When you think of safety professionals in your organization, what are their roles? Many managers, employees, and safety professionals themselves struggle to define the role that the safety professionals play in their organization. Is it to write policies and train? Enforce safety rules? Advise? While every organization will have a little bit of a different dynamic due to industry, personalities, and other variables, every organization I’ve seen that strays too far from proper roles will see some combination of poor safety culture (coupled with high injuries and high employee turnover), high turnover of safety personnel, or having safety personnel who are not good at what they do.
Enforcement: In organizations where safety personnel is seen as enforcement, you almost always have a safety person that is weak in the areas of safety and a management team that doesn’t put emphasis on safe working practices. While safety personnel may correct behavior, when you have employees and department supervisors that cringe when safety walks in, it usually means the supervisors are so lax in their commitment to safety that someone else must do that part of the job for them. Safety personnel then feel the need to constantly go to that area and make sure employees are working safely. This creates a frustrating dynamic. Most safety professionals do not want to be enforcers. If you have a safety professional that simply likes enforcing rules, you usually have someone that does not have a very good skillset and is more concerned about exerting their authority than being a professional. When employees and supervisors take responsibility for safety, the safety professional doesn’t need to constantly remind them to wear their PPE or not block fire extinguishers.
Training: Whether you have a safety team or one safety professional, training should be a notable part of their job. Virtually all employees must attend frequent safety training to keep up with OSHA requirements and company needs. If safety is not working to creating good training materials and updating the training, you will end up with boring and stale safety training that employees sleep through. When safety just starts a video or reads off last year’s PowerPoint, nobody learns. Also, as a safety professional, the more research and effort you put into putting a training together, the more you learn and are intimately aware of that topic.
Training for the safety personnel: The safety field is very technical. Safety professionals should have a good mix of regulatory knowledge, which, depending on the industry, probably includes not just OSHA standards, but NFPA, ANSI, DOT, and more. They also need to understand their industry and the processes in their facility, have leadership and management skills, be savvy with computer applications like Microsoft Office, be a competent trainer, and more. All these skills take time and effort to develop.
Policies: Reviewing and developing policies and procedures is also a big part of the safety profession. OSHA requires safety policies and procedures, such as lockout/tagout, to be reviewed annually. This should not just be someone reading a policy and signing off but getting out on the plant floor to see it in action. Observe the machine being locked out to ensure the procedure is accurate. Ask employees how they follow a policy. Review permits. If your last revision date for a policy was 1987, it is probably ineffective, obsolete, and not followed. And worse, if nobody knows where to find it, it is certainly not being followed!
Be a resource: This is probably the biggest role of a safety professional. As a safety professional, you shouldn’t be responsible for everybody’s safety. My role should be to give you the tools to do the job safely. Do you dislike your PPE because it doesn’t work right? Your safety professional should be able to find alternatives and guide the process to get it replaced. Do you have a new process going in place? Your safety professional should know the regulations surrounding it and be able to ask the right questions to make sure the equipment or job is right. Nothing is more frustrating to a safety professional as when they come in to work and find new equipment or processes were put in place and they weren’t consulted. They also should not necessarily run the safety committee or other groups, but rather be a resource for the members of that group. When I’m responsible for having a safety committee, I ask the membership to vote on a chairman and vice-chairman and those employees run the meeting. I’m there to give them data, share safety knowledge, and be management’s liaison.
There are certainly more roles and tasks that safety completes than these but evaluate your organization’s attitude towards these roles and where safety spends their time. Are they enforcers, or resources? If they’re enforcers, then it’s time to look at why.