Top Soft Skills for Safety Leaders and EHS Professionals
Safety leaders have one of the most difficult jobs. They have an incredible amount of responsibility—lives are literally at stake, and they must be effective at changing employee behavior for the better. Workers, managers, and leaders may see some safety procedures and processes as a nuisance. Getting them to take safety seriously takes a good dose of soft skill skills.
Training for Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) professionals may focus more on technical skills or hard skills directly related to the role to avoid safety hazards in the workplace. Internal training programs do not typically include soft skills training topics. The funny thing is job postings for positions with safety responsibilities look for candidates with these interpersonal skills.
Here are a few job titles with verbatim excerpts from their online job description that imply the need for soft skills training:
- Environmental Health & Safety Manager: Confident and assertive leadership style able to positively influence. Coaching, mentoring, and collaborative management style that develops rapport at all levels.
- Risk Management Support Lead: Communicate risk posture and project information to stakeholders. Communicate project issues and status in a concise, accurate, and professional manner.
- Operations Manager: Collaborate and influence all levels of professionals including more experienced managers. Provide training, performance, evaluation, and coaching of less experienced teams.
Why don’t we consider training our own employees in the same soft skills we are asking external job candidates to bring to the organization? Examples of soft skills include:
- Conflict management
- Critical thinking
- Decision making
- Problem solving
- Stress management
- Time management
Whether you are in a current workplace health and safety position and are thinking about your career progression, you’re a job seeker looking at EHS jobs, or you’re a potential employer looking for the ideal candidate, it’s a good idea to see how these soft skills fit into the daily role of the EHS professional. Offering some simple training sessions can turn a competent EHS professional into a more effective professional.
Safety industry leaders agree. Topics like leadership, mental health, and DEI were covered in breakout sessions at the ASSP (American Society of Safety Professionals) Safety 2022 conference.
EHS professionals are often trying to convince people to do the right thing. Whether educating workers about potential hazards in the workplace, explaining safety procedures clearly to new employees, or directing people during an emergency situation, the safety officer needs to know how to communicate clearly and persuade people to change their behaviors.
You might consider training safety professionals on topics like:
Verbal Communication Skills: How to Be Heard
Sometimes we get so wrapped up in what we're saying that we forget how it comes across to other people. People are all too quick to tune out someone who comes off as hostile, judgmental, or even boring. To be heard, think about your tone, volume, tempo, and inflection. Strong verbal communication skills are critical when explaining safety regulations, conducting accident investigations, teaching emergency preparedness, and more.
Assertive Verbal Skills: Get Important Points Across
Along with tone, think about how confident or assertive you are when you communicate safety policies. Do you speak in a clear, direct, and confident way? This can be a challenge for people who are not used to being in positions of power or authority, such as new managers. Think of the role as that of an effective corporate leader, not just a safety leader.
Persuasive Communication: Changing Minds and Behaviors
Communication skills generally are about getting people to do what they need to do or understand what they need to understand. Persuasive communication is especially important for a safety pro who is working to change the behaviors of employees who are not direct reports.
Communicating With The C-Suite: Working Your Seat at the Table
Presenting your budget, pitching new safety initiatives, and requesting funding for EHS technology will require you to communicate with the C-suite. And over the last few years, safety professionals have much more often been present in executive discussions. Executives look at presentations and pitches through the lenses of funding priorities, risk management, and strategic planning. Safety professionals should learn to align with these decision-maker’s priorities.
EHS professionals and safety officers can benefit from training on mental wellness for themselves and for their teams. Every safety officer has experienced difficult situations at work — fatalities, injuries, illnesses, and COVID. In addition, everyone is dealing with stressors in their personal lives that may affect their focus and productivity in the workplace.
As a safety leader, a better understanding of these issues will be able to help you through difficult times and better support your team members.
Understand Mental Health and Workplace Safety
21% of adults in the U.S. will deal with some mental health challenges each year. Organizations that start thinking about mental health as a part of total workplace health and safety will be in a better position to support all workers. Safety leaders can benefit from training on mental health issues to understand the signs and symptoms and to be a more empathetic leader.
Everyone Can Benefit from Stress Management
An overwhelming number of Americans in the workforce experience stress regularly — and that's just those who admit it. “Stress” is often lumped in with workplace safety issues as high levels of stress can lead to carelessness, fatigue, distraction, and burnout. But if traditional safety leaders aren’t trained to effectively understand and manage their own mental health, helping others becomes difficult. Stress management should be part of an evolved or well-developed EHS program.
We All Need to Find Work-Life Balance
As flexible and work-from-home jobs have become mainstream over the last few years, the spotlight has finally been shone on work-life balance. This balance includes managing stress so the employee can be productive at work without letting it affect their home life, and vice versa. It’s also about knowing how to manage the expectations of others so you can keep them from negatively affecting either side of your life.
Managing work-life balance takes problem-solving skills, time management skills, and the ability to set healthy boundaries.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
EHS Professionals and safety officers work in industries with extremely diverse workforces. Ensuring their safety means serving the whole workforce, which makes diversity and inclusion training essential. Safety professionals could benefit from training sessions around topics such as:
Unconscious Bias (and How it Affects Safety)
Unconscious bias is a preconceived idea about others that we aren't even aware of. For example, nearly 60% of CEOs in Fortune 500s are six -feet tall…but less than 15% of Americans ever reach that height. Does that mean that tall people are smarter and make better leaders? Of course not. This is simply a reflection of how people tend to view power and authority and is a prime example of unconscious bias. Such biases can lead to unfair treatment or hurtful assumptions.
Working Towards Gender Equity
When it comes to gender bias in the workplace, the first step is to stop and look at yourself. Could you possibly have any unconscious biases causing you to treat colleagues differently based on gender? Learn how to notice these biases and work on correcting them.
Although workplaces have gotten better at addressing gender equality, an unequal history is still with us. Only 20% or so of all health and safety officers are women. This means that, frequently, a woman on a safety team might be the only woman on that team — and perhaps the only woman at that work site. This leads to an entirely different kind of experience, compared to a workplace where there is more of a gender balance.
LGBTQ+ in the Workplace
Being aware of LGBTQ+ issues can help you keep communications inclusive and respectful. 46% of LGBTQ+ workers say they are closeted at work. 53% of LGBTQ+ workers report hearing jokes about lesbian or gay people at least once in a while. Many people in the queer community feel the need to hide their gender identity and/or sexual orientation, which can impact the mental wellness issues we explored above. An inclusive safety manager can make a big difference with their leadership style to create a safe and inclusive workplace for everyone.
A workplace where people feel psychologically safe is one where people feel free speaking up, knowing that they won't be punished or humiliated for voicing their ideas, questions, or concerns. Psychological safety can be just as important as physical safety, and it touches on everything the safety officer does (something we've recently discussed on the Accidental Safety Pro podcast). When employees feel that it is safe to speak up, they become partners in noticing and addressing safety concerns. So what skills are needed to create psychological safety in the workplace?
Training in conflict management will help managers identify the source of the conflict, facilitate a respectful conversation in private, properly investigate the situation, and work toward resolution. This process involves other soft skills like active listening, problem solving, and diplomatic communication skills.
One of the foundations of a respectful and safe work environment is understanding harassment. Safety leaders benefit from a clear understanding of what harassment is, how it occurs and how to stop it. Besides enforcing best practices in these areas, they can set an example for their teams, help create the right atmosphere and empower people to speak up if they see problems.
Empowering Employee Decisions
As a people leader, you can't be everywhere all the time. Employees make decisions throughout their day that could affect a safe outcome. What would it be like if they constantly had to stop and ask you, the safety advisor, about safety standards and procedures? Or legal requirements? Production processes would continually start and stop, no one would complete tasks assigned, work sites would grind to a halt, and little would get done.
Employees must keep things moving. They need to learn safety rules and also feel empowered to make safety decisions and judgment calls in their day-to-day work.
Beyond The Safety Professional
These skills are beneficial to anyone who works with others, not just safety professionals. Leaders, managers, and supervisors would do well to learn and practice them, too. When others master these skills, it makes the job of the safety professional that much easier.
HSI is your single-source partner in EHS, safety training, employee development, and software solutions. Request a free trial, and you get access to all of the soft skills training topics mentioned above.
- The Role of HR in Safety and Compliance
- A Comprehensive Guide to Soft Skills Training
- Why Training Is One of the Essential Elements of EHS
- Why Is Management Buy-in Essential for Workplace Health and Safety?