December 2014

Going the Distance

Meet a leading Oregon health and safety professional

Company: SAIF Corporation

Industrial Hygiene Supervisor: David Johnson

David Johnson

Workforce: Johnson manages and coordinates industrial hygiene services for SAIF Corporation's approximately 49,000 policyholders

Common Hazards: Industrial hygiene hazards include noise, metals, chemicals, dusts, and biological hazards

What is your background and safety philosophy?

After earning a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Health from the University of Georgia, I was fortunate to attend graduate school through a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health grant at the University of Utah, where I earned my Master of Science in Public Health with a specialty in Industrial Hygiene. During that time, I also had the opportunity to work at the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health by assisting with continuing education training and conducting fit-testing and respiratory protection training for State of Utah employees who were required to wear respirators.

I have learned so much about the importance of collaboration and communication in furthering safety and health efforts during almost 20 years at SAIF. My work experience has included starting out as an intern, then working directly with our customers as a field hygienist for 12 years, and now supervising the team that works to deliver industrial hygiene services for the past seven years. If we are not engaged with business partners on really understanding and effectively communicating safety and health hazards, we cannot effect change for employees and ensure they are protected.

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Federal OSHA recently opened a discussion about outdated Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) and the effect on workers. What areas do you feel need the most attention?

To me, there is no doubt that the PELs need to be updated. For the past 20 years, membership of the American Industrial Hygiene Association has placed it as the No. 1 priority of the industrial hygiene profession.

We can certainly engage in discussions about how we might change the rulemaking process, or perhaps use hazard-banding (grouping chemicals of similar toxicity or similar toxicity mechanisms into groups) to help provide a system for evaluating hazards where occupational exposure limits don't exist, but we have lived in a world where PELs have existed for almost four-and-a-half decades. They have served as the foundational basis for how we protect workers from airborne chemical exposures. An entirely new approach to protecting workers from airborne chemical exposures is not going to happen overnight, and because the process has dragged on for far too long, many PELs are no longer adequate to protect workers.

In 2013, OSHA attempted to encourage businesses to follow more protective exposure limits by publishing annotated tables that contained a variety of occupational exposure limits. I think businesses can do a better job of leveraging these more protective, health-based limits in making decisions on how to manage and communicate risks.

Too often, the real message that employees are overexposed to chemicals gets lost in the dialogue when employers believe workers are OK because they are under OSHA PELs. In particular, I think how we communicate that workers are overexposed and that necessary, mandatory action should be taken, needs to be based on safer limits.

You work with employers on improving their programs to address chemical exposures. What type of innovative things have you seen put into action?

I have seen some small businesses do a great job with specific chemical substitution. Chemical substitution wasn't necessarily the innovation, but rather the process that was involved. They were successful substitutions that informally followed a safer alternative assessment process that engaged stakeholders, ensured the alternatives were indeed safer through the use of growing available resources on the topic, and achieved the same or nearly the same function as before the change. This process can also be more formalized and integrated into larger organizations.

How do you overcome an employer's resistance to change?

Frequently, I engage with internal and external business partners to learn more about a particular organization's resistance. This can be with the SAIF safety consultant that is assigned to work the account on a regular basis, the underwriter who prices the account, or an account representative or agent that works with the employer. Once I know more about what is driving the resistance, I try to develop a plan that is best suited to overcome the obstacles. Sometimes, that involves appealing to the moral and ethical side of decision-makers' emotions by addressing that "It's the right thing to do." Other times, I will share other companies' solutions to similar challenges and how that makes them a more attractive business from an insurability standpoint in the workers' compensation marketplace. I also highlight how successful safety and health programs factors into the equation of being an employer of choice among the most talented employees.

What advice do you have for other safety and health managers hoping to make a difference?

Start small, build a multi-year plan, ask for stakeholder input (engage with others), measure success, track cost savings, and communicate victories (big or small) to employees and customers to let them know that your efforts are making a difference. Don't forget to mentor others and, most importantly, don't give up.

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