A Life in Safety
No longer considered Chicken Little, we are more often considered Underdog these days.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
asked my occupation and I reply "safety," few say, "What is
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.
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.