The State of Safety Education: As Baby Boomers Reach Retirement Age and Leave the Profession, the Demand for Degreed Safety Professionals Outstrips the Supply, Causing Some Educators and Professional Organizations to Wonder Where the Profession Is Headed

Article excerpt

The Occupational Safety and Health Act is 35 years old, and there is widespread concern--stopping just short of panic, in some cases--about the fact that many of the occupational safety and health professionals who entered the field as researchers, academics and safety and industrial hygiene managers at the advent of the Act are retiring.

"A lot of people in academia and at federal agencies and state agencies--people who started in health and safety when OSHA first started--are retiring or thinking about it," says Richard Fairfax, director of OSHA's enforcement programs.

Fairfax, who has been with the agency since its inception, says he can relate to the safety professionals who are reaching retirement age and leaving the profession. "When I retire, I want to retire," he notes, not start another career as an educator or consultant.

The problem with that, he acknowledges, is that "there is a loss of historical background, and it's a problem everyone is facing."

Dr. Mark Friend, professor of safety and chair of Applied Aviation Sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, chairs the American Society of Safety Engineers' (ASSE) Educational Standards Committee and is a member of Occupational Hazards' Editorial Advisory Board. Friend also is worried that the institutional knowledge held by those leaving the profession will be lost.

"The body of knowledge held by those who are pure safety practitioners is very valuable," he points out. "We are taking five steps backward--regressing--if we lose that knowledge. We haven't created the mechanisms to retain it." (For more about efforts to attract students to careers in EHS, read "State of Safety Education: The Importance of Mentoring" in the May 2006 issue.)

Educational Opportunities--Or Not?

Some safety educators and professionals worry that safety education programs are getting the short end of the stick, that they are being eclipsed by industrial hygiene, ergonomics and occupational health programs at universities.

Demand creates supply, Fairfax explains. He remembers that back in the 1970s when OSHA was created, local OSHA offices, as well as local chapters of the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) and ASSE, attended job fairs at high schools and colleges to recruit students into the safety profession. In the 1980s and 1990s, those recruitment efforts died away.

"Enrollment [in safety programs] at schools is declining, so they're cutting back programs," says Fairfax.

Funding agencies appear to be following suit, adds Friend, who is concerned that while the 16 Education and Resource Centers (ERC) across the country funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) offer undergraduate and master's degrees in safety, industrial hygiene, occupational health and ergonomics, as well as doctorate-level degrees in disciplines such as industrial hygiene and occupational health, they do not offer Ph.D.s in safety.

"We won't see any real progress in [doctorate programs for] safety until money is put into funding pure safety programs," Friend says.

NIOSH's ERCs offer four core areas of study: industrial hygiene, occupational safety, occupational medicine and occupational nursing. "Only five or six of the ERCs have an [undergraduate or master's] occupational safety program," says Dr. Steven Lacey of the University of Illinois in Chicago. "Every one has an industrial hygiene Ph.D."

Lacey says an unofficial poll taken of the directors of the IH programs at the ERCs found that of the 2005 graduates, 39 received bachelor's degrees, 23 received master's degrees and 19 received doctorate degrees.

"One hundred percent of our graduates get jobs right away," Lacey boasts. "We had one graduate who received seven job offers from across the country. We're doing our job well in educating the students, but EHS professionals are retiring faster than we can replace them. …