This year I have attended two small, niche trade association meetings â€” the International Glove Association and the International Safety Equipment Association â€” and both lived up to their names in terms of their international focus.
These two meetings combined were attended by only perhaps 100 business executives of PPE companies, for the most part. Firms range from behemoths such as DuPont, 3M, Honeywell and Kimberly-Clark to much, much smaller single-product line manufacturers.
Regardless of revenue size, these execs spent most of their time talking and asking questions about international markets for safety gear. They shared war stories over drinks and dinner about rush hour traffic gridlock in Sao Paulo, especially if it rains; getting Chinese businessmen toasted on liquor and then cutting deals late in the evening; Argentina as a terribly tightly regulated country to do business in; Paraguay as a wild west frontier; the A+A gigantic safety trade fair in Dusseldorf, Germany; promising markets in Eastern Europe.
You’d hear again and again: “Last week I was in Shanghai.” “Next week I’m heading to Brazil.” “I’m going home tomorrow. It’s been three weeks since I’ve been home.”
You heard speakers expound on international topics: global supply chain disruptions; tariffs; currency exchanges; countries rich and poor in raw materials; GDP growth in China and India; commodity prices around the world for cotton, leather, etc.
What you did not hear was talk about good ole OSHA. For years these trade association meetings were dominated by OSHA talk. OSHA officials would fly out and address the execs. Government affairs directors would dissect what standards were coming next.
That was then, this is now, as the saying goes. Decades of OSHA inaction have pushed the agency to the margins of relevancy in terms of being a driver for safety product sales. The current political climate, where the need for jobs, jobs, jobs trumps any regulation seen as even remotely burdensome to business, shrinks OSHA further in the rearview mirror of business execs who see the future of safety product sales in the countries with cheap labor in need of PPE, in countries with emerging safety regulatory bureaucracies; and in countries with growth potential outstripping the U.S.
These execs by no means have given up on the U.S. market for safety equipment. They’ve got the U.S. market covered like moss on a stone, with long-standing business relationships with local and national safety distributors, and seasoned sales reps criss-crossing territories. The U.S. is where it all started for the modern safety economy. But it started at least 40 years ago when OSHA first arrived on the scene with a plethora of new standards that spiked sales for hard hats, goggles, respirators, gloves, earplugs, fall protection and many, many other product lines. Forty years in the age of the Internet and globalization is long ago and far away. The world was smaller then, it’s so much larger than that now.