Are Safety Professionals Going Soft?

Although I'm only a lowly shoe salesman, I have spent some time among the safety professionals these past few years. I figured as the CEO of a company that manufactures PPE, then I had better brush up on the culture, rules, and regulations that govern all our endeavors. It hasn’t been easy, let me tell you. Like all laws, the various Acts and Regulations are full of challenging legal and technical terms. On top of that, many laws are written so that much of the responsibility for safety in the workplace is put on the shoulders of employers but also open to interpretation. An example of one such piece of legislation reads like this, "It is the responsibility of every employer to assess the hazards that might arise and provide workers with adequate PPE."

I developed a way of treating all this material that made it easier for me to absorb and retain. I reckoned if I applied "common sense" thought processes, I would see through the jargon and the politics. This helped me understand the fairly narrow field that was my domain -- namely, foot protection. Once I realized that responsibility was grounded in "reasonableness," which complemented my common-sense attitude, I started to get the hang of it. After all, it's not rocket science protecting workers' feet and toes. If an employer has taken the time to study the work environment, there can only be few differences in the types of safety footwear to be concerned about.

What I started to notice was the proliferation of "safety professionals" in the field. There appears to be a science to creating a safety culture. Safety professionals are trained to further the cause of safety and in the creation of a sustainable safe work environment. The idea being, if all workers understand the reason why a safe workplace is for the benefit of everybody, then each will play his part. Phrases like, "educate the worker on the rules and the penalties for violation" are commonly used. This is to be done through "coaching," "teamwork," and "leadership." As with any discipline, enforcement is an essential part of the safety culture. Penalties are intended to be fair and consistent.

Recently, I ventured onto a safety community Web site that was started by a large multinational in the PPE business. It is intended for "anyone for whom workplace safety is a profession or passion," so I joined in a discussion on the forum for Workplace Safety. Although I had made some contribution earlier and had been a member for some time before, I was immediately made quite unwelcome. The debate was about why "safety cops" were unwelcome in the safety professional community. The safety professionals disliked the use of the words "police" or "policing" and contended that they would never be "safety cops." To them, being a safety cop was detrimental to the safety professional’s standing in the workplace. It was considered backward and out of date.

I couldn't understand why anyone calling himself a safety professional would not include policing for safety in his daily work. I contended that less policing for safety could only diminish the overall safety in any workplace. If being a safety cop meant averting an accident, why not advocate for policing for safety? I wasn't even focused on only safety professionals being safety cops; I proposed that every worker should be one. It was all to no avail. Some of the forum members resorted to personal attacks, calling me "only a shoe salesman" and having a "stunted personality." It was at that point I realized I wasn't debating with safety professionals at all.

The recent dramatic increase in policing for safety by OSHA in Texas supports that my contention is common-sensible and reasonable. Texas has experienced a steady deterioration in its safety record, and the death of three workers in June was the straw that broke the camel’s back. OSHA has stepped up the number of safety cops, importing many from other states. According to Greg Smith, Austin-based regional vice president of the ASSE, whose members work closely with OSHA, "They have brought in compliance officers from all over the country and paired them up with inspectors already in the area, and if they see an active job site, it's more likely than not that they'll visit. They are under a magnifying glass now."

Texan "safety professionals" can't be too happy about this, if my time with the safety professionals’ community is typical. In my sincere opinion, I hope it is not. Let's all be safety cops for all our sakes. It's only common sense.

Editor's note: The entry's author is CEO of SafetyToes International Inc.,

Posted by Patrick Smyth on Sep 18, 2009