BEST PRACTICES: Workplace safety as a public health issue
Did you know you were adopted? Maybe not you personally, but your field of work as an “Occupational Health and Safety Specialist and Technician” was adopted by the public health workforce. Your branch of the family tree is located at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) System under number 29-9010. See www.bls.gov/soc/2010/soc299010.htm. Occupational activities under this number include: “Review, evaluate, and analyze work environments and design programs and procedures to control, eliminate, and prevent disease or injury caused by chemical, physical, and biological agents or ergonomic factors.” If this is what you do, then your occupation is part of the public health workforce. Your branch of the family tree sprouts from SOC number 29-0000 Healthcare Practitioners and Technical Occupations. Occupational titles under 29-0000 include physicians and surgeons, pharmacists, optometrists, audiologists, and nurses.
Adoption may not be the most correct description. More specifically, the public health workforce sought you out while conducting genealogy in the report: The Public Health Workforce: An Agenda for the 21st Century (www.health.gov/phfunctions/pubhlth.pdf). The report recommended new occupational categories for the field of public health including “Occupational Safety and Health Specialist” that include job titles such as industrial hygienist and safety inspector. The category holds whether one works in a public or private organization. As a result of the recommendation, you now have BLS’s official sanction that your occupation is no longer an orphan child that may live with a small family in the house of ASSE, AIHA, IHMM or whatever. You are part of the large family of public health with relatives of great importance.
As an orphan occupation you may have felt isolated and marginalized. As part of the public health family, however, your occupation to keep workplaces safe integrates into a healthy society far more than you may have ever imagined.
Healthy people: Social determinants of health
In December 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued their Healthy People 2020 agenda, “the nation’s new 10-year goals and objectives for health promotion and disease prevention.” See www. healthypeople.gov/2020/default.aspx. According to the HHS, Healthy People 2020 “is the product of an extensive stakeholder process that is unparalleled in government and health. It integrates input from public health experts, a wide range of federal, state and local government officials, a consortium of more than 2,000 organizations, and perhaps the most importantly, the public.”
Within Healthy People 2020, safety of workplaces is found in the new category “Social Determinants of Health.” What’s in this category beside safety of workplaces? Among other things there is quality of education. Social determinants of health hold to the premise that people who live in neighborhoods with safe parks, good schools, and high employment rates are provided with some of the key requirements to better health. Moreover, according to HHS, “Improving the conditions in which people live, learn, work, and play and addressing the interrelationship between these conditions will create a healthier population and a healthier workforce.” Further, “Integrating health policy efforts with those related to education, housing, business, transportation, agriculture, media, and other areas outside the health sector will ultimately improve the health, safety, and prosperity of the Nation.”
The concept that safety in the workplace is a social determinant of health has strong global support. ISO standard 26000:2010 Guidance on Social Responsibility (final release October 2010) was developed and approved by the largest multi-stake holder group ever to work on an ISO standard. Health and safety at work falls within the core subject of Labour Practices. Labour practices interrelate with the other ISO 26000 core subjects: Human Rights; Community Involvement and Development; Consumer Issues; Fair Operating Practices; and, The Environment. ISO 26000 and Healthy People 2020 have many parallels. Most significantly, both stress integration of seemingly separate topics to achieve not only better health but also a better world.
For the occupational health and safety pro that spends most of their time on the shop floor, it is hard to see how the big picture of safety in the workplace relates to concepts such as high employment rates, as does HHS and ISO. Nevertheless, we must give these organizations their due, especially when we acknowledge that HHS’s views are the “product of an extensive stakeholder process that is unparalleled in government and health” and ISO was developed and approved “by the largest multi-stake holder group ever to work on an ISO standard.” Assuming that HHS and ISO are correct with the big picture, does this change how the OHS pro performs their work?
The big picture view of your work offers many opportunities. One opportunity is to re-brand yourself as serving in an occupation within the field of public health. The way you go about this, particularly if you seek to integrate your role within the full core subjects of ISO 26000, or leverage against Healthy People 2020, may hold promise where you work now or where you may work later. The information before you is generally new and change is possible. Remember, particularly at the executive level, management views sway as new information becomes available (actually considering new views is a best management practice as identified in ISO 31000:2009 Risk Management - Principles and Guidelines on Implementation).
Re-brand to gain a stronger identity has merit. For example, one of the things that limits the growth and influence of the OHS profession is a lack of identity. Dave Johnson points this out in his editorial: A house divided? Where’s the consensus in the OHS field (ISHN January 2011). Dave says, “The OHS profession struggles with communicating its role and value to executives, law-makers and the public and in trying to get better press coverage. Its ‘brand identity,’ 40 years after OSHA created a booming demand for professionals, is not strong.”
Although the public workforce has its faults, one thing it does very well is promote its brand. Even though the public health workforce is highly diverse, its participants tend to pull the rope in the direction. Why was “occupational health and safety specialist” sought out as a new category in the field of public health? Strength in numbers was one objective. The American Industrial Hygiene Association’s 2011-2015 Strategic Plan acknowledges that IH is a discipline under the umbrella of public health. Safety groups, such as ASSE, or individuals may now consider that they, too, are under the same umbrella. Imagine the possibilities if everyone under the same umbrella pull the rope in the same direction.
What should you do with this information? Imagine if you were told that Oprah Winfrey is your half-sister. Having a new influential relative offers many opportunities. The BLS gives official sanction that your occupational relatives include physicians and surgeons, pharmacists, optometrists, audiologists, and nurses. Should you wait and hope someone helps you to re-brand or should you take self-initiative? If you subscribe to the wisdom of ISO 31000 “not pursuing an opportunity” is a risk. Therefore, you have options: do something or do nothing with the information. At the very least, if you see no value in re-branding, there should be value in rethinking your occupational role and integration into the big picture.