The Future of Safety: Occupational Safety and Health Is Important Work, but Does It Offer a Promising Future? Our Experts Polish Their Crystal Balls and Offer Their Insights

Article excerpt

Safety professionals like Tom Lawrence lead busy lives, but these days he is also taking time for some introspection. With OSHA compliance established as a base level of the safety profession, Lawrence, as the American Society of Safety Engineers' (ASSE) vice president for professional affairs, has begun a process to try to establish what is "the other end of the range."

Lawrence sees two aspects to this process. The first is finding out what safety professionals believe about their future and how they define themselves. The second is finding out what their employers and customers, for the most part corporations, believe about their roles and capabilities. "Do they see us as strictly an extension of OSHA, to keep them out of citation problems," he wondered," or do they see us as having a larger capability to help with more enterprise issues?" Lawrence says a number of safety professionals are bringing their professional knowledge to bear on a wide range of business issues, and that it is ASSE's task to now make this expanded view of the profession clearly recognized.

Professional societies such as ASSE, the American Industrial Hygiene Association and the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses all are spending time and money trying to better understand the future their members will inhabit and what roles they will play within the business world and the global community. What is the future of safety and health practice? What new challenges, if any, will safety and health jobs entail? Will safety be a field that can attract talented newcomers and offer them the promise of rewarding jobs?

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Such analysis stems from some wrenching changes that safety has undergone over the past couple decades. Manufacturing, the industry sector in which many safety professionals historically were employed, saw its ranks fall from 19.5 million workers in 1979 to 14.3 million in January and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecasts a further 1 percent decline by 2012. Corporations flattened their structures and downsized, with corresponding reductions in--and even eliminations of--safety and health departments. And OSHA, which during the 1970s and 1980s routinely promulgated new standards and provided safety managers with a powerful hammer for seeking investments in safety, is now widely seen as having lost much of its influence on corporate behavior.

In the short run, says Cindy Lewis, the assistant administrator for ASSE's Industrial Hygiene Practice Specialty, the job market will remain tough as companies continue to lay off safety professionals and, when they do hire, look for generalists, not specialists in any one discipline. But over the next 5 to 10 years, when the federal government forecasts a shortage of workers as baby boomers leave the job market, she says that will create opportunities for safety professionals in industry. "That is going to be great for those of us left in the field because we are going to become very much in demand," she said.

In the meantime, says Lewis, the safety profession needs to make an adjustment to the changing economy. "We are turning from a manufacturing, hard goods society to a services society. Since there are fewer manufacturing facilities, businesses feel there is less need for people in the field," said Lewis. "As safety professionals, we have to change our mindset about how we do safety, health, and even environmental issues for a mobile, service-based economy."

Safety in the New Economy

Services accounted for 80 percent of the employment and two-thirds of the 1.4 million lost work time injuries and illnesses in 2002, according to BLS. Nursing aides and orderlies was the occupation with the second highest number of lost-time injuries and illnesses, behind only truck drivers. Services accounted for 29 percent of all musculoskeletal disorders. With services expected to add 19 percent more jobs by 2012, one might expect that the service sector offers rich opportunities for safety professionals. …