A Life in Safety

No longer considered Chicken Little, we are more often considered Underdog these days.

"YOUNG lady, I think you are in the wrong place," growled a bearded, rustic-looking Dr. James Counts, his brows knitted as he stalked into the classroom of Central Missouri State University's safety program. His second comment was that I would need a very large bottle of Wild Turkey and a long-handled wooden spoon for daily doses to make it through the course. It was 1982, and I needed one elective to finish my bachelor of science degree in graphic arts/printing and head off to a waiting job in Atlanta I had accepted. I often say I entered the safety field "by accident" because the university computer placed me into a graduate-level safety class instead of some fluff elective.

I had seen occupational injuries previously, such as a fellow removing a guard from a printing press and mangling an arm for his efforts, but safety was only a footnote in most technical classes. This class was different; it challenged the participants to solve problems, prevent injuries, and make real change by looking forward. It taught leadership and self-reliance, with a good smattering of "in your face" harsh reality about industry. Being a somewhat stubborn individual, I stayed to see what the class was about and was fascinated by safety and the need for practical, common sense in a quagmire of vague codes and planning needed in the field. Within weeks I was approached to pursue a master of science degree in occupational safety because I had an aptitude for working through problems calmly. My career was born. (On my last day of that first class, I left Dr. Counts a bottle of Wild Turkey and a long-handled wooden spoon in case someone else needed it.)

Coming of Age
You and I have taken similar journeys while, all around us, occupational safety pulses as a part of everything we do every day. Space travel, deep sea or hard rock mining operations, health care research, protection from deadly pathogens, emergency response, or constructing the biggest, the tallest, the fastest, or the smallest: From the most advanced technology to the simplest processes, every product and process has safety needs.

Trying to think of some process not touched by safety is hard for us to do now. Yet not so long ago, there were few enforceable codes and fewer resources still for employee protection. Employers were in complete control. Employees often were considered an expendable, low-cost, renewable resource to be treated one step above the machinery. Employees frequently did not report on-the-job injuries for fear of reprisal from management. Few complained for fear of losing needed jobs and wages. Large-scale death traps like the Triangle Shirt Waist factory were considered sad situations, not preventable tragedies.

The safety officer was once a lonely individual with no budget, little or no authority, and few resources. He or she was someone to be worked around, not with. Management often told the safety professional, "We'll call you when we need you." Safety was often regarded with the same enthusiasm as a wet dog shaking on you. Safety was endured, not embraced. . . .

. . . . until some terrible incident happened. At that moment, safety was dragged out for questioning: how this event happened, why it happened, why you didn't tell us it could happen.

The blame game is still with us. The difference now is, safety means liability for the managers, the program administrators, and the end users, not just for the safety professional. Safety is now a detail of every project. Our opinion means something to upper management. Those managers value our knowledge and skill more than ever. While we still have catastrophic workplace death incidents, now we learn what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again. (Many safety codes we employ today are written in the blood of injured or dead employees.) Safety as a profession has come of age; it's no longer an add-on after the disaster. We are more often included in the proactive planning of an organization. Technical complexity is growing, yet the basics are still a daily safety concern. Safety is a regulation-heavy field, yet often the most valuable asset for the professional wading through it is common sense. Safety in 2007 is problem-solving, multi-tasking, overworking--and generally underpaid and harried.

Safety is technical, educated, and credentialed. Safety is a wide field for professionals who can be as specialized or as general as they care to make their careers. Project analysis. Inspection. Education. Engineering. Industrial Hygiene. Ergonomics. Strategic planning. The related fields of expertise are marvelous. The core feature in all of these trades is that safety is the ultimate compassionate service occupation. Our dedication and skill save lives.

Our profession proactively evaluates potential for harm. We are the planners, the "what if" gurus looking ahead for "bad things" that could happen at our workplaces, then we try mightily to avert that harm from our employees. Safety success is often hidden; a program is successful when injuries do not happen or are lessened.

The safety field is equal opportunity of the mind and spirit, not simple muscle. Women and minorities have entered the safety workforce in numbers that consistently increase. Our persistent efforts and knowledge control our career success. We are equals due to ability, more so than one finds in almost any other industry.

We Know We've Made a Difference
In the final analysis of my career as a safety professional, I'm not rich, not particularly well known or even always well regarded by all. (I can think of several who really hate my guts--let's hope it is a long and healthy hatred!) Several managers over the years have told me they "dreaded" seeing me because it meant more work for them to meet safety codes.

I've made my share of mistakes, but none caused harm to anyone. Many careers would have paid me better or offered shorter hours and much less political and BS hardship. But I know I have made a difference and prevented occupational incidents and injuries. I have been able to improve safety education. And finally, the industry has come of age.

Now, when asked my occupation and I reply "safety," few say, "What is that?"

The future of safety and health glows because of the dedication of the industry professionals who cared and strove ahead of our generation to make employment just a little better for all of us. Many risks were taken in the name of improving workplace safety. As a career it is now accepted and better paid than ever before. We are recognized as professionals in our own right for planning ahead and, we hope, forestalling the next big disaster, removing the known hazard ahead of time, searching the horizon for the next problem to avert to protect the workers (often without their ever knowing this was done). No longer considered Chicken Little, we are more often considered Underdog these days. We all have a sense of humor and healthy optimism for what we do. We are a strange combination of doom and gloom, what may happen, and hope for better days ahead. We stockpile data, read everything, and network continuously. Most of our cluttered offices are overstuffed with stacks of paper and projects we hope to have time to complete someday.

For every lousy safety professional, there are hundreds of brilliant ones. But when everything goes well in safety, our success is hidden because the injury or accident never takes place. While we will never have a totally injury-free environment, our efforts do make a positive difference to every soul. For every moment of liability and stress we endure as a profession and an individual, there is a worker who goes home safely by our efforts. Though we rarely seek pats on the back, we know our efforts prevent loss of life and reduce suffering. I am humbled and grateful for any small part I have had the past 24 years in this exceedingly important field.

This article appeared in the January 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the January 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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