By Michael Wood
Like many organizations, Oregon OSHA has faced a number of retirements in recent years, and it doesn't appear that the pace will be lessening any time soon.
At the end of May, our longtime rules coordinator, Sue Joye, took with her a wealth of expertise in Oregon rulemaking, and Oregon OSHA's rulemaking in particular. At the same time, yet another of our senior field investigators, John Murphy, also retired. John joins a number of highly experienced consultation and enforcement staff who have left our ranks in recent years. And, of course, we've seen recent changes in our management ranks as well – at the end of June we will be losing our statewide enforcement manager, Gary Beck, to retirement and his twin grandsons.
While we wish each of these individuals well, and we celebrate their achievements on behalf of Oregon workers and their employers over the years, it is undeniable that their departure results in a loss of accumulated experience and training that cannot be readily replaced. Don't get me wrong – we are very happy with the folks who have joined our ranks during the last year or two as well. And we have a number of capable folks working their way up the ranks. But it's undeniable in a job such as this one that there is no real substitute for experience.
We do try to transfer at least some of that experience by using senior staff to assist us in training newer hires, or in passing on particular lessons or areas of expertise. And when we can, we have selected replacements for retirees early enough to allow genuine transition time. But we probably haven't done as much as we should to really gather the accumulated expertise we are losing and to transfer that expertise to our newer hires.
For us, that loss of expertise can be a troublesome issue and it means we will have to work harder to generate those skills in the future. But when an employer loses a long-term safety professional in a critical role or a skilled operator who has run key equipment for decades, the consequences can be downright dangerous.
We know that even mature safety and health activities, such as those represented by the Voluntary Protection Program and the best SHARP employers, can struggle with the loss of key personnel. Too often, even well-documented programs rely on one or two employees to maintain and access that documentation – and if they leave, the documentation falls by the wayside.
That's why it is important not only to document key safety activities, but also to distribute that documentation widely through the organization – machine-located standard operating procedures can do a lot more good for operators than the same documents kept in a binder in someone's office. And simple hazard assessments that involve a wider group of workers usually can be better sustained than more "elegant" products that are the work of one or two specialists.
The loss of expertise due to staff retirement and turnover is not a challenge that will be going away any time soon. If anything, we can all expect the problem to become more widespread as tenures are measured in years – and even months – rather than decades. And that means that it's worth spending some time in your safety discussions – including conversations with your safety committee – talking about how you will meet those challenges. The consequences of failing to do so can be truly dangerous.
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