What Makes a Good Safety Professional?
by Stephen Zasadil, WSRCA safety consultant, president, SNK Services LLC
(Editor’s Note: Stephen Zasadil spent ten years as a safety of flight operator with the United States Navy before beginning his career as a safety compliance consultant in 2009. He currently works with companies across the United States to provide OSHA compliance information, documentation, and training.)
I was recently asked during a safety seminar that I’ve presented for more than a decade, what qualities make for a good safety professional. I responded by stating: a good safety professional will have knowledge of the standards; they will have the communication skills to relay those standards in a way that is easily understandable; they will have the confidence to point out issues with safety; and finally, they will have the authority to stop work in an unsafe environment.
The conversation continued a bit further and I realized that the answer I gave was insufficient. It would be the equivalent of being asked what makes a good driver, and then answering with: good drivers know the rules of the road, good drivers know how to operate their vehicles, and good drivers know to be careful in adverse conditions. These are all true, but not enough to qualify as a definition that would satisfy the question.
Just like companies come in all types, trades, and sizes, a safety professional will be one that fits a specific need. Some will come in the form of outside consultants, some will be a dedicated employee within the company, and many will be a current employee that wears many hats. All versions here have their benefits and limitations. No matter the structure of your safety program, it should fit the needs and goals of your company. The top goal to me is the safety of the workers, from the president all the way to the newest entry-level worker, and everyone in between.
A byproduct of a solid safety program and safety professional, after reduced injuries, is that morale will go up. Work will become more efficient, which will bring the cost of doing business down. Insurance rates will be lower, and the retention of quality workers will rise.
While safety professional roles are not one-size-fits-all and depend on organization size, department size, and whether a safety professional is in-house or a consultant, there are some common qualifications. These include a safety professional’s critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills, as well as appliable knowledge of industry standards.
I’ve spoken with plenty of health and safety professionals who have made significant improvements within the first few months of a new job. Rather than seeing financial pressures and time constraints as obstacles, they sell good health and safety management as a business improvement tool and a means of improving productivity. This is fantastic as far as the company is concerned. I must ask, what does this mean to the employees themselves? This is where a good safety professional can become a great safety professional. A great safety professional will spend a large amount of their time developing a rapport with the entire team, from management to laborer. The definition of rapport speaks to this skill extremely well. Rapport means a friendly, harmonious relationship, especially one characterized by agreement, mutual understanding, or empathy that makes communication possible or easy.
To create this type of relationship, a great safety professional will have knowledge of how each company works. Who are our superstars, and who are the ones on our team that need some extra help or encouragement to maintain our safe environment? If your safety professionals can’t interact with those that they are trying to educate, most of the value will be lost.
I am also asked frequently which is better: outside consultants, freshly out-of-school safety professionals with brand-new credentials, or experienced workers who have been with the specific business/trade/manufacturer for enough time to know the ins and outs. My answer is simply yes. Again, all of these types of safety professionals are valuable. It will be the needs of the specific company that will determine what is the best fit. Sometimes it will be a combination of some or all of these types of safety professionals that will create the safety culture that meets all of the company’s needs.
For most health and safety professionals, the days of wondering round with a clipboard are long gone and much of their focus has moved to positively influencing and understanding behaviors and culture to improve health and safety performance. Sending an email, speaking with a colleague, meeting a customer, or pinning up a poster are all forms of communication that can be used to influence others, but few people have had any formal training to develop and hone these essential skills. The best safety professionals will be able to take the knowledge they have gained to guide workers and management in the correct direction to meet the requirements set for your trade. They will be able to communicate effectively with all levels of the company to produce a result. There’s a tendency to think that good communication and influencing skills just come naturally, but the truth is that we can all become more effective communicators with a bit of time and effort.