but the profession spins its wheels.
â€” Dave Johnson, Editor