Ten 'Critical Traits' of Respected Field Safety Professionals

It should be noted that even if you are not a new safety professional and have been in the organization for years, it is never too late to change your approach.

As a safety professional, one of most important keys to our success is in how we interact with the teams we support, whether it is operations leadership or the employees in the field who are getting the job done. In this article, we’ll discuss the importance of those interactions with the workforce and the importance of how to approach and interact with those professionals in the field.

Sometimes culture change can take time. In fact, in some instances, it may take years. Never discount the impact you can have on an entire organization winning the hearts and minds of employees, one person at a time. The following 10 traits will help in educating and influencing employees to do the right thing, as well as building your reputation as a respectful, trusting, and caring professional.

1. Dress for Success:
Arrive at the job site dressed in proper personal protective equipment (PPE). Park in a safe manner in accordance with company rules (cones if required, etc.). Field employees pay attention to the little things that speak volumes about your interactions with them. Are you ready to work and help them or fumbling around putting on PPE for 10 minutes before engaging in interaction?

For those interactions back at the office, you'll want to dress professionally even if it means having a second set of clothes. Professionalism is critical in interaction at all levels. Remember, perception is reality.

2. Lead by Example:
When approaching crews, always model the proper behavior. Never, ever, compromise a safety rule. Always wear every piece of required safety gear and always follow every safety rule. I'm always surprised by how many supervisors, managers, and even safety professionals will engage employees without all the required PPE. It's as if the rules do not apply to them because they are in management or a safety professional. This must never happen since it undermines the entire safety effort. Safety professionals and management must always model the behavior they expect from their employees. Wear the PPE and follow every safety rule. Bottom line, "Walk the Talk."

3. Give Respect to Gain Respect:
Approach employees in a respectful manner. I believe this is the most important aspect of a successful safety interaction. Think about how you would like to be approached if you were in that person’s shoes. Look for opportunities to identify positive actions the crew is taking and share those observations with the foremen and crew. When dealing with an unsafe condition or action, whether it's a significant concern or a minor violation, your success or failure will depend on how you approach the employee, foremen, and the situation. I've found taking the individual aside and having a "one on one" discussion goes a long way to build trust and respect. Additionally, approaching someone from a position of concern for his or her welfare, in a sincere manner, can resolve an issue and change behavior.

4. Seek to Understand:
When an issue is identified, ensure the job leader or the foremen are involved and aware of the situation. After all, they are responsible for the safety of their job site. If an imminent danger situation is observed, immediate response is required and action needs to be taken right away to make the job safe. Discussions with the foremen and or crew can take place after correction of the unsafe condition. For less serious situations, work with the foremen to understand why a potential condition exists. Ask questions to understand why the job is set up the way it is. There may be a reason for the deviation, or the foremen will own up to the error and will often correct without further engagement. If this occurs, thank the foremen for their actions and ask for the same support in the future.

5. Build Influence:
This is especially important for new safety professionals just starting with a company. This is not about making friends or being liked. This is about effective human interactions—often referred to as "emotional intelligence." How you interact with people will impact how they perceive you and your intentions in regard to their safety. Your success is directly related to how you interact with those in the field and how they perceive you. If you come across as the "safety police," you might get momentary compliance, but not culture-changing respect. Coming across as a caring individual and being known for being respectful and fair-minded will win hearts and minds in the culture change initiative.

It should be noted that even if you are not a new safety professional and have been in the safety organization for years, it is never too late to change your approach. Employees are always watching how we interact with them and notice when things change, even subtle things. It's never too late to start those positive interactions that build influence.

6. Learn the Work:
Field employees appreciate it when you take an interest in learning their work. They take great pride in the work they do and usually are willing to teach you everything you want to know about the work. This will go a long way in building relationships and, with that, all-important influence. It will also give you a better understanding of the job and potential hazards of the work. Just be sure you do not get in the way or put yourself in an unsafe position.

7. Leave the Clipboard in the Truck:
This is about employee interaction, not about checking off a box on a list. Get out, shake hands, and don't be afraid to get a little dirty if necessary. Ask employees what can be done to enhance the safety of their job. Be a good listener when engaging in dialogue. If you offer to follow up on an issue with an employee, do so. Nothing will damage your creditability faster than not following up on something you said you would do. If your company requires that a checklist be filled out, do it back in the pickup truck or the office.

8. Do Not Become an Enabler of Unsafe Behavior:
If you see something that is not right or a violation of a safety rule, you will need to deal with it. If you ignore it, you will enable a dysfunctional culture and you will undermine your credibility. Essentially, you become part of the problem and not the solution. By ignoring an issue, you communicate to everyone on the job site that it is acceptable to take a safety shortcut. By dealing with the issue in a fair, firm, respectful way, you will establish yourself as someone who is consistent, professional, and caring.

9. Focus on the Positive:
Make it a point to identify positive things. Show you appreciation to the crew for a job safely done. Make sure the team's supervisor or manager is aware of what a good, safe job their employees are doing.

Success breeds success. Be specific in pinpointing those employees and the behaviors that went into making this a safe effort. Remember, this reflects on the boss, as well. Make it a point to share these positive experiences with the leadership team when the opportunity presents itself. I'm surprised by how many professionals miss this important opportunity to work both up and down the leadership chain.

10. Show Resiliency:
When things go "wrong," which they sometimes can, listen to employees with empathy, ask for clarity, paraphrase to indicate you heard their concerns and are truly interested in understanding their position. Avoid defensive postures. If you promise to "check into" an issue or follow up, do so as soon as possible.

If you make a mistake, own up to it. Humans have a tendency to occasionally make mistakes. People respect individuals who own up and accept responsibility. It's being able to learn from those mistakes and bouncing back to your energetic, passionate self that is the mark of a true professional.

These are "10 Traits" that will show employees you are a caring, passionate professional, more interested in their going home safe to their families and loved ones than in being a "safety cop." These techniques will build relationships and the all-importance influence to succeed in culture change, even if it means building it one person at a time.

This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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