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Evolving Our Profession

Deborah R. Roy, M.P.H., R.N., CSP, COHN-S, CIT, FASSP, FAAOHN, 2020-2021 ASSP President
Jun 01, 2021
ASSP President Deb Roy

As I write this last official President's Message, I find myself reflecting on how our profession has evolved over time and how rapidly it continues to change. We started as compliance enforcers, transitioned to using industry best practices, and have moved into assessing risk, advocating for safety management systems, and understanding human and organizational performance.

That is a long way from our beginnings in 1911 as the United Association of Casualty Inspectors, founded just months after the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 garment workers. Our profession was also changed by the creation of OSHA in 1971, which led to significant decreases in fatality and injury rates.

But we still have critical work to do to ensure that all workers return home the same or better than when they arrived at work. In recent years, work-related fatalities have started to increase slowly. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 5,333 fatal occupational injuries in 2019 are the largest annual number since 2007. And although OSHA's regulations have prevented countless work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths, at least 56% of all fatalities would not have been prevented by 100% compliance with the current standards. Those fatalities are due to workplace violence and transportation incidents not covered by OSHA.

We also know the occupational fatality numbers for 2020 will be even more grim due to the pandemic. There were 3,600 COVID-19 fatalities among healthcare workers alone, and that number will grow when all groups of essential workers are included. Sadly, as happens each year, people of color are disproportionately represented in these statistics. 

Without question, we must help our organizations comply with regulations, but that cannot be our sole focus. We need to implement best practices based on industry consensus standards that protect more workers and rely on modern, evidence-based approaches. We also must champion safety management systems that establish a structure and process that fosters continuous improvement and focuses attention on the true risks of work. When we focus on risk, we can reduce exposure and prevent injuries and illnesses. We can also spend our limited resources more prudently when we pay greater attention to those risks that pose more serious harm.

We are most effective when we help our organizations identify risks and design out hazards. This includes recognizing human error as a risk that must be managed like all other risks we can identify and control. This means we must avoid blaming the worker and start looking beyond retraining as the primary outcome of incident investigations. By applying these approaches, we can help our organizations reduce costs, improve productivity and protect worker well-being.

As you look toward the next evolution of your role, I urge you to explore the benefits of a Total Worker Health (TWH)-based approach in your workplace. As I shared in October:

TWH provides an opportunity for us to advance our profession as well as the safety and well-being of the people in our organizations. NIOSH defines TWH as a system of policies, programs and practices that integrates protection from work-related safety and health hazards with the promotion of injury and illness prevention to advance worker well-being. Implementing and using TWH strategies can help our organizations address evolving business conditions, create a sustainable benefit to worker safety and health, and improve our organizations' financial health.

As you continue to grow your career, keep learning and keep evolving your approach so you can influence your organization forward. We are making a difference and I am confident we will continue to do so!

As my term as president ends, I want to thank all of you for your resilience during this challenging year. It was an honor to be your Society president. I am also proud of all the efforts of our volunteers, including the Board of Directors and all community leaders, and ASSP staff. On behalf of the Society, thank you!

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