With major environmental health and safety regulatory and technology hurdles behind them — and success evident — many EHS pros are falling into the mindset of Charles Duell, commissioner of U.S. Office of Patents in 1899, who said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

In other words, “been there, done that.”

A lack of new challenges is leaving many EHS pros unfulfilled. Surveys show that many people in the field feel like quitting their jobs or are taking on more non-EHS assignments for their employers. This feeling is rippling through the profession. Enrollment is down in college and university EHS programs. EHS associations are experiencing dwindling attendance at meetings, and new members are hard to come by.

The only excitement that EHS pros infrequently experience is when a major new regulation is passed, such as OSHA’s ergonomics standard. But when that regulation was killed you could almost hear the collective sigh among many pros, “Now what are we going to do?”

Mop up duty?

Still, most EHS pros are not sitting around twiddling their thumbs. They’re very busy handling day-to-day tasks to maintain programs, or they’re squeezing existing programs for slightly more, but harder-earned success. For most EHS pros, the war is over and mopping up actions are all that is necessary now. These pros, though, are thinking like Duell. They can’t appreciate the changes and challenges that are soon to emerge.

In my eyes, the greatest challenge to EHS practices in the business world since the creation of OSHA and EPA in 1970 will occur during the Age of Responsibility that is expected to quickly follow the present Information Age. Periods of history are marked by prominent technologies or ideas that change the way people live, work and think. OSHA and EPA laws were right for the Industrial Age. The Information Age makes business EHS practices and their potential effects transparent. It also permits people to share opinions and take action on concerns more quickly than ever before. And stakeholder opinion will sway business to be more responsible and encourage managers to go beyond regulatory compliance to address EHS concerns.

Evidence abounds that the Information Age is leading to more responsible actions by individuals, groups and business. More than 60 million U.S. residents went online in search of health information in the past year, according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association and reported in the May 23, 2001, USA Today. Physicians now must be more alert to how they explain and address medical concerns to their patients. If only a fraction of the online search for health information relates to exposure from workplace hazards and pollution, then EHS pros should be ready to explain and control these risks.

But it seems many pros are ill-prepared for taking responsible actions brought about by the pressure of Information Age public scrutiny. Here are two examples:

In the dark

This past January, I contacted a facility in Indiana that won numerous honors for manufacturing excellence, including an award fromIndustryWeekmagazine in 1997 for being one of the “10 Best Plants” in the U.S. The facility was awarded OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program “Star” designation in 2000 and was on a target for ISO 14001 environmental management certification in the first half of 2001.

I was directed by the corporate unit to help this plant prepare a new annual EHS action plan. But the plant EHS manager told me that everything was “under control,” and he didn’t know if any new action items needed to be added.

He was shocked and dismayed when I told him that a Web site had ranked his plant as one of the “dirtiest/worst” facilities in the U.S. according to a non-cancer risk score, and anyone could go online to learn that from 1993 to 1998 the plant’s emissions of “suspected reproductive toxins” increased 540 percent. He then agreed that several new issues needed to be addressed.

In April, I talked with the “EPA Public Contact” for a plant in the Cleveland, Ohio, area. His plant is owned by a “Big Three” automotive company that likes to promote its environmental awareness and responsible actions. I asked about the plant’s community risk communication practices and was told that everything was “under control.”

I asked this designated EPA Public Contact if he knew that his plant was identified on a Web site as being in a cancer “hot spot” area (which it is). He didn’t know. I told him another Web site ranked his plant number five out of 69 plants in the county for releases to air of recognized carcinogens. He didn’t know that, either. Further questioning revealed that the plant was almost totally unaware of how its EHS practices were portrayed on the Web.

Dozens more examples could be provided and each one follows a similar pattern. At first “everything is under control,” according to EHS pros. Then a whole new world of Web information is presented that they didn’t know existed, and suddenly it’s not “been there, done that” anymore.

Web information on business-related EHS practices, for the most part, does not reveal non-compliance problems. The data simply presents concerns that may need to be addressed, mostly beyond the walls of the operation. The catalyst for action will be stakeholders pressing businesses to take more responsible actions — not specific laws. But most EHS pros have difficulty functioning without a law. This is why I believe the coming years will present a new and great challenge. Duell missed the wonders of the future. Perhaps EHS pros will fare better.