The Safety Professional Behind the Curtain
I’ve been a safety and health professional for more than 20 years now. Had I known what skills were needed to be an effective safety leader, I think I would have reconsidered becoming one a long time ago. The formula goes something like this:
salesman + psychologist + motivational speaker = safety professional
Way back I thought “How difficult can it be to be a safety guy? Safety is just applying common sense, right?” From the outside it looks simple - you study the safety rules and develop an eye for recognizing hazards. Then, tell the worker the obvious, “Don’t stick your finger in an electrical outlet.”
The best safety and health professionals have honed certain skills to get what they want. In some cases they plant seeds, or build alliances, or cut deals. This groundwork commonly precedes the pitch to management. The goal is to convince management that a new safety initiative, or program, is in the best interests of the company. It adds value. The safety professional must demonstrate a solid return on investment which usually requires a cost-benefit analysis. Selling requires effective communication and presentations skills. After management buys in, then it’s time to roll it out and sell it to the workforce. As a safety professional you may have the best idea and intentions, but if you can’t convince others, your ideas die on the vine. I’ve learned to appreciate car salesmen…just a little bit.
At the core of safety improvement is the ability to change human behavior. How do I get someone to change their behavior, to help themselves, and the people they work with? The presence of behavior based safety analysis has been around for some time and has proven valuable. Convincing someone they need to change their behavior requires at least a basic understanding of psychology. This especially comes in handy when we analyze an accident and try to determine root cause, which most often involves a person making a poor decision. Understanding what shapes our behavior requires a safety professional to know such things as motivational factors or influencers, effective messaging, drivers of human needs and wants, and many other elements.
I find nothing more challenging than trying to get thirty construction workers excited about spending ten hours with me in a safety training session. As a trainer, it’s my job to be a cheerleader and a champion for safety. How do I get their attention, keep them engaged in learning, and get them to apply safety every day. This need to inspire them not only applies to formal training but also to in the field on a job site. For classroom training sessions I use tricks such as games, hands-on activities, personal stories, and group competitions. My presentations are now laced with rock music and YouTube video clips. In the field I often praise workers for doing the right thing and use an unsafe condition as a teaching moment and encouragement. The problem with working with different ages and backgrounds is what turns one person on often turns the other off—variable learning styles and generational differences. You’ve got be careful. Too much pomp and circumstance with your motivational message and it comes across as fluff or “the safety flavor of the week” and you lose credibility. Speak with passion and truthfulness. What motivates me as a safety professional, has and always been, and will be the same thing… if I can prevent one injury or fatality I’ve succeeded. The bummer is I may never know. All I can do is to try and connect with every worker I meet and inspire them to be safer right now and tomorrow.
We safety professionals are much more than a walking, talking OSHA compliance book. We ache to our core and believe we’ve failed when someone gets hurt, regardless of the cause. All we can do is bring to bear all of our skill and talents, to try as hard as we can every day, to make the workplace a little safer.