I have a small, framed photo in my office of an old boy with a gray beard slouched in a folding chair in his yard. He wears jeans, boots, red suspenders, a denim shirt, all topped by a wide-rim white cowboy hat. A black dog lies at his feet and a long stogie is stuck in his mouth.

He seems the epitome of relaxation, which is one reason I keep the photo around. But back in the day, as they say, this old cowboy accumulated a master’s degree in industrial engineering, a second master’s in business administration, and certifications in ergonomics, industrial hygiene (CIH) and safety (CSP). In the 1970s, he had to be one of the few ergonomists on an industry payroll, working at Western Electric’s Omaha Works. Later he moved to offices a block from the World Trade Center to organize Western Electric’s corporate safety, industrial hygiene, and ergonomics department. He started learning to speak Chinese at nearby Pace University. An industrial hygienist learning Chinese — 30 years ago? In the mid-70s he made the first of dozens of trips to China.

Moving to AT&T’s Environmental Health and Safety Group in north New Jersey’s suburbs, he appointed AT&T regional EHS managers in Madrid, Mexico, and Singapore. China he kept for himself, overseeing about ten plants plus installation services and offices.

In 1994 he retired to Shanghai, where he lived for five years. “Loved every minute of it,” he says. “I was the ‘old gray matter’ for a small consulting group. We worked mostly with U.S. companies. Did everything from hazardous waste management to ladder policies. All their ladders were bamboo.”

He dropped what he was doing to return to the states in the late 1990s to take over a family-run auto body paint shop he partly owned, and that had run into problems. He’s lived in Texas ever since.

On the last day of January this year, he called me out of the blue. You see, in the midst of his globetrotting he found time to mentor a safety magazine editor and serve on ISHN’s advisory board. “I had to call after reading your ‘Are we irrelevant or what?’ editorial in January. Boy, things don’t seem to change much.”

He has sold the paint shop and said he is trying to figure out, at age 62, what to do with the rest of his life. “I’m reading one of those books for guys changing careers.” He’s also taking computer classes and studying Chinese again. “So where will you be in five years?” I asked. He didn’t pause long: “Living in China or Thailand. Maybe teaching. Maybe going to Western China to set up a small manufacturing plant.” It’s filling in the gap between what he’s doing now and where he’ll be in five years that is uncertain. “I don’t like uncertainty. You know, have a plan and work the plan,” he said.

Other views

It’s interesting to take the plans and philosophies of other EHS pros who reacted to the irrelevance question and connect their views to where they are on the career continuum, to their age and experience, and to their personalities and values.

“Maybe I’m lucky.”“I think a few of our seasoned safety pros sound jaded,” said a young CSP from upstate New York. “Maybe I’m lucky, but the company I work for really values safety. Just last week I presented to our CEO on the safety status of our three-year-old plant. My plant manager spent hours with me ahead of time polishing up the presentation. I present at high-level meetings on a weekly and monthly basis for safety as well.”

“This is a slam dunk.”“You don’t bring real value by explaining that we do things because OSHA or EPA says we must do it,” said a young senior industrial hygienist in Delaware. “A few of us can actually show the management team how product risk management brings value to the company and to its stakeholders. This is a slam dunk. What better way to encourage your business to do more safety or industrial hygiene than to show through product stewardship reviews that these things reduce the business’s risk profile for that product.”

“I’m not giving up!”“I’ve spent 43 years in the safety business and I’m not giving up!” declared a Rhode Island consultant. “As a safety director for one organization for 28 years I always thought I was doing it right. Then I retired, started my own consulting practice, and low and behold, I find my people skills and ability to communicate are more important than my so-called safety skills.”

“I thought there would be demand…”“My thing was anticipating issues, recognizing them and controlling them so workers did not get injured in any way. I thought when I retired there would be a demand for a guy like me with this experience and high level experience with government and unions,” emailed a former Fortune 100 company industrial hygiene manager. “Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Part of it is due to the Bush administration’s approach to health, safety and the environment, and to global competitive pressures. I still do some consulting. Several sets of attorneys have picked my brain and the business has died down now.”

“The money’s good.”“Having worked for many years in a corporate legal department, I have not been eager to team with lawyers again now that I’m on my own,” said a Michigan industrial hygienist. “Nice people but none of them can stand lawyer jokes. But just when I think I’m done with them, they always pull me back in. Are all IH’s becoming expert witnesses? No, but the money’s good and I get the impression lawyers would feel better if my rates were even higher.”

New dreams

I heard from one other longtime friend and mentor — a 21-year vet of another Fortune 100 company who had climbed the corporate health and safety ladder to a lofty perch. Much of his work involved travel, long-haul international trips. Along the way, this CSP and CIH became an authority on global EHS, exposure risk assessment, control banding and management systems. “Professionals have options,” he said in an email. “I see the options elsewhere, but that’s my decision.” At age 51, he is going into nursing.

A year ago he had emailed: “I just saw the new EHS organization chart — without me. Got a brief sinking feeling in my gut, then pinched myself and said, ‘You lucky guy!’ Early retirement and an end to the endless bull... we endured after the acquisitions.

“It was like a bad episode of ‘Survivor’ with the fears, insecurities, dark behaviors. And for what? To remain on the island, I think not. Better to escape to a much better island with friends, family and exciting new opportunities to grow and be a vital human being.”