The Emerging Role of the Safety Professional, Part 1

The landscape of your career has changed. Yours and other organizations must increasingly rely on effective leadership at all levels to motivate people in new ways.

Safety professionals have long been the mainstay of EHS performance. Even as methodologies evolve, new tools emerge, and thinking changes, organizations have counted on these practitioners to guide the core of EHS functioning. Still, changes in the business landscape are beginning to change that role. Businesses have moved to flatter organizational models, leaders have less discretionary time, and competition is increasingly global. Whether you are working at a plant site or in a corporate office, the new reality is that what made you successful in the past may not be enough for success in the future.

This article is the first in a series on the emerging role of the safety professional in today’s business landscape. The series will outline how safety professionals can successfully navigate the issues and opportunities of new business realities for personal, professional, and organizational success. We begin with a look at the new landscape safety professionals must work within, the opportunity these circumstances present, and the major pitfalls that can derail a safety professional’s credibility and value in this new environment.

The Safety Professional in Today’s Organization
Whether she is called an industrial hygienist, safety manager, loss prevention engineer, or any of a myriad of other titles, the safety professional’s core duty is the prevention of events that cause harm to people, property, or the environment. Traditionally, the safety professional has been viewed as a technical expert who must be proficient in a wide range of methods, controls, and administrative tasks in order to drive safety functioning. There was a time when being a good technician and “safety cop” was sufficient for career success. That is no longer the case. Today, merely applying effective safety controls requires navigating an increasingly complex organizational landscape.

To start, safety professionals must contend with threats to people that exist in greater number and variety than ever before, among them pandemics, terrorism, and on-the-job violence. Within the organization, old, reliable landmarks have shifted—beyond recognition, in some cases. Fewer people must do more work faster and with fewer resources. Technology is moving at light speed. Employees work under less supervision, in flatter organizations, and with responsibility for increasingly complex decisions. The workforce is also aging, and years of downsizing have left a declining manufacturing base and an influx of newer, less-experienced employees at every level. The organizations that survive must not only deal successfully with these problems, but also must do so in an atmosphere of less tolerance for injuries and environmental mistakes and a higher penchant for litigation.

Perhaps the most significant casualty of these developments is the erosion of the traditional relationship between employee and organization. There are no more lifetime jobs. Upward opportunities are more scarce. Benefits have become sources of frustration as employees see pensions disappearing and health care costs either going the same way or becoming prohibitively expensive. Organizations today must increasingly rely on effective leadership at all levels to motivate people in new ways.

Opportunities & Pitfalls
Certainly, future success is going to demand increased proficiency and savvy. At the same time, this new environment presents safety professionals with a new opportunity: partnering with leadership in enhancing organizational culture and performance. Safety is one business function that allows an organization to demonstrate genuine concern for the well-being of the individual and give life to the ethics that are becoming more important to employee satisfaction. Safety professionals have the skills and ability to help implement processes and technology with reliability and sustainability. In this way, safety professionals position themselves as consultants to the organization and trusted advisors to the line organization and its leaders.

Realizing this level of personal and professional growth means moving beyond the role of the technician toward that of a change agent. While the change agent role involves different skills and knowledge, the process begins with recognizing how the safety professional is currently adding—or undermining—his or her core value to the organization and personal credibility.

There are several traps we have seen safety professionals fall into that are illustrative of the safety professional’s role and value and what happens when people fail to realize their influence. The vast majority of people caught in these traps are not doing these things because they lack concern for employees. Instead, they get caught up in the organizational situation and in many cases make decisions under pressure to appear as a “team player.”

Independently deciding resources are unavailable: One of the tough questions that needs to be considered by safety professionals and line leadership is to what extent safety professionals should be concerned about, and influenced by, production and profitability targets. For example, not recommending a new initiative to encourage workers to submit safety suggestions because people are “too busy already” compromises the safety professional’s personal value and worth to the organization. Effective safety professionals must make risk evaluations and safety strategy recommendations independently of business considerations. It is the professional’s job to be proactive in anticipating safety needs and to prepare solutions that fit those needs as they arise.

Clearly, safety professionals need to have a strong case for change, give consideration and thought to the process or system they are recommending, plus have an accurate assessment of the resource requirements. But that is where the obligation needs to end. It is then up to line management to determine whether the organization has the capacity to absorb the change.

Adding layers of complexity: The second issue is almost an antithesis of the first. This is the situation where the safety professional gives little or no consideration to the organizational structure or its capacity for change. The mindset is that every situation needs to be handled by a new and complex program. The effect becomes more severe in organizations with an increasing employee–to-leader ratio or where employee engagement in safety prevention activities is not possible or is ineffective.

A good example of this mindset is treating every exposure type with a similar level of programmatic development, complexity, and detail. The reality is that not all exposures deserve the same level of intervention; while all are important, their potential outcomes differ. An organization that spends as much time and effort dealing with a situation where the most likely result is a minor injury as it does with exposures that can lead to lifealtering injuries or fatalities has the beginnings of a problem. Left unchecked, complicated procedures and systems force line leaders to pick and choose what to focus on, compromising the effectiveness and consistency of safety activities.

Insertion into the disciplinary process: Another easy trap for safety professionals to fall into is seeing themselves as the people who should decide whether discipline should be administered to a person who violates the rules or procedures. While everyone at the site has an obligation to ensure rules and policies are followed, this doesn’t mean it is appropriate for safety professionals to be in the middle of a discipline process. When a safety professional becomes the person in the organization who administers discipline, two things can and often do happen: First, it gives management permission to abdicate its responsibility to enforce the safety policies and rules. Second, this situation strongly positions the safety professional as an advocate for management, versus an advocate and resource for safety.

Failure to investigate and analyze new initiatives and approaches: The final trap has to do with how safety professionals think about change. The worst thing that can happen to a safety professional is to become known as the person who thinks only tactically or presents solutions he has not fully investigated. Just because something worked in one location or in one particular situation does not mean that approach is valid or appropriate given your organization’s situation, configuration, or desired direction. Leaders serious about improvement will want long-term, proven solutions and will look to your safety expertise for answers. Thinking strategically about how to improve results helps you get a seat at the leadership table.

Effective and credible safety professionals must think beyond problems and issues and learn to recognize problems in the interactions among systems and programs, both within the safety domain and across other business domains. For example, the solution to an ineffective program may not be finding a new one; it may be reconfiguring its interface with the nonsafety business systems that influence it.

What’s Next?
Safety professionals have a great deal to offer their organizations. They stand to gain in standing and influence as they assert their expertise in safety and organizational change. The first step is ensuring you are fulfilling your safety role effectively. In the next article in this series, we will discuss the role of safety professional as change agent.

This article is the first part of a four-part series titled “The Emerging Role of the Safety Professional,” which will continue in the following three consecutive issues.

Read the entire "Emerging Role" series: Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

This article originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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