Dear Subscriber,

Last week we posed this question: How many EHS departments lack the necessary resources to be effective?

The problem (and danger) is we just don't know.

We actually know much more about resource threats to other safety-related professions. A Google search using the key words "safety resources stretched thin" turns up, oh, only about 717,000 results.

You can learn that the Federal Aviation Administration is losing a number of its most senior safety inspectors and does not have the ability to replace them. (Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-WV, at a 2005 congressional hearing)

You discover the city of Dallas is about 600 officers short of its goal of having three officers per 1,000 residents, according to a series of articles last year in the Dallas Morning News. Low pay for officers has Dallas struggling to fill its academy classes with qualified recruits.

(By the way, low pay is one of the problems leaving Cal/OSHA understaffed, as described in last week's ezine.)

You can read a 2003 Institute of Medicine report that delivered this conclusion: "The supply of nurses is unfortunately stretched thin right now." Better staff levels result in safer patient care, but some hospital nurses may be assigned up to 12 patients per shift, according to the study. The optimal workload for a nurse is four patients, according to a 2002 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

What's the optimal ratio of safety and health professionals to employees? It's a matter of conjecture, pointing to the overall dearth of research into resource support for safety and health departments in industry.

WHY THE SILENCE?

Cal/OSHA is certainly not the only safety and health department struggling to meet its day to day responsibilities. But the extent of the problem, and the risk it poses to workers and communities, is only glimpsed through anecdotes and small-sample snapshots like ISHN's annual surveys. Why?

1) Many safety and health pros are not going to risk their jobs by going public with grievances over management indifference. They quit for other work, complain generically about a lack of respect, or have their positions eventually eliminated.

2) The ever-expanding army of safety consultants is not about to risk contracts with industry by making conference presentations on industry's unpredictable support for safety departments.

3) Pros have no cover. No union spokesman issuing press releases, like the California Association of Professional Scientists (representing Cal/OSHA inspectors), or the Professional Airways Systems Specialists representing FAA inspectors, whose president last year said "cutting corners to save pennies cannot come at the expense of safety."

4) Public apathy blunts the call for any reality check. When was the last time a newspaper series or research study or congressional hearing looked into industry safety and health department resources? The mainstream media's only interest is dramatic egregious cases, like The New York Times' investigation of McWane Industries several years ago - not the bigger picture of staffing, funding and adequate resources for company safety departments across the land.

5) Congress only holds hearings on job safety when forced by national tragedy. Then it's agency bureaucrats who take most of the bullets, not executives from campaign-contributing industries. Watch this theatre play out again as Congress investigates on mining safety.

6) NIOSH only researches industry safety practices about once a generation. The last one, "Safety Program Practices in Record-Holding Plants," was published in March, 1979, based on field studies conducted from 1975-1978.

SELF-CENSORSHIP?

In contrast, there's no lack of publicity for good safety practices:

  • OSHA loves to boast about its Voluntary Protection Program "Stars" - and those enthusiastic work sites do indeed deserve recognition, make no mistake.

  • The National Safety Council is on a mission to single out and promote CEOs who "get it" in terms of supporting workplace safety and health. Again, these kinds of stories need to reach other execs.


But the story about the number of safety and health departments stretched thin, lacking support, and unable to effectively function is not getting out. It's not raised as an issue, debated at conferences, studied or measured. Ten years ago ISHN ran a cover story on the downsizing of safety departments and was chastised privately by a competitive magazine for not doing enough to build up the market for safety business.

Healthcare was likewise silent about risky safety practices and inadequate safety resources until a 1999 Institute of Medicine report made public what doctors had long known and quietly accepted: a lack of safety oversight, systems and values contributed to medical errors killing patients (between 44,000 - 98,000 annually).

National patient safety goals - specifying safety practices such as communication techniques and addressing issues such as staff fatigue - are now set annually by one organization that audits healthcare systems for accreditation.

Why doesn't OSHA set annual national safety goals, even voluntary ones, for industry? Goals that focus on process activities such as auditing, planning, risk reporting and abatement.

A federal healthcare agency is piloting a perception survey to be used by hospitals to gauge elements of their safety culture, and track improvements.

Why doesn't NIOSH develop tools to promote safety cultures - surveys, best practices models?

Healthcare is struggling to become more transparent, open and honest about medical errors and patient harm. General industry - decades ahead of healthcare in terms of safety auditing, communication and training - is behind when it comes to transparency. The best organizations get awards; the villains get penalties. But we know very little of how safety and health is supported and practiced in the majority of companies.

NO RESEARCH. NO BENCHMARKS

Outcome measures such as Bureau of Labor Statistics injury rates and OSHA enforcement figures tell us nothing substantive about how workplace safety is funded, staffed and practiced across U.S industries. The missing empirical research and consensus metrics in these areas retards the EHS profession's ability to build public credibility, recruit nationwide, and project value to the business community.

You can't manage a profession's growth if you can't measure what it does, to paraphrase the experts.