Good Friday,

The mother of all U.S. safety trade shows, the National Safety Congress & Expo, was held this week in San Diego. Cloudy, rainy San Diego.

It didn’t dampen the spirits of the sponsoring National Safety Council officials. They told us attendance was up at least 12 percent, to about 11,000, and exhibitors numbered 770, up about 40 from last year.

It wouldn’t be a Safety Congress without a speech from the OSHA chief. We remember OSHA boss Thorne Auchter addressing a packed ballroom at the 1981 Congress, held in Chicago’s Conrad Hilton Hotel. A mid-30ish construction company executive from Florida who did fund raising for President Reagan, known as the “Marlboro Man” for his good looks, safety pros hung on his every word, not knowing if he had taken the job to kill OSHA. Reagan had promised to trim back the regulatory thicket, and used the then 10-year-old OSHA as a poster child of regulators run amuck. “STOP OSHA” was the name of a D.C. lobbying group.

Of course politics being politics and bureaucracies virtually bulletproof, Auchter ended up presiding over the expansion of OSHA’s powers via the 1983 publication of the hearing conservation amendment (following administrative stays and multiple lawsuits), and soon after he left in 1984 OSHA issued its landmark hazard communication standard in 1985.

Auchter son’s was killed working on a silo implosion in 2000. Showing the flexibility and resourcefulness important to all OSHA chiefs, Auchter followed his stint at the agency with executive positions at the Associated General Contractors, The Grace News Network, The Golf Life Institute, and is currently in charge of government liaison for Fire Recovery USA, which describes its work thusly: “In the most basic terms, we bill the responsible party for the costs a fire department incurs to mitigate an emergency incident.”

But we digress…

Dr. David Michaels, the current OSHA chief, spoke on Tuesday and lobbied for his pet project, the Injury and Illness Prevention Program standard, aka I2P2. This rulemaking, not even at the proposal stage yet, is gathering momentum within the agency akin to the ill-fated ergo standard that was pushed through in the last hours of the Clinton administration in 2000. I2P2 would require every employer to a have a plan, produced in consultation with the workforce, for “finding and fixing” workplace hazards, according to Dr. Michaels.

At the NSC, the OSHA head honcho said he was preaching to the choir, with attendees already having an approximation of I2P2 in place. But he said he needed the support of the safety profession in the coming war with business trade groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, who will opposed the standard with the same gusto they mustered against the ergo rule (which of course was overturned in 2001 at the behest of the Bush administration).

If one thing has happened to the safety profession in the past 30 years, it is that it has wearied of the politicization of workplace safety. The field is dominated by Baby Boomers age 40-60 who have spent their entire careers watching OSHA tossed like the proverbial political football between Republicans and Democrats. Again, politics being the strange, dark art that it is, OSHA has been more ambitious under a Republican apppointee such as Jerry Scannell, who proposed a motor vehicle standard, than under a Democratic selection such as Joe Dear, who aimed to reinvent the agency into a more customer-friendly operation.

The never-ending politicization of OSHA is probably why safety pros have turned their attention to such non-compliance issues as behavior-based safety (which took off in the mid-1990s and today is embedded as a standard part of many if not most safey programs) and in the past ten years the building of organizational cultures of safety.

“Culture” was the buzzword at this year’s NSC in San Diego. Almost a dozen technical sessions included the word in their title. The topic has received so much attention in the past decade or so it threatens to become empty of its true meaning. “Culture” is tossed around in conversation like another program, which would be disastrous to the profession. It is a powerful force for positive change in corporations if pursued with sincerity, patience, investment and broad, sustainable support.

But it can take years to change corporate values and long-held beliefs about worker safety, and possibly require dismantling old, rusting safety infrastructures and installing new, perhaps expensive management systems.

The corporate world is not known for its patience or investments when it comes to matters of worker safety, and so the safety profession must be on guard against the corruption of culture into something superficial and good for PR spin.

The I2P2 standard could be argued as the government’s way of building company safety cultures. But a culture is about much more than finding and fixing hazards. Its more than a technical exercise. There is a “hearts and minds” aspect to culture that cannot be force-fed or regulated. It’s organic and does not grow well in command and control environments.