Live from Safety 2008: Foulke, Howard Foresee Safety's Future

Successful companies in the near future are going to have to have wellness programs in place and go beyond mere compliance as a matter of course. That was the message from the OSHA head Edwin G. Foulke Jr. and NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard at this afternoon’s Plenary Session in the Las Vegas Hilton’s Barron Ballroom. The nation’s two leading federal safety officials sat down for a panel discussion moderated by Rick Pollock, vice president of ASSE’s Council on Professional Development, for what he referred to as something of a “fireside chat.”

When asked what they saw on the horizon for the safety and health industry, Foulke immediately answered globalization. “We’re going to see more of a focus on safety and health from an economic standpoint to a certain degree,” he said, citing an Australian study of the attributes of successful companies. “The study came out with one thing they all had in common: a great safety and health program. We’re talking about more than just a paper program. It’s the kind of program that can reduce worker’s comp costs and illnesses and injuries, making the companies more productive and more competitive.”

Howard spoke of the need for an improved method for counting the illness and injury data that all agencies use to instigate change and that many safety professionals distrust at this point. “We know that the BLS system cannot count illnesses well, yet we all use that data to plot our course,” he said. “We need a new system. We must have confidence in our ability to count in order to measure.” Howard added that companies are going to have to instigate workplace wellness programs in order to succeed.

”If everyone understood that a third of American children are obese, and a third are developing Type 2 diabetes, and you look at that workforce that you’re going to have as employees in five, 10, 15 years—you’re going to have to pay attention to those issues or you’re not going to be taking care of your workers,” he said. “The point that I want to emphasize—and that I will emphasize to everyone—is that it’s job enlargement for all of us, because you’re not going to not do the OSHA compliance, you’re not going to able to get out of the technical issues; you’re not going to be able to leave that aside; you’re going to have to add these new talents to it.”

Foulke agreed, noting that companies involved in OSHA’s VPP programs already see the results of having successful workplace wellness plans in place. “If you look at those companies, they’ve taken safety and health, and it’s been a cultural change,” he said. “And that’s what all of you are going to be doing, to tell you the truth. We’re talking about changing people’s attitude about safety and health in the workplace. And then once we get that in place, and once the employer understands the importance of safety in the workplace, and why they have to be safe for themselves in the workplace and why they need to be also watching out for their fellow worker . . . then maybe they’ll understand they need to be safe at home. . . . Safety at home is not going to be dictated by the government—we’re never going to get there. If we’re going to have safety at home, it’s going to be transmitted from the worksite. Your roles are going to be expanding now,” he told the audience of about 2,500 SH&E professionals, “and it’s going to be by necessity.”

Foulke emphasized that the future of SH&E lies in being able to compete in a global marketplace. “We’re no longer going to be able to just assume that we can be here in the United States and not compete; if we do, we’re going to lose jobs,” he said. “So what are the areas left? Quality, productivity, and efficiency. There is no other country in the world that can match us in those three areas. . . If we’re going to remain competitive, if we’re going to remain profitable, if we’re going to be able to compete in a global marketplace, where are the cost savings that’s left? There are only two areas: worker’s comp and health care costs. Those are the two main things, and you have the direct line to address both of those things.” Foulke added that complying with OSHA standards is enough to for a company to meet its legal resonsibility, but it's not enough to achieve the cost savings. "Safety and health is a moral issue, not just a legal issue," he said. Just complying will give you a good safety program, but you have to go beyond compliance to get a great program that can save in worker's comp costs and increase productivity and profitability."

Howard agreed that “the margins that employers are operating under are exceptionally narrow.” He said “government realizes that we’re here to help you to stay in those margins and figure out how you can get a little bit ahead. We’re all concerned about the American job versus the jobs overseas, and we want to maximize our ability to help employers do that, and I think that’s the major impetus behind our Work-Life initiative—to be able to show an employer how you can increase that margin.”

That said, Howard acknowledged that the key challenge facing him in his job is working with government bureaucracy, calling it “the most challenging thing I struggle with every day.”

Foulke said the most important advance he’s witnessed during his tenure in the job was the agency’s compliance assistance efforts and the worksite targeting programs. “We’ve really refined the system to where we’re getting to the places in need,” he said. “With our compliance assistance programs, we’re really focused on outreach to the Hispanic community. We’re providing materials and assistance to all our workplaces but we’re recognize a specific need in the Hispanic community. Most of our materials now are in both English and Spanish, and we have made some progress. Still, the range of fatalities in the community is 5,700, and that’s too many. The actual numbers have gone up, but even one fatality is too many. We’ll continue with the outreach, providing the tools, the materials—both in English and Spanish and whatever other language we need to address, we will.”

At the conclusion of the session, ASSE President Michael W. Thompson, CSP, joined Foulke and Howard on stage to renew and sign alliance agreements between ASSE and the two agencies.

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