Sometime last year I received this email:

“I am an EH&S consultant and have been asked to address a group of human resource professionals on safety management. I am interested in learning more about the changing face of safety management…

“Increasingly, I sense that occupational safety has taken a back seat to other operational elements, especially in medium- and small-sized companies…

“…I see safety professionals mired in programs that have little value to employees, and even less influence toward helping management protect their employees. Are we a dying breed of professional, as some contend, or are we missing the mark in delivering useful, quality safety programs to companies and their employees?” The consultant signed off saying, “The paradigms of safety management need to change.”

What better way to start off the new year than to answer a loaded question like that? As a journalist, it’s awkward to be on the receiving end of questions, especially ones that ask if your readers are a “dying breed” mired in irrelevant programs. Journalists are more comfortable lobbing the grenades than catching them. Still, we have trouble turning down requests for Big Picture pontificating. So here goes:

Road to extinction?

The safety profession isn’t dying any more than the U.S. auto industry or manufacturing base could be said to be “dying.” The media may like that kind of drama, but what’s happening is shrinkage, contraction, consolidation, not extinction. It’s happening with hospitals, newspapers, department stores, supermarkets; it’s a long list. Social scientists call it creative destruction. There will always be a need for safety and health professionals — simply not as many as in the 1970s and ’80s during the peak of the OSHA standards-setting years.

Mired in mediocrity?

Many safety and health pros are indeed employed in programs that management knows little about. Others call it “locked in a silo.”

Many human resource managers fight for leverage and to be heard, too. Today, any department in most organizations that does not add direct and short-term value to the financial picture faces this predicament. Quality departments fought this battle for years before foreign competition forced managers to take quality more seriously. Now there is concern that many companies in the U.S. are not investing sufficiently in research and development departments. It gets back to management’s focus and the pressure on short-term returns.

HR’s development of “human assets” is a long-term process that many execs don’t have the patience or money for — all that social responsibility rhetoric aside. Occupational health efforts to prevent illnesses 20-30 years down the road from toxic exposures face similar barriers.

At least workplace safety does, in a perverse way, benefit from the threat of short-term unwanted consequences. High-risk plants can blow up. Workers’ comp costs can rise. High-profile accidents, victim lawsuits, or media investigations into poor working conditions can muddy a company’s image or brand. Ask BP or NASA or Nike or Wal-Mart. These are some reasons safety pros will always be around, fighting a kind of rear guard action and providing insurance, at the least.

Only playing defense?

Of course safety and health pros, especially the young ones coming up, want to do more than play “prevent defense.” So today we have a lot of talk and publicity about making the business case for safety. (Did you see the large ad on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal sponsored by Exxon and the National Safety Council recently?)

Again, HR is doing the same, making the business case for its expertise. Whether you can do this conclusively, at least in terms of safety and health activity, is open to debate. Some pros write books on how safety pays and believe the business case is the only way for the profession to survive. Others say it’s a waste of time, that the money saved or contributed through safety efforts just doesn’t amount to enough to impress execs. Or, as former Alcoa Chairman Paul O’Neill believed, equating safety with money sends the wrong message to employees.

One thing is clear: if a safety and health pro intends to make the business case, he or she must use new skills and tools. You must be skilled in research, digging for data and understanding finances; developing metrics; and networking and politicking through the organization to uncover the data (which may reside in HR, accounting, risk management, production). You also must be able to sit across from execs and accountants and sell. This is a long way from old school safety engineering, tacking up posters and designing machine guards.

Riding the waves

Workplace safety always seems to catch a wave. By this I mean the profession benefits from what could be called fads — or trends, if you want to be more positive. In the ’70s and ’80s safety rode the OSHA wave. Then Bhopal blew up and process safety management was big. Behavior-based safety became popular in the ’90s, along with ergonomics. Now the buzz is about “cultures of safety” and being a solid corporate citizen. Good safety (like being “clean and green”) can be a branding strategy, especially for large corporations selling to or servicing consumers. See Starbucks, Waste Management, Exxon, etc.

In contrast, occupational health nursing and industrial hygiene largely missed out on some of these waves — behavioral safety and now safety cultures. IH rode the asbestos wave in the ’90s, then mold more recently. The nanotechnology wave is still out on the distant horizon for IHs, its impact yet to be determined.

In the meantime, there is work to be done in risk communications, reproductive health protection, global harmonization of chemical safety data, and emergency response. 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina got many a manager’s attention. Insurance companies and attorneys are looking for expert witnesses. Some safety products distributors are developing consulting services. Airgas, with safety product sales of about $400 million annually, boasts of more than 500 “safety specialists” to problem-solve for customers.

In other words, there will always be a job for the resourceful, forward-thinking safety and health professional. In this day and age, it just won’t be one job for 20 years, nothing linear like that. Rather, you’ll hop, skip and jump to a string of jobs, reinventing yourself along the way as needed, to stay a step ahead of consolidations and innovations that make old skills commodities or outright obsolete. To the nimble go the spoils, or at least survival.