Tools for Envisioning the Future of Occupational Hygiene: How Is the Field of Industrial Hygiene Changing to Meet the Shifting Workplace? What Is the Future You Wish to Create? (Core Practices)

By Birkner, Lawrence R.; Birkner, Ruth McIntyre | Occupational Hazards, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Tools for Envisioning the Future of Occupational Hygiene: How Is the Field of Industrial Hygiene Changing to Meet the Shifting Workplace? What Is the Future You Wish to Create? (Core Practices)


Birkner, Lawrence R., Birkner, Ruth McIntyre, Occupational Hazards


In the day-to-day routine of our busy lives, we find it difficult to take time to envision or reflect on our professional future. Futurist Peter Senge noted, "Where there is no vision, people perish." The thoughts that follow are designed to whet your appetite for reflection, and provide tools to fire your imagination and creativity for the long term.

Looking in the rearview mirror, we took a quick trip back in our profession's time capsule and noted some interesting observations. In 1967, Fred Ottoboni of the California State Department of Health wrote, "The Golden Age of occupational health in the United States ended in the mid-1950s. The movement, which began in the 1930s and which provided wide knowledge of industrial diseases and excellent textbooks, is slowly dying." (1)

Three years after Ottoboni wrote that prophetic statement, occupational health was revitalized by the enactment of OSHA. With the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the establishment of EPA as foundations, industrial hygienists have become recognized as champions for workplace health and safety and, increasingly, champions for environmental health.

Today, we recognize that OSHA struggles to be a driving force for improving worker health. The importance of Threshold Limit Values has come to the forefront due to the difficulty that regulatory agencies have in developing reasonable standards within realistic time frames. Changes in technology, business practices, market forces and globalization have become the real drivers of worker health and safety.

At the Toronto American Industrial Hygiene Conference & Exposition in 1999, futurist/economist Roger Bootle spoke of "one integrated, global world." He noted the impact of extraordinary technological advances taking place that were driving major change and likened these changes to passing through the Industrial Revolution and discovering America -- at time-warp speed. The Internet brought about new "connectivity" that will bring about jobs we cannot even imagine. He painted a picture of economic prosperity, increased efficiency and use of skilled labor, and improved competitiveness of international markets.

Bootle, like management guru Peter Drucker, envisions the dematerialization of social wealth -- less value placed on physical assets like land, machinery and chemical processing, and increasing value placed on intellectual capital. True value lies in intangible elements, such as scientific discoveries and computer programs. If one person consumes more of these nonmaterial goods, it does not mean that someone else can consume less. Contrast that with the depletion of our natural resources -- oil, coal and copper. When the supply is gone, it's gone. With dematerialization, we are using fewer resources. The nature of economic growth is changing.

How is the field of industrial hygiene changing to meet the shifting workplace? What is the future you wish to create?

Planning for the Future

The future is created through the actions or inactions we take today. We don't know exactly what will happen in the future. But if we consider what might happen, we, as a profession, can more sensibly decide the type of future that would be most desirable and work to achieve it. According to the World Future Society, "often the most valuable forecasts are those that don't come true because people took action to avert a crisis." (2)

In our research and work with colleagues such as John Meagher and the American Industrial Hygiene Association's Emerging Issues Committee, we found a number of forecasting tools, both quantitative and qualitative, to help us think through and envision future scenarios. A brief description follows.

Be aware that there are no silver bullets. Planning for the future takes time, energy and commitment. For more specific information on models and futuristic planning, contact the World Future Society at www. …

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