Where Have All the Workers Gone?”

That was the title of a blog in The New Yorker in February of this year. Accompanying it was a large color photo of a vast Amazon warehouse, crammed with what appears to be hundreds of thousands of products on racks and shelving and piles upon piles of packages ready to be shipped. Look closely and you see one lone worker pushing a cart down an aisle. It’s like a “Find Waldo” exercise.

The blog talks about the “archetypal” worker in recent decades being a store greeter at Wal-Mart. References are made to “post-industrial America,” “the service economy,” the demise of factory life, the invisibility of modern workers, “companies with no physical presence or human face.” The blog ends saying what a good reminder it would be “if every time you clicked BUY, searched for an article, or texted a friend, your screen flashed the face of a worker who once held a job that made way for your seamless online experience.”

Have all the blue collars gone overseas?

The New Yorker piece got us thinking. If “all the workers” have been replaced by automation, robots, ecommerce, Wal-Mart greeters and cheap service industry jobs, who is left to wear gloves, respirators, hard hats, work boots and fall protection? How can you have a personal protective equipment (PPE) market if you have no blue collar workers?

But wait.

  • MSA, in the same month (February) The New Yorker piece was posted, announced record fourth quarter earnings.
  • W.W. Grainger, the country’s largest safety products distributor, with 18 percent of all its product sales in the safety and security space, has grown to a $9.4 billion giant.
  • Other traditional MRO distributors such as MSC and Fastenal, plus specialty gases and hardgoods distributor Airgas, have expanded their safety sales footprint in recent years.
  • Recent annual conferences of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) have set records for the number of exhibitors and exhibitor floor space.
  • The Safety Marketing Group has increased in size to become a network of approximately 180 locations and 500 outside and 500 inside focused safety sales experts. SMG is comprised of independently-owned safety equipment distributors in North America, and its members have combined annual sales in excess of $900 million, according to the group.
  • The Qualified Safety Sales Professional (QSSP) one-week training course for safety manufacturer and distributor sales and marketing personnel has sold out its seats for its two yearly workshops for years now, and has “graduated” more than 1,200 attendees since its start in the mid-1990s.

The mature behemoth

Clearly, all the workers have not gone off to low-risk or no-risk jobs in retail, hospitality and finance. In fact, mechanical insulation workers; brickmasons, stonemasons and tile and marble setters; and electricians’ helpers are among the fastest-growing occupations in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

To be sure, the PPE market in the U.S. in 2014 is mature. Suppliers have consolidated. Small family-owned safety distributorships, many founded in the post-WWII boom years, have shrunk in numbers. The Safety Equipment Distributors Association (SEDA) is no more. The U.S. economy has shifted from smokestacks to services. Untold numbers of dangerous “dirty jobs” have moved off-shore in the global economy. Union membership nationwide has been on a decades-long slide.

But the U.S. PPE market is by no means some sort of ghost market.

The U.S. economy is enormous, the world’s largest single national economy. It runs wide and runs deep. It’s horizontal: covering a diverse range of industries including oil and gas, mining, construction, steel, motor vehicles, food processing, aerospace, telecommunications, chemicals, lumber, farming and pharmaceuticals.

It’s vertical: covering enterprises ranging in size from one-person start-ups to family-owned small businesses; mid-size firms with hundreds of employees; and large multinational corporations with thousands and thousands of employees.

The U.S. economy had a GDP of $17.4 trillion as of January, 2014, and a labor force of 155.6 million. It produces the largest industrial output in the world. Twenty percent of the labor force is represented by manufacturing, extraction, transportation and crafts.

Where the production jobs are

Research uncovers big numbers of potential PPE users:

  • In 2014, manufacturing industry production and nonsupervisory occupations totaled 8,594,170 positions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • The construction industry began the year with 4,487,000 production and nonsupervisory employees – and that’s with an unemployment rate of 12.3 percent in January.
  • Oil and gas, and mining, has 596,200 production and non-supervisory employees.
  • Transportation (air, rail, water, truck, transit, couriers and the postal service) and warehousing has a workforce of 3,955,600.
  • Utilities have 444,900 production and nonsupervisory employees.
  • The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimated there were 30,125 fire departments in the United States in 2010. Fire departments registered with the U.S. Fire Administration’s census are staffed by approximately 1,190,000 personnel.

Still alive and well

Anyone who has been in the safety industry for a few decades does not wear rose-colored safety specs; it’s widely acknowledged the business is not what it once was.

Looking back, there was that too brief, shining moment (which actually ran from the late 1960s to the early to mid 1990s) when the demand for PPE soared, powered by the country’s peak levels of industrialization and the regulations and enforcement of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

This was when “safety awareness” transitioned from being recognized by mostly large operations in dangerous businesses to a much broader and more diverse audience.

When safety jobs went from “old uncle Joe” with his thumb missing to college graduates with degrees in occupational safety and health and industrial hygiene.

This was when OSHA was cranking out upwards of 80,000 inspections per year, about double the number it conducts these days.

When it didn’t take 16 years to publish a new safety standard.

Before downsizing turned many industrial hygienists into corporate refugees who reinvented themselves as consultants.

Before words and phrases such as “offshoring,” “globalization,” “right-sizing” and “running lean and mean” became business mantras.

Still, the U.S. PPE market has proven itself resilient. Manufacturers and distributors know how to find the buyers, and are more educated about safety. They have taken commodity products and surrounded them with an ever-increasing array of services – training, auditing, risk assessments, repair and maintenance work, technical reference libraries, on-call “safety solution experts.” There is less compliance selling and more partnering to build safety cultures. You might say maturity is the mother of reinvention.