SRU professors discuss the evolving roles and importance of safety professionals
Through its safety management program, Slippery Rock University is preparing students to work in safety professions that have evolved since the start of the pandemic.
Feb. 14, 2022
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — The term "KN95 respirator" used to be industry jargon known mostly to safety management professionals. Personal protective equipment were tools of the trade endorsed by these essential, yet often unsung, safety managers within companies around the world. But that was before COVID-19 caused a global pandemic. Now, safety professionals have more attention from everyone, and face masks such as KN95s and N95s, are part of everyday life for nearly everyone.
"We were kind of that hidden field that people didn't really know a lot about," said Angela Bernardo, Slippery Rock University associate professor of safety management, who spent a decade as an occupational safety compliance officer before joining the SRU faculty. "All employees have a greater role in safety since the start of the pandemic. And there are a lot of issues in the workplace that eventually end up trickling over to safety with remote work, worker shortages and fatigue, supply chain, and even security with workers dealing with disgruntled customers."
Safety management professionals are well aware of the direct consequences and residual effects of disruptive events, but the global pandemic and subsequent labor and supply chain shortages packed a one-two punch that changed the way safety managers operate.
"The biggest change is the health component," said David Renz, assistant professor of safety management, who previously worked in in the safety field for nearly 30 years in a variety of industries. "We prepare students, who after graduating, are often hired into HSE roles -- health, safety and environment -- and the 'S' and the 'E' get a lot of attention, but, historically, the health part didn't get as much attention, especially as it pertains to communicable diseases."
"We do look at the health hazards in the workplace, like asbestos and lead exposure, but viruses, a lot of times, are more specialized for the safety professional," Bernardo said. "That's more for health care professionals or safety professionals who deal with blood-borne pathogens. There was a learning curve for safety professionals because you have to start understanding the information from the CDC and interpreting it to see how you are going to apply that to your workplace. And that learning curve continues because information keeps evolving."
Renz and Bernardo both have taught ergonomics classes at SRU, which is the study of people's efficiency in their working environment, and that has presented new challenges for safety professionals with more people working remotely. About two-thirds of employees in white-collar jobs reported working from home either exclusively (41%) or some of the time (26%), according to a recent Gallup poll.
"We're going into some new areas with more people working from home," Renz said. "For example, what if someone says their back is hurting because of their work station at home and they request a new chair?"
"Another example is if you trip and fall over your dog, that's not the employer's responsibility," Bernardo said. "But if you trip and fall over the box of papers that you took home to work on, then yes, in theory, that is the employer's responsibility."
Staff shortages are also a problem that safety professionals have to account for, in addition to COVID mitigation. Known as the Great Resignation, workers across all sectors in the U.S. were voluntarily leaving their jobs in 2021, as many as 4.5 million per month. The largest sectors to leave were those in customer-facing and blue-collar professions, including manufacturing and construction. Those jobs are most often subjected to compliance issues and close monitoring by safety management professionals.
"You start pushing people over that 40-hour-per-week mark, it starts really impacting a lot of things: their health, their quality of life, fatigue in the workplace," Bernardo said. "If you have drowsy workers, that's not good."
Employee turnover also has consequences that safety professionals must confront.
"When you're onboarding new employees, how effective is virtual training?" Bernardo said. "It's so easy to get distracted when you're on a call, and a lot of times the biggest problem with safety is complacency. If you're not there at the facility doing the inspections because of COVID restrictions, that could be an issue. And then, with a lot of people leaving the workforce, we see a lot of institutional knowledge disappearing too, and the groups of employees who remain might not know the facility as well."
"There needs to be a greater emphasis on communication and team-building," Renz said. "You might need to educate your company's management on some technical component (related to COVID), but then also have the people skills to get buy-in from everyone. That's even more difficult if you're in a manufacturing plant and you have to keep six feet of distancing."
Renz and Bernardo both agreed that the downstream effects of the pandemic mean there will be a demand for safety management professionals as companies continue to recognize the importance of workplace safety.
"The role of a safety professional is to anticipate, evaluate and control hazards in the workplace," Bernardo said. "Safety professionals must adjust to the changing working environment and hazards present in the workplace to protect the health and safety of all workers. There is a need for safety professionals to learn and adapt as they take on new challenges such as COVID, regulatory changes and other emerging hazards."
More information about the SRU safety management program is available on the department's website.
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