Avoid turf wars: Defuse conflicts between safety and occ health

Know program boundaries

As the occupational health expands into the safety arena, tension between the two areas is a predictable result. One way to avoid conflicts is to clearly establish what each program does.

At the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, a chart was created to spell out the roles and responsibilities of safety and occupational health. It was enlarged to poster size to have a bigger impact on employees.

"Only when both sides saw the big printout did they begin to understand and appreciate what the other side did," says Robert Emery, DrPH, vice president of safety, health, environment and risk management. Emery is also an associate professor of occupational health at The University of Texas School of Public Health.

"Virtually everyone in the department got a clearer understanding of what was going on," says Emery.

Emery says that safety's role was already clear when it came to protecting employees from immediate harm, such as fall protection or electrocution. "In such instances, it fell on safety to do training and routine surveillance. Only if any injury occurred would they reengage with the occupational health program."

When it came to health-related risks, though, the waters became a little murky. If a pre-placement examination identified a preexisting condition, this brought up the question of who did ergonomic training. "That is where it took some clear definitions to prevent people from inadvertently stepping on each other's toes," says Emery.

Who's in charge?

The relationship between health and safety professionals has a financial impact on any industry. "But when 'turf wars' exist between these two important professionals, the strong, positive financial impact can be diminished or not even realized at all," says Kathy Dayvault, RN, MPH, COHN-S/CM, an occupational health nurse at PureSafety in Franklin, TN.

Identifying which steps safety does, and which occupational health does, is important for areas such as hearing preservation or respiratory protection. Otherwise, says Emery, "there is always the underlying tension of who is in charge. There may be an unspoken concern that one group is superior to the other, or will take over the other."

Occupational health may wrongly assume a particular task is done by safety, or vice versa. Employees may get conflicting information from the two groups.

"There may be inconsistent messaging about whether respiratory protection is needed. It might be very brief exposure or long-term exposure. Some of these things are subject to interpretation. They are not always black and white," says Emery.

At Emery's facility, both groups found that they didn't fully comprehend what the other group did. The occupational health nurses were surprised at all of the training and surveillance that the safety people did. Conversely, the safety people had a misconception about how much hands-on clinical care occupational health performed, as opposed to surveillance, inoculations, and case management.

Don't take on too much

During these fiscally tough times, companies may look to combine occupational health and safety into a single role. "Times are tight. If a manufacturing plant, for example, is looking to save, they may ask an occupational health person to go out and do safety stuff," says Emery.

However, it's a dangerous mistake to get in over your head. "You need to be cautious. Acknowledge your own limitations," says Emery.

You may be ill-equipped to address the dangers of compressed gases, for instance. "There are some pretty dangerous things out there. Putting up a railing is one thing, but to know where the potential for electrical arcing to occur is more complex, and that's the stuff that can really hurt people," says Emery.

SOURCES

For more information on avoiding conflict between occupational health and safety, contact:

• Robin Alegria, RN, COHN-S, Occupational Health Nurse, Baxter Healthcare, Thousand Oaks, CA. Phone: (805) 375-5524. Phone: robin_alegria@baxter.com

• Kathy Dayvault, RN, MPH, COHN-S/CM, Occupational Health Nurse, PureSafety, Franklin, TN. Phone: (615) 312-1242. Fax: (615) 367-3887. E-mail: kathy.dayvault@puresafety.com

• Robert Emery, DrPH, Vice President, Safety, Health, Environment and Risk Management, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (TX). Phone: (713) 500-8100. E-mail: Robert.J.Emery@uth.tmc.edu.