Do you believe the United States is in the midst of a “fundamental reorientation of the American character,” to use the words of pollster John Zogby? Or are our attitudes and behaviors simply adjusting to this recession, and we’ll revert to our old “orientation,” however you want to interpret that, once this storm passes?

Zogby argues, based on zillions of polls and interviews he has conducted during the past decade, that we are on our way to becoming a society that is “less materialistic, less tolerant of baloney, more practical and more closely linked to the rest of the world,” he was quoted as saying in The New York Times.

To be sure, changes of all sorts are occurring around us at what seems dizzying speed.

The Big Three U.S. automakers, it’s been said, must fundamentally change how they operate to survive. The banking system is obviously ripe for systemic change. Our foreign policies with numerous countries, particularly in the Middle East and Far East, are under review and subject to new strategies. The same goes for the country’s position on climate change. Our energy consumption must become greener, less oily, according to the White House. The nation’s highways, bridges, tunnels, our concrete and asphalt infrastructure, is in for massive rebuilding. Healthcare coverage, patient safety, pharmaceutical marketing, education, labor laws, the Internet grid, the unemployment safety net are all subject to near-term Washington intervention. Creative destruction is wreaking havoc in mass communications, with newspapers disappearing, network news watched by a dwindling audience, and web sites and Internet feeds increasingly becoming primary news sources.

What about the profession of occupational safety and health?

Current status

Sure, the profession has taken its share of blows in this recession. What job, other than coal miners and debt collectors, hasn’t? Pros with outstanding resumes are out of work. Consultants are scrambling to hold onto clients.

A compliance officer in California emailed me: “In the private sector, most of the big employers have outsourced a lot of the (EHS) work, so there are not many people to lay off anymore. What takes the hit is funding for outside consultants to come in and do ‘preventive maintenance’ type of work. So my impression is that a lot of the PM type monitoring, hazard evaluation, extra training when not legally required, is going to go by the wayside. Emergency situations will be dealt with, but the old list of routine activities is in for a significant reduction.”

Return to old ways?

Sooner (hopefully) or later the country will pull out of this recession. But do you seriously believe “things” — everything from loan policies to energy consumption to news consumption to foreign relations to how companies manage safety and health programs — will all return to their previous “orientation,” to use pollster Zoby’s term?

Cynics, who are never in short supply, will assert yes, old habits run deep. But when talking about the occupational safety and health profession’s future, I say the timing couldn’t be better for a “fundamental reorientation.” In fact, I’ll up the ante and say it is overdue and essential. Not regarding the profession’s character, which will always be grounded in a unique mix of science, passion, empathy, and initiative. What must change is how professionals communicate to the world at large — to management, employees, the media, politicians, the public — all who, let’s be honest, give workplace safety and health little thought unless a crane topples over in Manhattan or a refinery blows in Texas.

Workplace safety and health is too narrowly defined by accidents, incidents, losses, call them what you will, they are negatives. Plus, the word “safety” does not inspire or motivate commitment. “Health” is more readily embraced by society. “Safety” reminds us of school safety patrols, seat belts, NASCAR SAFER Barriers or public safety — policing, firefighting, inspecting restaurants.

The profession, for long-term sustainability’s sake, needs to communicate that it is about more than inspecting, patrolling, policing, putting out fires, and reacting. These characterizations are old school and restraining. I agree with Carl Metzgar, CSP, a longtime safety and loss control consultant in Winston-Salem, N.C., who recently wrote a letter to me (yes, not an email) in which he commented, “Boy, do I hate that misused, misunderstood, meaningless word.”

Carl was referring to the word “safety.”

Good riddance

Let’s get rid of it. No, we can’t do that. It’s in the title of our magazine, of every other similar magazine, just about all the major professional societies, and maybe a hundred thousand business cards.

But we can begin to expand the profession’s vocabulary and self-definition. I offer up the term “risk” as a substitute for “safety” in many instances.

In a paper on reinventing OSHA, Gary Rosenblum, CIH, writes, “The game must be changed, and risk management should be used to do this. Risk management is many things, but focusing on reducing uncertainty and increasing desired outcomes by scientific anticipation and effective flexibility is a big part of it.

“Today businesses are in dire straits and looking to cut costs drastically. It is inevitable that without dramatic change, business will stop investing in safety and health, with the hopes that perhaps the downside won’t be that bad. This is bad risk management. Risk management means protecting assets against loss from an uncertain world by reducing risks wherever they may be.”

Put aside the evidence that financial risk management went out the window in the past ten years. “Risk” resonates and grabs the attention of managers, reporters, consumers, and yes, students considering a career in occupational safety and health.

Its applications are expansive. Think of its association to “enterprise,” “exposure,” “value,” “ethics,” “vulnerability,” “uncertainty,” “liability,” “assets,” “assessments,” “severity,” “outcomes,” “perceptions,” “behavior,” “decision analysis,” “scenario planning,” “investments,” “communication,” “protection,” “security” and “management.”

We’re overdue to bring about an expanded reorientation of how people think about workplace safety, how the profession defines itself, and how it’s understood by those outside the field.