Staying Afloat in a Sea of Troubles

Update your training. Fire up your networking. Can you change to focus on another type of safety?

With the challenging economic situation right now and little improvement visible on the immediate horizon, safety managers worry about staff cutbacks, funding, and sometimes the survival of the company -- a real possibility today, from the mega-corporations to the small. What we face goes beyond luxuries such as pay raises or additional staffing; our task is a matter of keeping our programs alive even though other program areas consider safety "expendable."

There is a history of this. In years past, many safety programs were simply put on hold, rolled into other programs, or deleted pending better economic times, in effect, playing a potentially deadly game of "chicken" with code compliance and, more importantly, employees' safety. Many of us have in the past been victims of downsizing, reductions in force, layoffs. I’ve certainly been there with both grant-funded positions and government reductions. Those are not times for "why me?" self-pity, but instead times for "OK, move forward and find something else" resolve.

So how do you, as a safety professional, keep it all on track?

First, obviously, don't panic. Keeping a focused perspective now is more critical than ever for your program's and your own professional well-being.

 • On a program level: Keep the program moving forward in a positive way. Make a list of program coverage areas and your successes. Maintain a low-key but positive outlook and approach and be willing to work with others.

Cast a critical eye on your budget and staffing before the corporate-suite managers do and consider where you can cut back, both comfortably and severely. Be reasonable and consider the long-term survival of the program's goals, balanced with employee safety.

At a moment's notice you may be asked to reduce your budget by 50 percent or more to offset sudden expenses, such as the stratospheric fuel expenses that are hammering airlines and other companies that thrive on travel and big equipment. All programs have some things that can be trimmed; your job is to assess and be ready to meet the call. If you have a staff, meet with them and discuss this ahead of time. Have a plan and be ready to implement it. If you don't, someone who knows less about your program will make the call and the cuts.

On a personal professional level: Stay positive here, as well. Consider your options and where you stand on your safety career path. Are you a young professional or a veteran close to retirement? Dust off that resume and project portfolio, and ensure your references are still alive and willing to provide you a letter or reference.

Update your training. Fire up your networking. Where do you go from here is becoming reality, not just an interview question: Are you a specialist or a generalist in safety? Can you change to focus on another type of safety? Most of us can; our skills apply in all types of safety program administration.

Above all else, see these challenges in economics, layoffs, and cutbacks as what they are: business decisions that will change your way of doing business. Rely on your skill at adapting and embracing change to make it through these tough times. Safety professionals are some of the most adept people at riding waves of crisis. Even in tragic times -- and we have seen plenty of them -- we grow and improve.

This article originally appeared in the August 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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