For nearly three decades I’ve interviewed safety and health professionals and never have come across a whimp. Maybe whimps shy away from reporters, I don’t know…

My “American Heritage Dictionary” published in 1981 doesn’t have a definition for “whimp.” So I turn to Google, and find about 133,000 results for my question, “What is a whimp?”

Turns out Bush is a whimp. Fed Reserve Bank Chairman Bernanke is a whimp. God is not a whimp. John Kerry was a whimp. Then there is this post from a beleaguered blogger: “Hello. I need some good advice here. I recognize that I am a huge wimp, and I want to take action to improve myself.” He proceeds to provide a fair enough description of a whimp: “What it comes down to is I do not know how to fight and I am afraid of conflict. When there is a potential for conflict, I get anxiety. Confrontation just seems scary.”

Comes with the territory

Conflict and confrontation might as well be part of the job description for a safety and health manager. Not all safety and health people know how to “talk management’s language” or “sell safety” or “make the value-add proposition for safety.” But most can tell you something about turf battles and angry employees.

The notion that safety and health pros have a good bit of fight in them will leave a number of labor union safety leaders shaking their heads. They commonly characterize safety and health management as lapdogs of industry. “They won’t bite the hand that feeds ’em. They won’t put their jobs on the line,” labor activists complain. Such comments are often made in a political context, coming from armchair analysts confined to Washington, D.C., with no line responsibility for anyone’s safety on the job.

The character of safety and health people came to mind after watching Tommy Lee Jones, the veteran grizzled actor, play Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in the movie, “No Country for Old Men.” He’s laconic, experienced, perceptive, patient, philosophical, hardened, good at his job and frustrated at the same time. In one scene he tells another sheriff, Roscoe, “I used to think I could at least some way put things right. I don’t feel that way no more.”

In our most recent White Paper survey, many safety and health pros would seem to share that kind of sentiment. Only 35 percent believed their level of effectiveness on the job increased in the past year. Only 29 percent expressed a greater sense of job satisfaction.

Sharpening the edge

Old Ed Tom turns in his badge at the end of “No Country for Old Men.” Some safety and health vets change careers, take early retirements. Some walk away from unacceptable jobs and conditions. Some try to ride it out. Many of the ones I’ve met remind me of Ed Tom — and I mean women and men. They’re open, congenial, down to earth. Philosophical about human nature and the nature of business. Intuitive. Like to laugh over a beer.

They read people well, often go with their gut, pick their battles and fight for their people, as well as their careers, the best they can. Close encounters with regulators, violators, bean-counters, empty suits and victims’ families harden many over the years. You don’t need the weathered, deep-lined face of Tommy Lee Jones. But I’ve met many a pro as blunt and steely-eyed as many of Jones’s characters.

Back in the saddle

I received an email from one just the other day. “It’s nice finally to be back working in a profession that I love so dearly after being on the street for almost 18 months. Of course in that time, the doctors said that I would give them the next 12 months of my life when we discovered that I had cancer at the base of my tongue. During my outplacement the VP of HR told me companies were looking for senior, experienced safety people for continuity. What he failed to mention was they only wanted to pay for seven to ten, or even five to seven, years of experience. I decided to bite the bullet and do my thing with the federal government.”

He’s four weeks into his new job as an emergency management coordinator for a Veteran’s Administration health system. “There is a lot to learn in a short time and I am committed to do my best to make sure that in the event of a local, regional or national catastrophe, my DECON team and our facilities are ready to do our part when the whistle blows.”

No excuses

Then there was this email response to our White Paper findings about rising stress levels, work hours and job responsibilities — while budgets stagnate and staffs continue to be cut. “We give entirely too much credit to the drive by the media to set the mental and emotional state in this country. For me, things are just not that bad and I was out of work for 18 months recovering from cancer. I am so tired of the ‘woe is me’ crowd. It’s BS.”

Resilience. It will be a workshop topic — “Taming the Roller Coaster: Resilience in Action” — at this year’s American Society of Safety Engineers’ annual conference in Las Vegas. According to the course description, “Riding the roller coaster of life and our ability to employ resilience during the ups and downs can make the difference between our success and failure in our life and on the job.”

Been there, done that

Jan Northrup, the instructor, may be preaching to the choir. Last year in ISHN we profiled several pros who have ridden that coaster, been laid off, paid off with enticing exit packages, relocated or reassigned. They’ve reassessed their lives, and have come back for more. “I’ve changed gears and couldn’t be happier,” said Steve Damsker, a risk control insurance rep who shot up and down the slippery corporate ladder ride.

Another pro morphed from a Manhattan-based multinational globetrotter to a small rural campus EHS civil servant. “No worries, mate,” he told a friend. He’s taking on “competency issues top to bottom,” “misplaced people” and “smoke and mirrors communications.” His attitude? “It’s all great fun, learning about new leverage points.”

Moving on

For all today’s buzz about coaching, caring, actively listening and emotional intelligence, workplace safety and health is no country for couch counselors. (Though a pro of many years once said one of his roles was Father Confessor.) Our columnist Dan Markiewicz, a CIH and ex-Marine, was laid off from his corporate job years ago and never looked back, figuring out niches for his consulting business. Ernie Huelke, a CSP in Chicago, wrote in ISHN last year of firing a man “I considered more than a work acquaintance,” a 13-year veteran employee. “Our conversations reflected milestones associated with both family and work… I am truly sorry that he could not keep his job, yet I am gladdened that his children will not become fatherless because of his oversights here.”

Pulling no punches

Then we have the late safety pioneer Dan Petersen, who spent more than 50 years telling it like he saw it. “(OSHA) is looked upon as the answer when it’s not,” he said in an interview published in Professional Safety. Or how about this: “We’ve effectively talked ourselves out of working on stress because we don’t like people being stressed.” Or this: “There’s too much observation stuff going on, which is overrated in terms of benefit.”

In “No Country for Old Men,” there’s a scene where Sheriff Ed Tom sips coffee at a café, reading the newspaper. He describes to his deputy, Wendell, a story from California about a couple who rented rooms to old people, then tortured and killed them, buried the bodies in the yard, and cashed their social security checks.
“My lord,” he says. “It’s just flat-out war. Who are these folks? I don’t know…
“I feel overmatched,” he tells an old, retired officer at the end of the film.

Reviewing options

More than a few safety and health pros have felt overmatched, or undermined, at some time or other. Some pack it in. Or maneuver around. Or line up allies for a fight. Or as the late Charlie Hart, a no-nonsense safety hand at a Texas Exxon chemical plant, used to ask: “Just tell me how much safety you want around here.” If Charlie didn’t like the answer, he’d review his options. But he never whimped out. — Dave Johnson, Editor