Feature

An organization for psychologists and other researchers in occupational safety and health is set to begin forming this fall to bring together professionals in this emerging area, which applies psychological principles to investigating how to reduce workplace psychological stress, injury and illness.

Inspired by a decade-long collaboration between APA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) that funded graduate-level training programs and sparked widespread interest in OHP, a group of occupational health psychologists is now branching out to form the Society of Occupational Health Psychology (SOHP).

At a meeting this October, the ad hoc group of some 30 to 40 committed occupational health experts--many of them psychologists--will be planning an organizational structure and a membership system. One day the society may even apply to become a new APA division.

Making OHP a household name

Occupational health psychology (OHP)--which differs from occupational health because it pays increased attention to the role of psychosocial factors as risk factors for occupational injury and illness, including stress--began to surface at a 1990 APA/NIOSH conference that forged the partnership between the two organizations. Today, it has become a commonly used term among psychologists and the public alike, says Gwendolyn Keita, PhD, associate executive director of APA's Public Interest Directorate.

A number of occupational trends, such as downsizing, contingent labor and longer work hours, have propelled the need for OHP, says Steven Sauter, PhD, chief of the Organizational Science and Human Factors Branch in the Division of Applied Research and Technology at NIOSH. "These are hot issues with a psychological dimension to them," says Sauter. "As work has changed in the last few decades, work stress has taken on greater salience."

But Sauter notes the field is not exclusively a psychological one. Since the October 1990 issue of the American Psychologist (Vol. 45, No. 10) first coined the term, OHP's biggest challenge has been defining itself from other occupational health or industrial fields, says SOHP Executive Secretary Leslie Hammer, PhD, a professor at Portland State University and currently the only official in SOHP's to-be-formed executive structure.

"We are interdisciplinary not just within psychology, but outside of psychology," Hammer says. "We have programs that are headed by a physician, I/O psychologists, counseling psychologists and social psychologists. We have people with expertise in epidemiology, ergonomics and industrial hygiene. It's hard to clearly define the field."

That definition challenge points to a clear need for a specific organization focused on OHP, Sauter says. "Through SOHP, this field can gain greater recognition," he says. "You need that for funding organizations to see it. The development of the society will spur further development of the field."

Building interest in the group

The new OHP society took root with a 1990 cooperative agreement between NIOSH and APA that provided seed money to 11 universities to launch OHP training programs. The two organizations renewed the agreement in 1996, and NIOSH later funded two programs with a more substantial training grant. Today, 12 universities (see sidebar) offer graduate training in OHP, with some offering master's and doctoral-level programs. About 40 graduate students have received training in the area.

But when the cooperative agreement expired in 2002 because the programs were successfully up and running, these programs represented the only official face of OHP in the United States, Sauter says. However, the agreement between APA and NIOSH had fostered a broader interest in OHP: During that time, APA created the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology in 1996 and NIOSH launched a Web page--www.cdc.gov/niosh/ohp.html--dedicated to OHP scholarship. Thanks to efforts by Keita, APA and NIOSH have organized six major international meetings on OHP since 1990. And Sauter says 30 graduate students attended the group's latest meeting, which followed the APA Div. 14 (Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology) conference in April.

To meet the interest, a group of about 35 researchers including Sauter, Hammer and Heather Fox, PhD--a former co-principal investigator for the APA-NIOSH project at APA--set out to give itself a concrete structure. The group met formally in November 2001 and twice in 2003 to discuss projects such as OHP continuing-education courses and how to better meet businesses' OHP needs and create more employment opportunities for OHP-trained psychologists.

The group has charged five subcommittees with various initiatives to get its name out, Hammer says. A Web site launching by fall will feature OHP course syllabi, lectures and job and internship postings. Nearly 200 people have subscribed to the group's OHP listserv. And the new society hopes to hold a one-day pre-conference at the site of the APA/NIOSH Work, Stress and Health 2006 conference.

Hammer says the society should become official in October. In the future it plans to create executive positions and will eventually accept members. Reflecting its multidisciplinary roots, SOHP has discussed using a format that will accept both APA and non-APA members.

"We don't want only these 12 training programs to exist," Hammer says. "We are broadening our scope now because we are not just training programs for OHP. We are a society for OHP."

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