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As economists continue to debate the status and pace of the nation’s economic recovery, safety professionals may have reason to feel slightly more secure about the future.
Findings from Safety+Health’s informal occupational outlook survey, conducted in February, showed that while the effects of the recession that started in 2007 and hit hard last fall have tested many organizations, most survey respondents voiced optimistic views about the future of the environmental, health and safety profession. The online survey garnered a 9.21 percent response rate. Survey results show 59 percent of respondents believe the role of the EHS professional will expand in the next five years. This is down from the 68 percent of respondents to Safety+Health’s salary survey, conducted last August, who held the same view. Still, that view is in line with that of Bureau of Labor Statistics researchers who predict demand for the safety professional will increase 11 percent over the next decade despite fluctuations in the economy.
To ensure continued demand for the profession and a strong safety culture, Wes Scott, manager of consulting services for the National Safety Council, said safety pros always should be prepared to make the business case for safety and its impact on an organization when a worker is injured or killed. “This not only includes direct costs, but indirect costs as well,” he said. “Indirect costs can drive total cost experience for incidents up as much as 10 times. They should be able to include items such as loss of productivity, retraining and legal costs, as well as the effect on morale. Most importantly, safety professionals have to understand the underlying motivators of the leaders in their organization so they can make their cases in the language best understood by the leadership.” Safety+Health examines the additional tools EHS professionals will need to respond to emerging challenges and continue to ensure demand for the profession.
Factors influencing demand
The slow economy’s effects on the safety professional range from limited access to resources to organizational moves and the devastating elimination of jobs. “As soft skills budgets are cut and training and auditing are viewed as expendable, the net result has been the elimination of a great number of safety support positions,” Scott said.
For the positions that remain, EHS professionals are experiencing larger workloads with much less time to accomplish tasks, he said. The roles evolve even more as maintaining and improving the organization’s safety culture becomes a stronger focus. This safety culture shift is particularly impacted after layoffs because of the employee’s fear that he or she may be next, Scott said. Magdy Akladios is an assistant professor of science and computer engineering who teaches courses for the environmental science degree in science safety at the University of Houston-Clear Lake in Texas. He said that as the nation rebounds from a down economy, the EHS professional will need to focus on responding to factors that are contributing to demand, including regulations becoming more stringent, an increasingly diverse workforce that will need to be trained on hazards, and the need to replace retiring baby boomers with a new generation of EHS professionals who have more formal education.
Demand also will be influenced by increased globalization and the need for expertise to respond to lawsuits, Akladios said. “There are more effects of regulations in Europe, Australia, etc., on gaps in U.S. regulations, such as improvements in ergonomics techniques abroad,” he said, adding that U.S. companies also are gaining work abroad, especially in Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti and other countries where enormous reconstruction projects are underway.
BLS researchers say employment growth in the next eight years will reflect the public’s increasing expectations for a safe and healthy work environment, changing regulations, policies, and an organization’s need to keep insurance and workers’ compensation costs down. According to the National Safety Council’s 2010 edition of “Injury Facts,” preliminary data showed the number of disabling unintentional injuries reached 3.2 million in 2008, while 4,303 fatalities occurred. That translated to 110 million lost workdays – 70 million from injuries – with an estimated total cost of $183 billion.
Broad range of skills, knowledge needed
To respond to future responsibilities and expectations, the EHS professional will need to have a breadth of knowledge in more than one health and safety specialty, according to BLS researchers.
Data from the Board of Certified Safety Professionals in Savoy, IL, shows a convergence of safety, industrial hygiene and environmental practice. On average, certified safety professionals spend almost 60 percent of their professional time on safety duties and a significant portion of time on industrial hygiene and environmental matters. Thirty-two percent of CSPs have safety and health responsibilities, and 70 percent have EHS duties. Many CSPs are safety and/or EHS managers, BCSP reported.
A number of universities continue to adjust their curriculum to current employment trends. Evidence of this is seen at Baltimore-based ABET Inc., the recognized accreditor for college and university programs in applied science, computing, engineering and technology. During the 2009-2010 accreditation cycle, ABET conducted evaluations of 617 programs at 184 institutions in 14 countries, including the United States. Of those applicants, 84 institutions experienced ABET accreditation visits for the first time. For the 2008-2009 accreditation cycle, ABET accredited 36 programs in industrial hygiene, seven at the baccalaureate level and 29 at the master’s level. ABET also accredited 12 programs in safety fields: one at the associate’s level, nine at the baccalaureate level and two at the master’s level. ABET has accredited an average of 2,850 programs over the past five years, with 2,964 accredited programs at 616 institutions worldwide, as of deadline.
Fairmont State University in West Virginia received ABET accreditation in 2006 for its bachelor of science degree in occupational safety. The degree has been offered since the 1970s, but went through a major overhaul in 2004 to address current labor needs and trends, according to Melissa Abbott, an associate professor of engineering technology at the university. What changed in 2004 was how EHS knowledge was delivered, added Kimberly McClain Murphy, FSU’s associate professor of safety engineering technology and ABET program coordinator.
The new generation of safety professionals has a broader academic background, coupled with hands-on learning knowledge gained through team projects, internships and onsite visits to local industries who partnered with the university, Murphy said. Some local companies in West Virginia put a freeze on all internships except for the safety internship, she said, adding FSU puts a lot of time into fostering relationships with businesses so students can gain hands-on experience. “We don’t want to see a huge turnover in our profession in the future,” Murphy said. “We need to make sure it’s a good fit and make sure they’re comfortable.”
The next generation of EHS professionals will need strong communication skills to continue to make safety a priority for organizations, Abbott said. Akladios said EHS professionals also will need to be kept abreast of many more local and global regulations, including those that fall under environmental hazards and product liability. Movement toward global harmonization of regulations will make responsibilities a little easier, he said. Other skills necessary to advance in the field include multilingual skills and familiarity with interpreting information related to other disciplines.
“The fastest growing population today is Hispanic. Therefore, individuals who can communicate in both English and Spanish are highly sought,” Akladios said. “Also, since the U.S. is expanding its reconstruction operations abroad, probably Arabic and English would also make a very strong combination.”
Maintaining high standards
Although organizations are struggling with tighter budgets and more challenges, Thomas L. Adams, executive director for BCSP, said 2009 was a significant year for his organization in terms of the number of applicants seeking certification. While the CSP credential remains in relatively constant demand, applications for the paraprofessional (teaching assistant) certification saw a sharper increase, he said.
Adams said one surprising finding is that despite the terrible effects of the recession, many of those applications are being paid by the employer. This could mean employers are getting ready for the uptake in employment BLS predicted, and are preparing to achieve higher and more productive levels of safety with certified safety professionals. “It’s our belief that they are, in fact, getting ready for a surge in jobs and, thus, are creating a surge in need for certified people,” Adams said. “This is encouraging on two levels. It means the job place is going to be a safer place because we will have more people capable of working at a higher level.” It also is encouraging because the EHS professional will help lead the way in the current economic recovery, he said.
Akladios said one of the most important assets future EHS professionals will need is strong leadership skills and ethics. “[EHS] professionals need to make sure that their activities are performed with the highest levels of ethical conduct,” he said. During a bad economy, people who are about to lose their job or people who face environmental or external factors – such as pressure from upper management – might react in a way they are not supposed to or fail to report incidents.
At the University of Houston-Clear Lake, students frequently discuss ethics in the classroom, Akladios said. “If they’re not acting in an ethical way, people’s lives are at stake. It’s not going to be a minor loss, it’s going to be a major incident,” he said. In addition, Scott said as the EHS professional takes on new challenges in the next few years, he or she also will have to be the positive influence when workers have low morale.
“They need to be more vigilant and look for areas where they can improve. They need to make themselves the resource and be someone others can talk to,” Scott said. “You do not want a shift where everybody goes back to the [EHS] professional having all the responsibility. Safety should be a shared role between the management team and the [EHS] professional.”