How Far Have We Come?

Article excerpt

Twenty-five years ago, the OSH Act ordered government to provide training to increase the number and expertise of safety and health professionals. Occupational Hazards found out where we stand with education resources and trained professionals in 1995.

Not so long ago, there was little safety and health "profession" to speak of. While the push for wartime productivity made worker safety and health relatively important issues during World War II, by the mid 1970s, most of the practicing professionals were in their 50s and 60s and there were only about 900 hygienists in the country, recalls John Finklea, NIOSH director from 1975 through 1977.

Today, thanks primarily to the OSH Act, protecting workers is a sophisticated science requiring specialized degrees and is a profession in every sense of the word. A sign of that growth - the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) counted more than 11,600 members at the end of 1994.

Most responsible for this explosion was the threat of OSHA enforcement. To a lesser degree but no less important was the OSH Act's order that government provide for "training programs to increase the number and competence of personnel engaged in the field of occupational safety and health." Whether or not the government has fulfilled that mandate remains a subject of debate.

In real dollar funding terms, the government's role in safety and health education has steadily decreased over the years, noted AIHA past President Jerry Lynch. NIOSH, for example, no longer offers one-week courses at its Cincinnati office, and NIOSH funding of university degree programs has fallen steadily in real terms over recent years. "The federal government has never fulfilled the role described for it in the act," Lynch said.

Complicating the matter is the ever-changing nature of the profession, according to Robert Soule, chairman of the Safety Sciences Department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. What began as a highly technical field focusing only on safety and health now incorporates such responsibilities as environmental compliance, workers' compensation and insurance matters, Soule said. With companies continuing to downsize and restructure, this trend is likely to continue.

In Soule's view, educating the safety and health professional should not be the government's responsibility. Federal funding should be used to help launch programs, but once they are up and running, corporate support should take over, he believes.

Though some predict a bleak future for the profession, especially in light of current Republican attempts to shrink OSHA's enforcement power, students of safety and health are still enjoying a strong job market. Soule said he expected all of his bachelor's students to have jobs before graduation this year. About half will go to private sector manufacturing businesses, a third to service companies such as insurance carriers, between 6 and 8 percent to master's degree programs, and a handful to government service, he said.

Government Efforts

If the government has failed to meet the OSH Act mandate to provide safety and health training, few would cite lack of agency effort as the cause. Just one year after the act passed, OSHA created the OSHA Training Institute (OTI) to teach courses on hazard identification, abatement and regulatory compliance. Four years later, it added the state-run consultation programs to aid small businesses who felt especially under-equipped for the new OSHA regulations. Then NIOSH, in 1977, began funding the academic-focused Educational Resource Center system and other training-related grants to promote safety and health research. All severely underfunded by fickle congresses, the programs have struggled to meet a growing demand for their services.

Although OTI's primary mission is to train compliance officers and consultation staff, its short courses are also open to other federal employees, state and local government workers, and the private sector. …

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