When she embarked on a career in the safety field, Kelli Heflin, Ph.D., realized she could help prevent the same types of fatal occupational injuries and illnesses that had affected her own family. In addition to losing her grandfather to an illness likely caused by workplace exposures in the chemical industry, Heflin also lost an uncle who suffered a fatal fall while working in construction. Now, as a regulatory compliance and safety manager at Scott’s Liquid Gold, Heflin sees her work as an opportunity.
“I realized I could make a difference,” she explains. “I had this happen to me and I don’t want any other families to have to go through that.”
Heflin was one of more than 1,100 safety professionals (and industrial hygienists, consultants, HR professionals, company presidents, CEOs and more) who responded to EHS Today’s annual National Safety Survey. The survey covered a variety of topics near and dear to the hearts of EHS professionals, including emerging regulatory issues; budget concerns; management’s role in safety; Dr. David Michaels’ performance as OSHA administrator; and more.
A common thread that surfaced in many responses was the acknowledgment that EHS professionals must sell safety to the work force.
“At the end of the day, we’re salesmen. I’m selling to someone reasons why they should go home with 10 fingers, 10 toes, two hands, two feet and a back that works,” says Fred Pearson, EHS manager for Hoerbiger. “I explain to them that at the end of the day, if a guy breaks his arm or hurts his back or something worse, I still get in my car, go home and see my wife and kids. He’s the one who can’t.”
The Heart of the Matter
When asked, “What is the most important thing you do to improve safety and health in your organization?” many EHS leaders opened their responses with active words: Engage. Communicate. Act. Educate. Evaluate. Encourage. One respondent said, “I am highly visible on the shop floor” while another wrote, “I live it and set the example.”
“I talk to the employees, engage them in the program and encourage them to participate in our world-class program,” one participant wrote. “The ones who benefit from the program are the ones who participate and go home safely every day or night.”
Of course, even if employees are sold on safety, heart and mind, that doesn’t meant EHS professionals can take it easy.
“As safety professionals, we have to focus on what we have been tasked with, which is keeping our work force safe, providing education to our work force to make that attainment that much easier on them and to get people involved through training and shaping what policies should be,” Heflin explained.
Or as one respondent put it, his job is “to make safety first in the hearts and minds of field supervision.”
I2P2: Band-Aid or Real Fix?
One of the potential new regulations that could impact how EHS professionals do their jobs and engage the work force is OSHA’s Injury and Illness Prevention Program (I2P2), an initiative that would require employers to “find and fix” hazards in the workplace. OSHA Administrator Dr. David Michaels has stressed that I2P2 is a special priority for him and for the agency at large. But at this time, few details are available about the proposal, which currently remains in the pre-rule stage.
A survey question asking how EHS professionals felt I2P2 would (or would not) affect workplace safety yielded mixed responses. One respondent called it “an administrative albatross,” another called it “a passing fad,” yet another referred to it as a mere Band-Aid and one EHS professional dubbed the proposal “a ridiculous redundancy.”
“Part of the problem is we haven’t seen it. We saw a list of questions, a generic outline, but that was all,” says Christopher M. Gates, ARM, a risk control specialist for the County of San Bernardino in California. He thinks I2P2 might be beneficial, however, if implemented as a performance standard.
“I2P2 hopefully will be a scalable program that can be adjusted to the size of the company depending on how much staff they have,” Gates adds.
Heflin, meanwhile, says I2P2 and VPP essentially are the same program – except I2P2 would be mandatory. She sees this as a problem. Her company previously held VPP status, which she says gave employees a strong sense of pride. But once company management decided to withdraw from VPP for budget-related reasons, employee involvement in safety “really took a dive.”
“If they implement I2P2, we’ll have to redo that entire program … so we’ll be expected to meet those requirements without that recognition,” she explains.
Some respondents doubted the effectiveness of I2P2: “I have witnessed programs like these elsewhere in the world and it creates a lot of paperwork exercises and little value to the front line safety,” an EHS professional wrote. “When companies develop their own [EHS] management system it works best, but when they have to develop a system required by government it grows to a lot of paper work and little value.”
Many other survey participants, however, supported I2P2. “A great initiative,” one respondent said. Others declared it “right on target,” “a good idea” and stressed that “a well-implemented I2P2 would place [the] burden of safe workplaces on employers, where it belongs.”
Others pointed out that companies that already take safety seriously would have a similar plan in place and therefore would not significantly be affected by I2P2. This respondent answered in all caps – you can almost hear the shouting to be heard over the debate:
“FINDING AND FIXING HAZARDS IS WHAT WE SHOULD BE DOING ALREADY.”
Checking for MSDs
Survey participants were just as divided on the proposal to add a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) column back on the OSHA 300 log. If this goes into effect, employers would be compelled to check an MSD box if an already recorded injury meets the definition of an MSD. OSHA first introduced this proposal in January 2010, temporarily withdrew it a year later because of concerns from small businesses and then reopened the record in May.
As with I2P2, responses from survey participants were mixed. Some view the addition of an MSD column as either a good idea or an item of very little consequence, while others referred to it as more red tape, more paperwork and more of a hassle for employers. One participant asserted that an MSD column addition would have “zero impact on worker safety … just another hoop to jump through.”
“An injury is an injury. It doesn’t matter what it’s listed under,” wrote a respondent. “[The] aging work force would just complicate things,” stated another. Someone else proclaimed that the MSD column would be nothing more than “another category to keep track of with little to no impact on [the] actual safety of anyone.”
Gates, meanwhile, is concerned about the technicality of what will qualify as an MSD.
“There is no place as far as I know that defines a musculoskeletal injury,” he says. “It’s not something that doctors typically put in a diagnosis – even occupational health doctors – so it would be very hard for employers who do not have full-time staff to screen the employee injuries.”
He adds that, much like I2P2, large companies likely wouldn’t have a problem complying with this proposal while smaller companies will be challenged. Other survey respondents raised concerns about potential cheating. “Because soft tissue injuries are easily faked, I believe it would produce inaccurate records,” one pointed out.
Pearson adds that this so-called simple addition to the OSHA 300 log actually represents many complexities.
“Throughout our lives – it doesn’t matter if you’re 20 years old or 50 years old – your body has taken some degree of a beating,” Pearson says. “With MSDs, it’s so complex and so tricky to identify what did you do today versus what did you do 20 years ago and how you define the difference of those damages.”
The MSD column, he adds, would require increased pre-employment and new hire screenings and require more thorough job safety analyses for each position. While all of this would result in short-term cost increases, Pearson acknowledges that the long-term effect could be positive. But again, it comes down to an issue of size: large companies might benefit from the increased data, but small companies may be burdened.
In addition to these issues, an elephant lurks in the room: Some survey participants were concerned that the MSD column addition, despite what OSHA might say, is a precursor to an ergonomics standard. As one respondent commented, “[The MSD column] is OSHA’s way of back dooring ergonomics issues into existence.”
Despite all the concern about the MSD column, one of the most popular responses to the question, “What occupational safety and health challenge would you most like to see OSHA address in the coming year?” was, you guessed it, ergonomics.
“This [prevalence of ergonomic injuries] is so debilitating to the worker and costly for the business,” one respondent wrote. Another participant pleaded: “Please put this ongoing issue to bed one way or another. Make a rule or forget about attempts at enforcement of some benign interpretation of the General Duty Clause.”
Ergonomics aside, survey participants selected OSHA most often – at 38 percent – as the occupational safety and health agency they consider to be most effective in meeting its statutory responsibility. (Twenty-two percent chose NIOSH, 18 percent EPA, 15 percent CSB and only 7 percent chose MSHA).
When evaluating OSHA Administrator Dr. David Michaels, the majority of respondents labeled his performance “good” and “average,” at 31 percent and 26 percent, respectively. Six percent rated his performance “fair” and another 6 percent rated it “poor.” A total of 5 percent of respondents rated his performance “excellent.”
Issues safety professionals most wanted to see OSHA address included updating permissible exposure limits; combustible dust; the aging work force; nanotechnology; distracted driving; workplace stress; and more.
One respondent, meanwhile, wasn’t interested in discussing additional regulations at all: “I am not sure that I want to see any further legislation because I don’t think that is the way to resolve issues. I believe safety has to become a moral and ethical priority from the top management down and making it a financial threat will not make it happen.”
Another wrote, “I would like to see a program similar to our European counterparts that measures outcomes, not following rules.”
Safety on a Shoestring
When asked how economic conditions within the last year affected safety programs and budgets, if at all, many respondents reported no significant changes or reductions. Others, however, were not so fortunate.
“It’s very hard asking for thousands of dollars in safety equipment when the company is worried about making payroll. From what I’m hearing from other [EHS] people, I’m not alone in this issue,” one respondent said. Another echoed that struggle, saying it was difficult “to find and keep highly qualified individuals because we only hire them on a temporary basis.”
All told, just over half of survey respondents said their safety budgets held steady in 2011, while 19 percent enjoyed increases (see the chart above for more details). Fourteen percent, however, faced at least some degree of budget cuts. The areas affected most by budget issues included ergonomics programs, incentives, travel and professional development.
“Every employer cuts money in different ways,” explains Gates. “Our biggest loss was the money for our professional training to keep us up to speed with things that are developing in the industry.”
The budget question also fostered discussions of production versus safety. The majority of survey respondents (62 percent) said safety was on par with production at their facilities, but others were concerned that budget difficulties were changing the focus. One EHS leader lamented, “Budgets and manpower have been slashed and a greater focus has been placed on production.” Similarly, another said, “Budgets down, profits way up!!!”
The survey responses weren’t all doom and gloom, however. One EHS professional claimed the budget difficulties actually were a good thing for her program, creating a “higher standard on safety because it makes us more competitive and gives us the upper hand for getting the work we bid.” Another stated, “I would never consider economics over safety. Safety overrides everything else.” Yet another explained, “Our management believes it makes good business sense to have an outstanding safety program.”
“I’m happy to say we are hanging in there,” added another.
Hearts and Minds
Overall, the survey results indicate that the end of the day, safety professionals must engage, teach, listen and learn in order to succeed in creating safe, healthy and productive workplaces.
“I like to say I have 455 safety professionals in the factory,” says Pearson. “If you teach people in a holistic way to be their own safety professional, to take care of No. 1 first … you see a happier, healthier, smarter work environment.” That includes added benefits such as reduced DART rates and decreases in workers’ compensation ratings.
“It doesn’t cost a lot of money to do that,” Pearson stresses. “Hearts and minds are cheap. If you sell a heart and a mind on something, it’s amazing what they’ll do for you.”