The Emerging Role of the Safety Professional, Part 3

How well do we develop our own and our team's skills, and what can we do better?

The safety professional’s primary role is to help the organization move toward an injury-free environment. Transitioning from “technical expert only” to versatile change agent gets us part of the way by helping us reorient ourselves around a bigger-picture view of the causes and influences of safety. This article takes the next step with a look at the heart of the safety professional’s activity in the organization: setting—and keeping— improvement mechanisms in motion.

Evolving business realities affect the safety professional’s job in very important ways, not least of which is heightening the polarities among resources, profit, and risk management. How we approach new systems and resources will have a direct impact on how well change efforts perform and whether or not we advance the safety profession in a way that makes it not only relevant, but essential, to the organization.

Why Method Matters
Becoming a change agent means that we develop a broader view of safety and its causes. We step above a narrow, technical focus in a way that helps us contribute to strategy and make a case for safety’s role in the organization beyond mere compliance. So how does this role manifest itself in the actual practice of managing change systems? While our thinking as a change agent becomes more broad, our practice of safety at the implementation level must become more precise. Increasing organizational complexity means change efforts face increased risk for error and, should they fail, heightened potential for damage to the culture and the safety objective. It is critical that we understand and avoid those pitfalls that pertain directly to change systems, chiefly:

Getting intimately involved in the discipline or punishment process for rule or procedure infraction. We cannot afford to remain the safety cop or to enable the line to abdicate accountability.

Advocating or implementing a program because “everyone else is doing it.” We cannot afford to attach our reputation, or the safety of employees, to programs we have not fully vetted for effectiveness or for its alignment with our organization’s needs, values, and objectives.

Being so technically focused that we give the line organization neatly wrapped solutions without regard to culture and behavioral reliability. We cannot afford to expend resources on solutions that do not match organizational realities and limitations.

To be effective, and remain relevant, the safety professional must look at his or her role from a leadership, rather than managerial, perspective. In addition to identifying effective tools and systems, we must consider how successful those solutions will be given the configuration of our organization’s culture, vision, and resources. In other words,we must not only consider the “what” (e.g., this system for this objective),we must also consider the “how” (e.g., how this system supports our goals and who we are as a company). This mindset informs how we identify, implement, and manage safety systems.

Effective Change Management: Five Essential Elements
As a change agent, the new safety professional must know the focus (exposure reduction), understand behavior, and understand culture and climate. These competencies are the starting point for creating change. The actual work of implementing and managing change efforts requires additional tactical considerations. In our experience, the safety professional who wishes to lead performance must pay attention to five key areas: the organization’s present state, the vision for the change effort, the implementation strategy, organizational resources, and maintaining the organization’s focus on the safety objective.

Assessing the Present State
For a new safety system to be successful, there not only needs to be acceptance of the new way of doing things, but also there must be alignment among behaviors, programs, and systems throughout the organization. Creating this alignment requires that the safety professional develop a clear picture of the landscape he or she is stepping into. The safety professional needs to develop a clear understanding of several key things, including:

The present state of the culture, namely, what beliefs and values determine how things are done right now in the organization? How will those beliefs and values help or hinder a new initiative?

The aspired values of the organization in behavioral terms. For example, an aspired value of “being a workplace that does not accept injuries” might be stated in behavioral terms as, “ We rigorously look for and address exposures and their causes ahead of injuries.”

The capability of the leaders we interact with and depend on for implementation of our programs, processes, and systems. What can we depend on and what will we need to compensate for?

Our own capabilities and skills and how we are perceived by the organization. How effectively do we lead ourselves right now? How well do we develop our own and our team’s skills, and what can we do better?

Articulating Vision
The new safety professional must align the processes and programs he or she brings to the table with the vision and values of the organization. This is fundamental; without a clear link to organizational goals and needs, the change system becomes tangential, at best. We must be able to articulate why the change system we’re forwarding makes sense and how it will help the organization as a whole.

Developing a Complete Implementation Strategy
Implementation strategy is where we ensure a solution is a true fit for the organization’s needs, goals, and values. In addition to the basic steps needed to implement a change system (for example, introduction, initial training, first phase, etc.), an effective implementation strategy must include elements that account for:

The strengths and challenges identified through assessing the present state. For example if we find that the organization enjoys strong supervisor effectiveness, our implementation strategy can leverage this by giving a defined role to team leaders in process activities or the rollout of the implementation itself.

The need to co-develop cultural characteristics that will support the initiative. Chiefly, successful implementation will depend on the engagement of individuals throughout the organization. Our strategy needs to include activities that support or foster culture characteristics that encourage engagement, such as leader-member exchange, management credibility, and perceptions of organizational support.

Matching Resources with Objectives
The safety professional needs to be pragmatic and even proactive in matching the change effort objectives with available resources. Effective resource matching requires, first, clarity on the objectives that need to be accomplished and, second, an awareness of what resources are necessary for accomplishing them. Taking on a broad objective without sufficient resources wastes the resources that do get applied—and sends a message to employees that the organization is only partly committed to safety.

Maintaining a Sense of Vulnerability
Getting the spotlight is not hard when there is a clear demand for change (for example, higher injury rates, a fatality, a new law, the threat of a pandemic, or even finding out we are not as good as we thought we were). The real challenge for safety professionals is to maintain a sense of vulnerability even when the lagging indicators say the organization is “doing well.” Left alone, many changes begin to die out, even as soon as a year later, from lack of visibility and excitement about progress. Largely this is due to settling into a comfort zone with respect to lagging indicators, leading to a “slippage” in attention to critical activities.

Leaders need to understand that maintaining safety excellence requires constant and sustained focus on doing the right things in a high-quality manner. Safety professionals must have the ability to help the organization look deeper into safety systems and detect reductions in quantity or quality of effort before they damage the overall change initiative.

Maintaining a demand for change will draw heavily on the competencies of a change agent and will require that the safety professional develop his or her own leadership skills. Immediately, the safety professional can maintain focus on safety by understanding the pace of change that the organization can absorb. This understanding dictates what milestones and metrics to put in place and at what time.As safety professionals,we need to break the effort into achievable chunks that allow the organization to see achievement at regular intervals and around which people can see the next horizon.

What’s Next?
The next decade will be a challenging time for the safety professional and potentially an impossible time for those who cannot navigate changing business realities. The safety professional who adapts a strategic orientation to safety, along with a rigorous attention to the tactics of improvement mechanisms, stands to create a much more rewarding career. Building effective and sustainable safety performance will also position the safety professional to have a more profound effect on the efficacy and sustainability of the organization as a whole. In the next article, we will look at the final element of future success: getting a place at the leadership table.

Read the entire "Emerging Role" series: Part 1 Part 2 Part 4

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

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