Q&A: The Future of the Profession

Where are the safety professionals of tomorrow coming from, and will they be needed?

Editor's note: Just as OSHA is approaching middle age, so, too, are many of the safety and health programs installed at the nation's workplaces as a direct result of OSHA's formation. Within the next decade, as the last and most stalwart of the Baby Boomers finally relent to retirement, the programs they're retiring from are going to need fresh young professionals to take their places, but where are these professionals coming from, and how are they being trained? Forth years from now, will we even be talking about "OSHA at 80"? OH&S Managing Editor Ronnie Rittenberry discussed online education, growth prospects, and more with program directors at two of the nation's largest university-based safety degree programs – Dr. Lon Ferguson at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Allan Stern at Marshall University – as well as two universities with smaller but up-and-coming safety programs, chosen for their geographical diversity – Dr. Jess Godbey of Jacksonville State University and, via e-mail, Don G. Weber of the University of Alaska Anchorage. Excerpts from the conversations, which took place in late April and early May, follow.

OH&S: How has the safety degree program evolved at your university? Is the offering of OS&H programs growing these days?

Ferguson: "IUP has one of the oldest safety programs in the country. We actually got our start in the 1970s, right after OSHA was passed. There was some NIOSH seed money given to help establish some safety degree programs, and IUP was lucky enough to get some of that seed money, and that's how the program got its start. . . .

"Initially, our offering was a safety management degree, and the program's early focus was on OSHA-regulation aspects. It remained that way for the first 10 years the program was in existence, throughout the '70s, and then in 1980 we decided to change the focus to a degree in safety sciences. So we dropped the management, and it became a much more technical program, with less focus on regulations and management and more on the technical aspects, with added courses in chemistry, physics, calculus, human physiology, and anatomy. We stayed that way through the '80s and most of the '90s, and in 2000 we made another change. We realized we probably had become a little bit too technical and we needed to re-add some management/business aspects into the curriculum, plus we got a lot of pressure to add the "E" component to environmental health and safety. We were pretty strong on the health and safety side; we were not as strong on the environmental side, so in 2000 we added that. So that's where it is today.

"The program is strong, but I think we're all struggling -- first of all, with the budgetary issues. We're not getting more money, that's for sure, and I think a lot of programs right now, even in safety, have to look at the financial side of things and how to become more efficient. Lab courses, for example, provide great hands-on exposure, but they're also significantly more expensive."

Stern: "Marshall started offering safety early in the '70s, too, not long after OSHA was started, with a graduate degree program. It was years later before we offered the bachelor's program, so it kind of went in reverse, but now our bachelor's is our biggest program -- it's the one that is accredited by ABET [the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology]; we did not accredit the master's degree.

"The program itself continues to grow slightly. We're reaching the point where we'll get about as many people in as we graduate at the end of the year, so it grows by a couple of students a semester, but it's fairly stable. We'd like to see more growth, obviously, but stable is good, too -- especially in today's economy."

Godbey: "JSU started its safety program in 1991. Our emphasis is safety and health management. It's a bachelor of science degree in occupational safety and health management, and we've found that our customer is typically a manufacturing industry or a construction firm, and they need a generalist. They need somebody who can manage safety and help direct safety, but when they need some industrial hygiene work done, they can call in a consultant. So our students are that generalist, rather than specializing in a particular area.

"I wouldn't classify us as a big program -- we typically have about 30 to 40 students enrolled -- but it is a popular program because our employment is pretty good. We have an almost 100 percent placement rate for our graduates. . . . In the early parts of the program, we were definitely growing, and now we've kind of plateaued. Probably the last four years or so, it's been at about the same level, with about 30 to 40 students.

"I've been here since 1998, and we have changed slightly, broadening the program from a more technical engineering focus to one that includes more behavioral aspects. There are a lot of folks in engineering controls and machine guarding and even industrial hygiene areas, but it seems like the safety area is growing into the areas where we're coming to realize that we're dealing with people, and our future safety professionals have to understand the behavioral aspects of their positions and the job they're trying to do. So that's probably been our largest change. We've actually changed the name of the program from Occupational Safety & Health Technology to [OS&H] Management."

Weber: "We are growing considerably. We've increased our enrollment about 60 percent over the last three years, so, yes, although our UAA/KPC [Kenai Peninsula College] OSH program is small compared to the other larger, well-established university programs, it is quite popular. This is primarily a result of the global communication and awareness of what happens when you don't have a good safety culture in your organization."

Where are you finding your students -- or, rather, how are you attracting them to your program?

Godbey: "That's the toughest part we've found with growing the program: marketing safety as a career, largely to high school students. You know, juniors or seniors in high school, they don't know anything about industrial hygiene or being a safety engineer. I didn't when I was in high school, for that matter. So it's a marketing issue for us. That's been kind of a stumbling block for us. Even for the folks who think they want to maybe be an engineer or something technical, the safety's not there -- it's not on their radar. Not initially, at least. For most of our students, the safety program is a discovery they make when they're here on campus -- especially when they go to career services and they see all the jobs available."

Stern: "It's true the profession's not high on people's radar because it is not marketed as much as it should be. I always say if we had a reality show dealing with safety or accident prevention, it would be fantastic – you know, like we have with fire departments and Rescue 911 and things like that.

"We get some of our students from the engineering program who decide they don't want to be engineers -- you know, the calculus and the courses they have to take, it's more than they can or want to do, so they transfer over into the safety field. And then for other people, it's word of mouth, because students learn that there are actually jobs that pay pretty well in it, so they investigate the profession that way. For still others, they're here because their parents or somebody they know has worked in the field."

Ferguson: "From a marketing standpoint, we stink. You can walk into any high school and ask the students if they want to be an accountant or nurse or engineer, and you know what? They will have at least some idea what that means. But you do that same thing in a high school right now, asking if they want to be an EHS professional, and they'll have no idea what that even is --no idea. And we've been talking about this for years. About 10 years ago, I wrote an article in Professional Safety about marketing ourselves, and I got ripped up by some saying, 'That's not our role.' Well, shame on us -- it is our role. We've got to market ourselves. We shouldn't have to go into a school and explain what we are."

Is online education already the primary way OS&H degrees are offered?

Weber: "No. Although e-learning is indeed growing quite rapidly, both online education and face-to-face classes will be needed in the future."

Godbey: "None of our safety classes are online. Our students can get some of the general university requirements -- English, history, and so forth -- through online programs, but not our safety classes. We're definitely feeling the pressure to do that, but so far we haven't. That said, it's definitely the trend at the university level overall, and there are some safety programs completely online. Probably the most credible is Eastern Kentucky University. It has a good online safety program. Now, unfortunately, there are some online programs that you have to be careful of -- the 'diploma mill' kind of set-up."

Stern: "We don't have online courses for our safety program. We have talked about it, but I still don't think the student gets the same thing out of it. We have been asked to put some of our courses online -- and there are chemistry courses and the like available that way -- but as far as the whole degree goes, that's still up in the air, and for the near future at JSU, we're going to be an in-class, hands-on degree."

Ferguson: "We went to online learning in 2004, but only partially and only for our master's program. At that time, the master's program was lecture-based at IUP and had fewer than 20 students, and the bottom line was this: I was told to either improve those numbers or the program wouldn't be around much longer, so we decided to go to the online route. And the reason we did this was because most of our students in the master's program are working professionals, and time is of the essence. To get them to physically drive to Indiana, Pa., which is basically an hour away from a major city like Pittsburgh -- we were having problems with doing that, so we went the online route.

"Right now, nine of our 12 master's courses are online. The three that are not, we just felt it was very, very important that the students come to IUP to do them because they had to be hands-on. . . . To help the students, what we decided to do was to teach those as one-week summer workshops. It still provides us the hands-on we want in a laboratory-type setting, and the students can still do it; it doesn't interfere in a major way with their lives and their jobs, etc. . . .

"Currently, we don't have any online courses for the undergrad program. I don't see it right now, and let me just say why. The key here is online isn’t for everybody. I would say you need a mature student who's well-organized and can work independently, and if they're not that, they're going to have trouble with online learning and functioning in that environment. Most of our master's students can -- they're mature, they're working, and it doesn't present much of a problem with this.

"But having said that, let me say this: One of the things we decided from the very beginning was that we did not want this to be like a correspondence course. We didn't want this to be 'you're-on-your-own' learning or 'learn at your own pace, do what you want to.' We just said we're not going to do that, so our online program is slightly different. First, it's a regular-scheduled virtual classroom. So, this semester, the students are taking construction safety. The students have to be there Wednesday night at 7 o'clock; they have to log into our platform and then go into what's called a 'live classroom' -- just like any other classroom. When they open it up and go into it, they look in their computer monitor, and they'll see a PowerPoint, and they'll see everybody's name there; they can 'raise their hand,' and they have a microphone as well as a headset, so they can hear other students talk and they can ask questions. I have a PowerPoint that I use to cover major points and topics, and they're there at a scheduled time and for a scheduled length of time -- however long the class is. So that's different. Some online programs are pretty free-flowing -- come when you want, do what you want. We decided not to do that.

"We wanted the program structured so students would have good interaction with the faculty members. We wanted the students to be able to interact with one another and not just on a chat room or whatever else -- but to be live, talking to the other students. The only disadvantage with this at this point is they can't see each other. We have the technology to do that; it's just not as good as we want it right now, so we're not using that. Eventually, though, it will get there. It really is the wave of the future. It's not going to go away, that's for sure."

How important is it for a university's safety program to be ABET accredited?

Ferguson: "If you look at the numbers right now, there are 12 ABET-accredited programs in safety, and there are seven programs that are ATMAE-accredited, and that stands for the Association of Technology Management and Applied Engineering. So, right now in safety, if you're going to be accredited, you're going to go one of those routes, either with ABET or ATMAE. And, in the scheme of things, not many programs are either one, but if you want my opinion, I think it's critical, absolutely critical that more become accredited.

"If you look at the ASSE [American Society of Safety Engineers] numbers right now in terms of the number of safety degree programs, it is slightly inflated, showing, as of this morning, 193 programs in safety. The problem with that number is that when ASSE started that list, it included what were called 'safety-related programs.' So, for example, if any program had one or two safety classes, they would consider themselves 'safety-related.' So what you ended up having was an over-inflation of the overall numbers. . . . I can tell you as of April 7, we met in Chicago to talk about that list, and what we've decided to do is we're going to remove those programs that are merely 'safety-related' [from ASSE's official list]. And our guess is -- and this is just a guess at this time -- but we'll probably end up with a list very close to around 90 programs total, once you remove those 'safety-related' that offer only one or two courses.

"But the point is, even if we're at that number -- or let's say it's 100 -- and we have only 12 that are ABET accredited, that means that there's roughly 88 percent that are not currently accredited, and that's a major issue. It's a major concern for us because if they're not accredited, there's no real measure of the quality of those programs. The thing that's important to point out here is the difference between regional accreditation and program accreditation. Regional accreditation is what most universities have to have, and that just accredits the overall university, but it has nothing -- and I mean nothing -- to do with the safety program. So if you really want to see the value of a program that your son or daughter is going to, you really need to look at the program-level accreditation, and, again, with safety that's either going to be ABET or ATMAE. You really do want one of those two, primarily because it does provide a measure of quality, showing that someone from the outside -- a program evaluator -- is coming to that university, to that program, and is assessing the curriculum, assessing the outcomes, assessing the students, the faculty, the facilities. All of that is included in that assessment. . . . If you look at it from the engineering side of the house, ABET accreditation is the only ballgame. I believe right now well over 98 percent of the engineering programs in the United States are accredited by ABET, and if you're in that field, you don't survive without it, because employers will not hire students who don't come from an ABET-accredited program. That's not true in our field yet. We hope someday it'll be that way, but we don't have those numbers yet. I mean, we're roughly at 12 percent accredited, but it really is a good measure of quality."

Do your graduates go to work for OSHA? If that’s a viable or leading career track, will it dry up eventually?

Stern: "OSHA is a career track for some of our students. With this degree, they can go anywhere, and with placement rates we're doing pretty well. As it is with every other field, if the students are mobile, they have a better chance of getting a job. A lot of West Virginia students like staying in the area or the state. It's not to say there aren't jobs here, because there are . . . but in this field, especially if they're willing to relocate, it's basically a matter of everybody who wants a job generally gets one. . . .

"The safety field is not going away, that's for sure. It can only keep getting bigger as more people become proactive in trying to reduce their lost-time incidents and save themselves money. Because you look at where you can save the money, and safety is one of those areas."

Weber: "Only a rare few of our OSH graduates go to work for OSHA or other U.S. or state government-based entities. Most graduates go into the privately held companies and corporate business sectors."

Ferguson: "IUP graduates can go anywhere, but I'd say OSHA is not a favored track. I would say less than 5 percent go the OSHA route. In fact, I can think of only two students in the last 12 years that went the MSHA route, and I can probably count on one hand how many went the other route, and we graduate about 60 students a year. So there's just not a lot going into that field. I don't know if it's because of demand; I don't know if it's because of pay or whatever, or a combination of both. Private industry usually pays significantly better; now, benefits might not be as good, but, usually, in private industry you're going to get more money than you would from the federal government. Right now, if I had to guess, I'd say probably 35 to 40 percent of our students are going into general industry. I would say another 20 to 25 percent are going into the petrochemical or natural gas industry. That area has picked up fairly significantly in the last 10 years. And then the other area that's picked up significantly is the construction area. But again, if you look at those going into the regulatory end -- OSHA, EPA, MSHA -- it's probably less than 10 percent."

Godbey: "We've had some of our graduates go to work directly for OSHA, but most go into private industry as safety managers or safety directors, that sort of thing. That said, I don't see OSHA going anywhere for the next 20 or even 40 years -- or our program, either.

"We've noticed that our graduates -- and safety professionals overall -- are more successful if they're able to enlighten their organization that safety can be very cost effective, that it can be a cost saver. A lot of organizations look at safety more as an expense, but if we can prevent injuries and all of the expenses that come with them, we can save the company a lot of money. So, for that very reason -- because safety is cost effective -- I don't think it's going to go away."

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Ronnie Rittenberry is Managing Editor of Occupational Health & Safety.

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