The State Of Safety 40 Years After OSHA

On December 29, 1970, Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 into law, forever changing the relationship between business and safety and ushering in the age of safety. It’s been 41 years since safety became a profession and now it stands at a crossroads.  To some the future of safety holds great promise, with jobs being created faster than colleges can graduate qualified professionals.  But others see storm clouds on the horizon and point to increasingly hostile political rhetoric that equate safety with job losses and an inability to compete globally. Time will tell which side is ultimately correct, but it’s all but certain that it will be some combination of the two.  To paraphrase Dickens, “it will be the best of times, it will be the worst of times”.

I make no claim to psychic powers (those of you who do probably knew I was going to say that) and no one has a crystal ball or a perfect view of the future but there are certain trends that are highly likely to continue in the next decade or two.

A Demand For ROI

Few business functions are immune to the pressure to contribute to the bottom line and to provide a quantifiable Return On Investment (ROI).  Some resist it and try to shift the focus to Return on Expectation, but that is being seen by most business leaders for what it is: weaseling.  If a function is to survive it needs to contribute more value to the organization than the resources it consumes; period.  Nowhere is this likely to be more of a shift in thinking than in Safety.  Many safety professionals cling to the idea that their jobs are sacred, safe, decreed by divine right. These professionals will find it increasingly difficult to find and keep a job.

Greater Specialty Within The Profession

Industrial Hygienists, Ergonomists, Safety Trainers, Process Engineers, Mechanical Engineers, Risk Managers, Loss Control…forty years has seen an explosion not only in the number, but in the type of safety professionals.  Look for this to continue in the comoing decade, but don’t look for every fabrication shop to hire a pantheon of safety professionals; instead, look for an increased use of consultants and third party safety firms that business hire to provide tightly controlled business deliverables.

Consolidation of Safety With Other Functions

This may seem to contradict the point above, but look for these two trends to work in tandem.  Companies can’t afford redundant functions that send mix messages to the organizations.  Quality, Safety, Lean, Environmental, and Continuous Improvement all must sing from the same hymnal. In fact, look for a considerable consolidation of these functions.  If it doesn’t make sense to pursue any of the SQDCME in a vacuum, how can in make sense to continue to silo these teams.  Given the choice between maintaining a Safety department and a Continuous Improvement or Lean team, most business owners would dump the safety department. The choice isn’t as capricious as it might appear to safety professionals. Lean and/or Continuous Improvement teams provide a return on investment—they earn their keep—where safety has not, at least not in any quantifiable way.

A Resurgence In Unions

If there is a class war brewing, the workplace will be ground zero and the rallying cry will be safety. Irrespective of one feels about organized labor it’s tough to argue with the union organizers when they use safety as a plank in their platforms. As society grows increasingly confrontational with corporation and governments look for organized labor to fill the vacuum and capitalize on resurgence of radicalism to swell their ranks to unprecedented levels.  Today’s unions have their roots in the Great Depression at time when banks were despised; governments were seen as protecting companies at the worker’s expense; and radicalism was rising.  It’s impossible to predict whether today’s unions will be the same unions of the future but it’s fair to say unions of the future will look very different than they do today. What does this mean from a safety prospective is that companies that disregard the safety of its workforce should expect to be targets of aggressive—and largely successful—union drives.

A Galvanizing Catastrophic Event

The wild card in this mix is the mega-disaster that changes everyone’s view of the world.  The world looked different after the Triangle Shirt fire.  The world looked different September 12, 2001. A singular event changed the world in a profound way. The conditions are ripe for a singular event that in its horrific magnitude will change safety forever. People are tired of picking up the tab for corporate depraved indifference and the immediacy of unvetted information—bloggers, tweets, Facebook posts, and who knows what technology will exist a decade or two from now—can and will continue to add an emotional element to already incendiary situations.  We sit on the precipice of another catastrophe.  This isn’t just a factor of time, although probability suggest we are due, nor is it solely a factor of outside agitation. Safety as an industry is a victim of its own success.  A generation of workers have come to age in workplaces where fatalities are exceedingly rare (relative to the workplaces of 50 years or more ago). The backlash against safety caused by global success of safety efforts has made it easy for greedy industrials and opportunistic politicians to brand safety as over protective, costly, and the mother of all bugaboos, “job killing”.  There is a prevailing belief that business will universally protect workers without regulation.  There is also the increasing view that safety is a right, and that a reasonable person can put in a days work without being maimed. Couple these two factors with a rise in public sentiment that values liberty above life and the proverbial recipe for disaster is complete.  Many of today’s workers view safety as a nuisance and the days of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle seem very remote indeed. And public opinion tends to support the view that the cost of precaution is too high and the need for such measures are unwarranted, unwelcome, and unnecessary.  Conditions are ripe for a truly historic and horrific workplace disaster that forever changes the view of workforce safety.

But how this will manifest is anyone’s guess.  Will it galvanize the great unwashed in favor of safety? Or will the media blame unaccountable workers for their own demise?

So as the ancient Chinese blessing/curse adjoins, we will most certainly live in interesting times; interesting and dangerous.  Ultimately Safety as a profession owns its success and likewise, if it doesn’t take care its failure.


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