Have Safety Trade Shows Become Just a Place to Buy Gloves?

By Phil La Duke

Two weeks ago I spoke at my favorite safety trade show, the Michigan Safety Conference. When I am at a show I like to spend a fair amount of time in the exhibit hall.  Exhibitors and speakers make conferences possible.  And while—with the exception of the Michigan Safety Conference—speakers and generally treated pretty poorly (one is forced to jump through many hoops, typically bring your own computer, have sketchy AV support, and conference organizers who generally act as if they are doing YOU a favor. I get their attitude, after all, as a speaker I get to travel at my own expense and sometimes on my own time for the honor of speaking at their shows.) exhibitors really get mistreated.  For starters the national conferences charge you for everything from the carpet in your both to transporting your booth and giveaways from the loading docks to the exposition floor.  Again, I want to say NONE of this applies to the Michigan Safety Conference which is less a trade show and more of gathering of safety professionals organized by and for working safety professionals, no, it’s more the National Safety Conferences and Expos with whom I have a bone to pick.  The Michigan Safety Conference was well attended this year drawing in around 4,000 attendees and a nice selection of exhibitors.

I have noticed big and unsettling changes in Safety Trade shows lately, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I talked to the sole exhibitor that sold machine guarding. He pointed out that we KNOW that the controls at the bottom of the Hierarchy of Controls are least effective, and yet he was the vendor selling solutions at the highest point on the H of C.  Gone were the BBS consultants (that all that is holy) gone were the theoreticians hawking snake oil, gone were consultants with new methodologies, instead there was a room fool of people selling software, administrative controls and mostly PPE.

The speakers too were different too. There was nary a one BBS huckster, no sullen looking women staring out with dead eyes from BST’s booth (mainly because BST, DuPount, SafeStart and the usual cast of “let us safe the world” characters failed to show this year, either as speakers OR as exhibitors. (Don’t worry I’m sure they will all be there at the next National Safety Conference you attend.) There were far fewer speakers talking about strategy and big picture topics and more speeches about regulatory compliance and specific technical subjects. It’s good to have a nice selection of technical and regulatory topics but the gentleman selling guarding’s observation really stuck with me. Both in the speakers’ rooms and in the exposition hall the lower 2/5ths of the Hierarchy of Controls were disproportionately represented.

You can’t blame the conference’s organizers. Getting exhibitors is tough so in general you will take anyone willing to shell out the sizeable fee for floor space.  It’s tough to convince people to exhibit because there is seldom a quantifiable return on investment (this is MARKETING not SALES) but it is a great place to entertain clients, meet with people that it might otherwise be too expensive to jump on a plane, and above all get your name out there.  So don’t expect conference organizers to turn anyone away.  The speakers are much the same, now let me be clear hear, I have a bug up my butt about the National Safety Council for which I am blacklisted.  Why? They gave me a long and convoluted explanation that made no sense (“We took all the speaker evaluations and dropped the lowest scores.   Then we took the top half and divided that by two and gave only the top highest-scoring speakers preferential treatment, and you were in the lower half of the second cut.  Maybe when you have polished your speaking skills you can reapply.”  For the record I review all of my evaluations and get top marks for my presentation skills, and even though it is less popular than my presentation skills my topics get good to excellent marks (with the occasional satisfactory mark.  I submit up to 30 abstracts on a range of subjects and the organizers CHOOSE the topic on which I will speak, so I ask you, whose fault is it if people don’t like the topic.  Also, what kind of water head comes to a topic in which he or she isn’t interested?). My grey-listing (after nine speeches in eight years) has nothing to do with me suggesting that they find different key note speakers than repugnant Scott Gellar informercials and the great guy who hasn’t had a different message for 25 years Charlie Morecraft.  For the record Charlie is a great guy who has a really compelling story, he’s approachable, down to earth, helpful and free with advise and I really don’t have anything bad to say about him and Scott Gellar wrote a book, so…um…there’s that. What does it say about us as a community if our trade shows have devolved into little more than quilting circles where, instead of talking about quilting and buying quilting supplies, we instead get together and talk about theoretical (albeit untested) topics and compare prices on gloves.

Increasingly, speakers, exhibitors, and even attendees are finding it more and more difficult to justify the cost of these National Safety conferences and are opting for the smaller regional conferences. Judging from how unaffiliated regional conferences in Michigan, Ohio, and other states are growing it makes me wonder how long the National Safety conferences will continue. Should we fight to save them? Hell I like going to Vegas, or New Orleans, or San Diego, but is it worth the cost? You can find more conference attendees at the local pub than at a speech or in the exhibit hall. And incidentally I spoke at a regional ASSE PDC and it was great, but professional development conferences are a completely different, and dare I say better, animal.

I think the answer is DEMAND that the National Safety shows improve. Contact the organizers and tell them that if they want you to attend then they have to get better speakers and that the speeches can’t just be commercials.  That they need to get speakers and exhibitors that better represent the solutions from the Hierarchy of Controls, that they had ought to treat their speakers (who, except for the keynotes, they don’t pay at all and expect to absorb all their travel expenses) and exhibitors better (many exhibitors complain that either the conference organization actively competes against them; selling their products adjacent to the exhibitors or that there is too little time on the agenda for people to visit the exhibit hall.)

This year’s key note for AIHA is Ken Jennings the longest running Jeopardy! contestant; I’m sure the audience will learn much from Ken’s extensive knowledge of both game shows and Industrial Hygiene, but heck he’s likely to be more entertaining than most key notes so who cares if he isn’t even related to the topic in the most tangential measure?

Too lazy to look up the organizers for the shows? Here you go: (and no, you don’t necessarily have to support me, in fact you can tell them that the best move they ever made was dumping me as a speaker, it’s not like I can think of a circumstance that I would consider returning, eight years of providing services for free is enough)

The National Safety Council Hilda Koskiewicz (Hilda.Koskiewicz@nsc.org)

The American Society Of Safety Engineers Dewey Whitmire (dwitmire@asse.org )

American Industrial Hygiene Association Bethany Chirico (bchirco@aiha.org )

If we don’t act now in ten years these shows won’t exist, but maybe that’s not a bad thing.