October 2014

Administrator's Message

Change, workplace safety, and interesting times

As I shared with my staff at the end of last month, I am in some ways a fundamentally conservative person. I have pretty much worn two brands of shoes the past 30 years. I wear clothes I like until they become threadbare (or until my wife causes them to disappear). I carry a smartphone, but it's an iPhone 4 that doesn't even talk to me. Whether it was VCRs or CD players, I was not what one would call an "early adopter." While the line, "May you live in interesting times," does not in fact appear to be an old Chinese proverb, I certainly understand that (whatever its origin) it is at least as much a curse as a blessing.

And yet I recognize the importance of change. When I first arrived at Oregon OSHA more than nine years ago, I told the staff that without change there is no growth, and that we need to grow if we are to remain alive. At the same time, my conservative nature cautioned, "That does not mean that all change is necessary, or even useful." In those words, we find the challenge for anyone leading a generally successful organization. Put another way, we know that change is important. But we don't want to screw up the things that are going right!

At Oregon OSHA, we are tackling several significant changes that will affect both consultation and enforcement activities. In enforcement, we are transitioning to a new computer system and in consultation we are adjusting the way we schedule and assign work. Hopefully, they will bear positive fruit, and we will be able to build upon the successes of the past two and a half decades. But my conservative nature keeps me awake nights on occasion.

And I know that I am not alone. For those of us working to make workplace health and safety a reality, change is likewise both necessary and frightening - and even, at times, counterproductive. Too often, we get "sucked in" by the latest fad or clever approach and lose sight of the fundamentals. But at least as often, we become complacent in our success. We know we are good, but we forget the hard work and creativity that made us good in the first place.

The challenge, of course, is that we must choose which changes to pursue. We know that we must change. And we know that changes can be dangerous and disruptive things. That's why we should never charge in blindly - and it's why we should be cautious about jumping on the latest approach just because it's new. If it flies in the face of years, and even decades, of the professional practice of safety and health, we should be skeptical. Something that flies in the face of all we know may well be provocative. But that does not make it a good idea.

How, then, do we decide? Carefully. Thoughtfully. And with a full recognition that there is simply no way to avoid making choices about the changes we will pursue. Nobody ever said this was going to be easy (well, actually a lot of people do say that - but they're pretty much wrong). Achieving workplace health and safety excellence is hard work. And it requires tough decisions. But it's worth the effort, because we are talking about workers' lives and livelihoods. So, we are cursed, I suppose, to live in interesting times. But we are blessed as well.

Michael Wood

Michael Wood
Oregon OSHA Administrator

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