First off let me clarify - safety does not stink. Still, many in our industry operate under the assumption that safety leaders are either working against them, or at best, are “just doing their job” to keep them safe. Our intentions aside, we have a long way to go until the majority of our workers see safety people as coaches and partners who are helping, not hindering their work.
If you are or have been a safety professional, you’ve likely experienced feedback from others when you share about your job (not the most exciting party conversation, I promise). What does a safety person actually do? Ensuring employees go home safely everyday is probably the most efficient way to describe our role, but is that really what we do, and should that be the extent of it?
The average safety person has a variety of priorities. I’ve compiled the most common below in no particular order.
The above chart does not evoke excitement. It’s a lot of interconnected and extremely involved programs. While many of these will protect a company if handled properly, one must ask will they make it more successful? More impressively, if you were to ask the average employee about these programs, they would be clueless about their importance or impact. They’d probably tell you it keeps companies “out of trouble.” But isn’t it more than that?
In a previous article (link to article “The Data Debacle”) I discussed the challenge of balancing efficient operations and necessary (and at times excessive) paperwork. Many safety priorities require the collection of numerous documents and data within a certain timeline and of a certain quality. Again, does this make a company successful? Very rarely have I heard a CEO talk about their company’s growth due to its amount or quality of safety paperwork. People and performance, yes - paperwork and inspections, no. Imagine requesting a business loan on the prospect of the volume of safety inspections you can complete. I would imagine the meeting would be extremely short.
We delegate the obscure and complicated to the experts. I get it. I don’t file my own taxes or fix my own DEF system. The difference is each of the above items directly involves all our operations personnel. If the data we’re collecting is solely for compliance, then what’s the purpose? If it’s not adding value to our workers, what are we doing?
Borrowing from every leadership book and teacher I’ve ever met, excellent people are the difference between success and failure. People who are correctly motivated and care about quality, reputation, growth and customer satisfaction. This is how you grow a company. So why is the safety person’s job so involved in things that don’t grow their companies? Of the twenty or so items in the diagram above, only one or two deals with the advancement of personnel. While we put our personnel through safety training and have them assess risks, are we also coaching them to be more successful?
Excellent employees rarely need to be reminded of their expectations. We rely on them to know their roles, responsibilities, and fulfill them with consistency and drive. It’s rare to find a gem who is a self-led leader who needs minimal supervision and direction who has the company’s best interest in mind, displays loyalty, and upholds our core values.
As rare as the self starter is, they do exist. But they came from somewhere. I’ve worked with a number of young people and I’ve learned that leaders are developed, they are rarely born ready. So where do we categorize everyone else? Can they become leaders? And if so, how do we develop them? Who in our organization has the time, the knowledge, and the freedom to move across operational levels with autonomy? How can we Identify and leverage ‘weak’ links who are underperforming? The person responsible for your safety program.
A lot of safety professionals are not ready for this role. This needs to change. They should be helping our teams develop their competencies, skills alongside the safety requirements and documentation, not a part from them. A common industry phrase (that I love) is “operations owns safety”. This is a fantastic quip, but where does it leave operations people who are rightly focused on profitability? They are left adrift in the ocean of complex and ever changing safety requirements. Safety and operations working together is far more effective than them working autonomously.
I’m not saying that the above priorities get left by the wayside, abandoned to chance and hope. They are vital to a company’s health and stability, however I think safety professionals should be doing more than protecting the company: they should be developing it. First, the safety person must know your operations inside and out, but then their goal should be to develop each and every employee into a safe and successful worker.
When employees fail at health and safety, it’s often due to lack of knowledge or understanding about the risks they’re taking. Incidents do not result from a worker showing up in the morning with the attitude of, “I’m going to hurt myself or others today.” Circumstances and adaptations happen that lend to failure. Personnel being prepared and capable of managing these changes is vital for a safety program to work, and we need to be there for them before they happen.
If employees are consistently coached and responsible to know the “why” as well as the “how,” of safety and are developed by someone who can also coach them in competency, efficiency, teamwork, and leadership skills, we are going to see a different industry altogether. I’ll discuss more strategic ways to make the switch in my next editorial, “Aggressive Culture Change.”
Jonathon Greiner is President and CEO of Basin Safety Consulting Corporation. Basin Safety serves the oil and gas, green energy, coal, electrical, construction, and primary sector industries. They have provided technical expertise, supervision and program improvements nationwide to simplify and modernize quality, health and safety initiatives.