I would look outside the EHS arena, which gets too lost in being OSHA-centric, for answers to some of the questions that confront the future of the EHS profession.
I think the world of Risk Management and Insurance and the Liability Environment play a much bigger role in corporate decision-making when it comes to occupational safety. I think companies of all sizes care what their insurers think about their safety management far more than what OSHA thinks of them.
I think the company Risk Manager has the ear of the c-suite because of focus on the cost of risk, now being analyzed using big data to establish “efficient frontiers,” and levels for “risk appetite.” (Small companies have their insurer play the role of risk manager and EHS pro.)
Risk Management is much more of a corporate driver of behavior right to the very top of the organization. By being subsidized through workers’ comp, occupational safety -- which is a mere fraction of the combined cost of all EHS&S and other related risks -- is financially insignificant in comparison, especially in larger corporations.
When everyone looks to OSHA as the functionary that makes things go in companies, I think they miss opportunities to solve many problems. For example, I think the entire problem with updating PELs could be swiftly solved by forgetting about OSHA as both the creator and police for exposure limits, and instead lobby for legislative change the liability environment around occupational exposure limits.
Corporations do not minimize attention to occupational safety out of spite of the EHS profession or out of evil, but because it is a very small element in the risk frontier, and it makes business sense to pay attention to the big ticket items on the cost of risk equation.
It is not a matter of demographics why EHS management is not front and center for the c-suite. For example, the cost of liability for an environmental disaster, process safety disaster, product liability disaster and reputation risk disaster are full market value liabilities. They are very expensive to mitigate to a level of acceptable risk, which to a CEO does not mean “low probability,” it means it is insurable at an affordable price. If the risk of catastrophic loss is too great for insurers to take on, they will price the cost of the risk so high, a company would have to self-insure, which is very costly in terms of using corporate dollars, or it would have to get out of the business. When these decisions are made the cost of regulatory risk from OSHA is comparatively miniscule and never decisive.
On the issue of demographics impacting the EHS world, to me it is more complex than just the middle class versus whatever other classes are against it. What seems more important to the future of EHS is a combination of understanding how EHS expert work is changing, and the demographics of the profession.
There are problems with both ends of the career pipeline, with a majority of the seasoned pros who are running organizations going to be retired in five years, and a drought of new professionals at the other end of the pipeline who are not filling the tank fast enough.
However, advances in both EHS management theory and technology may mean that fewer real EHS professionals are going to be needed. The key question is going to be, as the seasoned pros retire and the lack of new professionals is not solved, what does an EHS professional do, why are any needed?
Modern EHS theory calls for employee engagement and participation, which is essentially democratization of the EHS expertise. Current EHS pros are reluctant to give up their expert status in favor of democratization. Modern technology can replace much of the expertise, through combining instant access to information, and complex analysis of big data.
EHS big data has power in democratizing expertise, and combining EHS management with operational management, which is a hallmark of very safe companies. But my point here for EHS demographics is that the younger generation, whether they are middle class strivers or not, trusts big data, and trusts democratization of data. This means that the right side of history is going to be to embrace things like safety data transparency on the internet, not stonewall it, and the true ability to put EHS data collection in the hands of the workers (whether that is involuntary or voluntary).
It also means that an EHS expert is going to need to understand risk; cost of risk; data and the democratization of expertise; have the ability to know EHS data, how to collect it, synergize it, get the right data product into the hands of the right people at the right time; and not worry so much as to what OSHA is doing and whether there is a working middle class to protect.