By Dave Johnson, ISHN Editor

Well, we made it - another mad dash through the holidays and into the New Year. Got a question for you: In the spirit of giving, how many times did you hunt for the lowest price you could find? These days, there is always someplace you can turn for a better deal Ñ a dot-com, a big-box retailer, a mail order catalog.

Purchased a PC lately? How about hooking up to the Internet? Or booking a flight or buying electricity?

So many options, so little time.

No wonder brand loyalty ain't what it used to be. I remember a neighbor who bought a new Chevy religiously every two years when I was growing up. We were a Ford family, which naturally led to a friendly backyard feud. Seems quaint by today's standards, doesn't it?

Now we're overrun with alternatives.

Think about it. There are hundreds of professional certifications to choose from today. Steve Levine, president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association, wrote a challenging piece in the AIHA's The Synergist explaining how the association must avoid becoming a commodity. Distinctions between groups like AIHA and the American Society of Safety Engineers are disappearing. ASSE has a division catering to industrial hygienists. AIHA considers changing its name to include safety. If you're shopping for an association, what's the difference?

Electoral lessonPeople become commodities, too. The Bush-Gore election was so close in part because the candidates were so cautious they turned vanilla. Most voters had little time or interest in studying policy positions to get a taste for their differences. Plus, many believed it didn't matter who got the job because everything today seems under control.

Sounds like safety and health, to me. Most business execs don't spend much time studying safety, and don't see what it contributes. (Only 41 percent of ISHN's readers say managers understand their safety problems.) This leads to commodity thinking. In these hyper-competitive, earnings-conscious times, why spend any more on safety and health than the minimum? Especially if your injury rates and workers' comp costs are below industry norms - which is often the case today - and OSHA fines are usually pocket change.

So bring in consultants to manage entire safety and health programs. Or use contract employees. Or have rookies replace early retirees. Maybe technology can do some of the work. Or part-timers. If you're a commodity product, what's the difference?

Making a differenceHow do you avoid this trap? "

“Marry the boss's daughter," offers one safety pro.

Other strategies sound equally familiar, though less risky: be willing to take on a broader scope of work; figure out what added areas of emphasis (product safety, groundwater risk assessment, return-to-work case management, etc.) are important to your company; do work no one else knows how to; find a niche; get your MBA; earn credentials; publish articles; show character; show bottom line results; take chances; leverage your passion for protecting people; think like GE's Jack Welch, rap like Oprah, solve mysteries like Sherlock Holmes. You get the idea.

We sure get it when it comes to our kids. We market and promote 'em, coach and prepare 'em to be anything but "Brand X". Bumper stickers for honor students. String ensemble in the morning, science club after school, extra-credit and extracurricular this and that to show initiative and leadership. After all, we know how competitive it is "out there." Obviously, the same holds true for ourselves. And as we tell our kids, there are no guarantees. You can make all the right moves and still have the trap door open under you. But preparation helps you bounce back up. So what will you be doing to position yourself this year?