The Unique Role of Safety

Safety is the most magnificent role of compassionate service to others.

Warriors? Safety seems like warriors sometimes, the way we champion causes to reduce employee injuries. We display dogged determination for working in the future, planning long before other teams consider new standards of working safely. Problem solvers? You bet. We work on any problem and try to resolve it, often with no fanfare.

Negotiators? Safety is certainly a skilled negotiator -- and also a bargain hunter with a strained budget and a horse trader, too. Confidants? If you are successful at safety, yes. Do we talk too much? Often, but our intentions are genuine. Misunderstood by management? Absolutely.

We seem preoccupied because we are working on numerous projects at the same time. Dedicated? Without a doubt.

No department or stand-alone soul has more complete access than safety to every employee and nook and cranny of a facility with such ease. We are relied on, trusted, feared, hated, and sometimes dreaded. Others grudgingly accept us. Most try to ignore us and our efforts -- until an accident occurs. Then, we are the first they call.

Successful safety professionals are usually respected and simultaneously held in kind regard and with passive neglect on the management team. Positive in outlook, they are quietly busy, working toward the future. They get the job done and don't constantly stand for photos or other pats on the back. It is about the job, not "see me." They go home at the end of a career knowing they made a difference in a good way and left the workplace safer and employees wiser about working without injury. This describes the majority of safety that I have known.

The Firestarters
Then, there are the negative "my way" safety folks who generally get little done and who cause more problems than they correct. They spout wild fear and create disharmony in the workplace. Sneaky and underhanded, they turn a burning match into a forest fire. (All of us have seen this type.) They thrive on hysteria and keeping everything stirred up; they destroy good programs with lavish expenses or procedural change. They set up more work for others and wander on to the next crisis to create.

You and I have worked with or known at least one of these individuals, who give us the same thrill as a wet dog shaking mud on us. It is about power and advancement and more money at all costs, including damage to others. I have been subjected to several of these people. We as safety learn what not to do like them and move on, repair the damage, rebuild the lost communication, and move forward, shaken but steadfast.

As safety professionals, we have a choice: to be serving to others or self serving. I have much admiration for the outstanding safety gurus I know and have known. We have the unique role of making the workplace safer by many means, using the latest technology, common sense, miserly budgets, the best training aids, and communication. And we accomplish much, one project at a time, listening and using the information for the good of all. Our unique role is attitude and empathy. We really care and work tirelessly to improve workplace safety. Safety is the most magnificent role of compassionate service to others.

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

About the Author

Linda J. Sherrard, MS, CSP, is Safety Consultant II with Central Prison Healthcare Complex, NCDPS in Raleigh, N.C., and is the former technical editor of OH&S.

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