Here in 2008 could a tipping point have been reached in how the environmental health and safety (EHS) profession is perceived by business executives? Do execs view EHS pros more positively than ever before? Consider these findings fromISHN’s 24th Annual White Paper “State of the EHS Nation” survey, conducted last September:
  • On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being “very important” and 1 being “not important at all,” the survey asked, “How important is EHS in your company?” Sixty percent of respondents across the entire spectrum of U.S. industries gave EHS a “10.”
  • In 2008, EHS budgets will increase for 34 percent of professionals surveyed, and decline for only seven percent. Five years ago, in projections for 2002, only 18 percent of pros anticipated budget boosts, and 17 percent expected budget cuts.
  • More than one-third of White Paper respondents (36 percent) said their level of satisfaction with senior management’s leadership in EHS had increased in 2007.
  • Almost four in ten professionals (39 percent) said their effectiveness as an EHS pro had increased in 2007; only nine percent said it had fallen off.

Bulls and bears

It’s your turn to respond. Here is what some experts in the EHS field say about the prospects of a new light shining down on the work of EHS professionals:

“Especially for global companies, the focus on a sustainable future in the EHS arena is much like other business processes, using a balanced scorecard of performance metrics, self-assessments and other tools. The objective is to eliminate risks, particularly fatalities. The value of human life and maintaining social responsibility have become more than buzz words for stakeholders.” —Safety manager John Wesley

“The widespread acceptance and use of ERM — Enterprise Risk Management — is a driver toward more thought and accountability in many areas of risky corporate behavior, including EHS.” —Gary Rosenblum, risk manager, City of Palm Desert, Calif.

“Maybe the efforts to train business managers in the value of EHS back in the ’80s and ’90s is finally starting to stick. Also, I found in my past corporate experience that it often takes a management change to younger, fresher and brighter minds to recognize and seize upon a concept that can grab an entire organization and propel it forward to new levels of financial and EHS success. Maybe that time has come.” —Joe Holtshouser, former project manager for environmental health and safety regulatory affairs, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.

“My observation in 37 years of safety practice is that we have increased our knowledge base exponentially. However, the perception of our profession by our customers as well as our professional well-being does not reflect it. There is often a huge gap. If we rationalize away that gap as a matter of management’s (our primary customers) lack of understanding of safety and of us, then we are not likely to close that knowledge/professional well-being gap.” —Tom Lawrence, CSP, P.E., society vice president, the American Society of Safety Engineers’ Council on Professional Affairs

“There are non-traditional industrial hygiene areas where we possess the skills, talent and expertise to make a difference. This list is by no means complete: product stewardship, global supply chain (from cradle to grave), crisis management (e.g. Avian flu etc.), sustainability, social responsibility, presenteeism/healthcare.” —Dr. Rick Fulwiler, CIH, former head of global health and safety, Procter & Gamble

“The sustainability and CSR emphasis gives us opportunity — if we can move from the ‘classic’ modes most of us were trained in and grew up in — to understand what role we have in sustainability and product stewardship programs. Who better to deal with risk management and product-related safety and health issues than trained and experienced hygiene and safety professionals? Many of us are uncomfortable with selling our skills but that’s what it may take to maintain a presence in the future. —Tom Grumbles, CIH, past president, American Industrial Hygiene Association

“The critical issue is people. We don’t have enough people. Schools are struggling for students in this field, birth rates are falling, secondary education never heard of EHS professionals, etc. Using the see-saw analogy, we don’t have enough weight on our side to tip.

“I myself (as a personnel recruiter) have had to branch out and embrace all types of candidates and fill other types of jobs to maintain my income. Clients keep asking for the 3-5 year people, but there aren’t enough to go around. The salaries have gone up a fair amount in response, but no amount of salary is going to create a person where few exist. There are many jobs, but few seem to get filled. —Dan Brockman

“As a profession we do seem to be making headway on understanding and advocating the value proposition for safety and health. But there is also a widespread undercurrent of grave concern about where the next generation of multi-skilled, committed safety and health leaders will come from.

“Another nervous note raised by senior corporate EHS leaders is the often enormous and unrelenting (almost 24/7) time demands that companies are placing on EHS staff to provide the necessary support to achieve their EHS objectives. The drive for improved competitiveness will not soon abate; your survey may show increasing budgets that may not always translate into providing, over the long term, the human capital necessary to sustain a robust EHS effort.” —Frank White, senior vice president, ORC Worldwide

“Look at the 2004 Census Bureau data. Just 17,047 firms in the U.S. employ 500 or more employees. The rest of the 5,885,784 U.S. firms have less than 500 employees and most of those employ fewer than 100 people. The result, as I see it, is that over 98 percent of all U.S. employer firms are too small to employ a safety pro.

“If there is a safety function in these firms, it’s normally staffed part-time by an HR person or maintenance manager. Many organizations are still muddling through issues of OSHA compliance. In spite of lots of outreach, newsletters, speaking engagements, and offers of no-cost e-news mailings and phone consultation, only a handful each year show enough interest in the safety process to actually make some substantial changes.

“Most are stuck in the ‘safety as benefit’ or ‘keep us out of trouble’ mode. Typically, there is a disconnect between the person charged with ‘keeping us safe’ and top management... resulting in obvious frustration.” —Safety consultant Chip Dawson

“We are at the beginning of a world-wide tipping point in EHS. With certainty, industries that have a higher risk and social profile lead the way. These Fortune 200 firms (and others) have much to lose and gain in and through EHS.

“From an international standpoint, global organizations are going beyond our historical past and educating youth about personal safety early on in their formal educational systems.” —David Sarkus, MS, CSP

“As global markets intensify their demand for higher quality assurance (product safety), responsible environmental practices and responsible labor practices (child labor and fair wages relevant to in-country socioeconomic norms), we must make sure safety and health practices are included in the mix.

“Bottom line, we are presented with a great opportunity to sell the value of EHS not just to manufacturers but to consumers, boards of directors and Wall Street. Product safety (a.k.a. consumer safety) and environmental issues will be the most popular issues, but we must make sure worker safety and health issues are upfront and personal and in the mix. The reality is we (safety and health) have more leading and trailing indicators than the other issues and could be used to lead by example.” —John Henshsaw, former assistant secretary of labor for OSHA

“The tipping point has been reached because leaders have recognized the need and the value of addressing the human dynamics of safety, beyond the engineering and enforcement aspects of traditional safety.

“The tragedy of 9/11 may have contributed to the belief that efforts to address the human dynamics of safety are worth the effects we expect to get. We now realize we must do more than give ‘rah-rah’ motivational speeches.

Professionals feel more competent and confident at addressing the human dynamics of safety. They feel more empowered.” —Dr. E. Scott Geller