A New Plan for a New Year

Hang on tight for the next months of really tough times and uncertainty. Use this time as a learning experience to improve yourself professionally and to help your workforce cope.

Brutalized by the spiraling financial crises of 2008, most of us are thrilled the year has closed. Our sad awakening is that the pain of shrinking budgets, job losses, and more work with fewer resources continues for 2009! Stress is higher than usual on all parts of the workplace chain.

Corporate leaders are making tough decisions, many of which will affect the everyday worker's bottom line. And that worker is stressed. These situations affect workplace safety in many ways, and the stress can adversely affect you as the safety professional.

So what should we do now?

• Keep yourself focused on safety. Let HR and the corporate suite speak to all of the woeful things affecting the company, the industry, the economy, etc. Don't get pulled into the raging battles between departments. Don't allow yourself to become the unofficial naysayer of the company, either. There is enough safety work to be done to help our workplaces without immersing ourselves in the politics.

• Keep moving forward, as positively as possible. Not Pollyanna, but realistic. Being honest in brutal times helps give Safety additional integrity. Rarely do safety professionals make the choices of workplace reductions, yet we have to help with the transition and negative fallout of those decisions. If your training budget has been slashed, make sure what training you can offer is the best it can be and presented as a benefit to employees. (And it is.) If your staffers have been reduced, be glad to have the extra workload instead of being laid off. There are many unemployed safety professionals out there right now.

• Keep a watchful eye on your industry and a finger on the pulse. Usually, Safety knows when things are improving or not.

• Keep corporate managers aware of trends such as increased workplace injuries, excess use of PPE, or unusual situations such as large-scale theft, and do this without additional negative commentary. You stay in a more positive light in this way and also provide a gauge of how the workplace is coping. You remain in front of them as a level-headed team player.

• Don't lie to the employees. And do not take sides, because you will be the loser either way. Sometimes it is much better to say nothing. "That's not my decision," "That's an HR question," or -- my favorite -- "I don't have a dog in that fight!" This is not the time for us as safety professionals to be pulled into bickering among the staff.

• Know that things will change. Hope for short-term challenges instead of padlocks on the gate. Plan for deep cuts and how you will adapt. Keep that professional resume up to date and make sure you stay current in case the corporate cuts do include your position. (Make sure you have copies of whatever you need secured in a safe place off the work site now. Some companies close suddenly, freezing the computer system and preventing employees from entering the premises.)

Me? I've been downsized, Rif'd, etc., three times in 24 years. The first time was a shocker, the second a surprise, and the third time, I was ready! The best defense you as a safety professional can have for yourself is to hope for the best and plan for the worst, both personally and professionally. It is what great safety folks do: We work through difficult times with the quiet assurance things will improve. They usually do. Hang on tight for the next months of really tough times and uncertainty. And use this time as a learning experience to improve yourself professionally, as well as to help your workforce cope.

This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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