This is an article I wrote for SHP Online which was published on 24th February 2016

Some would argue that if we, as health and safety professionals, had done our job thoroughly – that of managing health and safety – then we would be obsolete by now.  Perhaps they are right.

If workplaces really mainstreamed health and safety into everything – from concept to manufacture to delivery, if they really built health, safety and wellness into their planning, their choice of work equipment, their work practices, then perhaps we would no longer have a role in the world of work.  The reality is, however, that there are as many problems now (in 2016) as there were when health and safety started back in the 1800s, it’s just that the problems are different. So, as a profession we have had to change and this challenge will continue.

From checkers to strategists

We have gone from checkers and child worker protectors to creating strategy and influencing CEOs so they see the value of protecting their most valuable and important asset – their people.  Almost every other asset can be replaced – gold, zinc, money etc. but replacing a key employee if they are injured or killed at work won’t necessarily be so easy.

When I began life in health and safety in Ireland back in 1989, our health and safety laws were new and as yet untested.  Our role as safety managers was our own to make and like many others we ‘held everyone’s hand’ for the first five years or so.  What I mean by that is we did everything for front line managers and those senior to them and let them off the hook.  We recorded their accidents and incidents, we did their safety inspections, we did their safety talks for them – we even disciplined unsafe employees for them and the word ownership was not in our vocabulary.

Then came ownership

Later when we could no longer carry all of this for line managers (in my case I was working in a large multinational with manufacturing going on 24/7 except for Christmas Day), we were greeted with disbelief when we said that we were going to hand health and safety back to them as they now had to accept ownership of it.

So over time we moved from ‘hand holders’ to advisers and then later, hopefully, to  leaders.

Now we are expected to fill many roles and hold many qualities including being able to:

  • de-mystify health and safety laws and regulations;
  • communicate at all levels in the organisation;
  • be the chief problem solver within financial constraints;
  • influence senior managers, many grades above us;
  • position health and safety within the organisation as a value-add activity that is worth investing in;
  • respond to major incidents in a way that protects the organisation and looks after the injured;
  • advise on such diverse topics as: an ageing workforce, the specific needs of workers with disabilities, nanotechnology, radon gas and legionnaires disease; and
  • operate somewhere between being a doctor and a social worker

The final challenge we have is justifying why we are still relevant and needed.

Justify your existence

Many years ago when my – then – employer announced a huge expansion of the business which involved the introduction of many new technologies and large scale recruitment, I responded by asking for more resources for health and safety.  The response I received, because we were doing well with health and safety at the time, was “Sure we are doing really well, winning awards etc. Why would you need any more resources”  I learned the hard way that when health and safety is going well you almost have to justify your existence and when problems, accidents or incidents start happening you are then asked – “well what have you been doing to prevent this?”  It can be a lose-lose situation.

In the past, many health and safety practitioners were focused on the many physical hazards that existed – badly designed and unguarded machinery, poor chemical labelling and storage, mediocre manual handling and moving processes and huge exposures to noise, dust, gases and  vapours (and this is just a flavour of what we had to deal with).

Thankfully many of these physical hazards are now sorted and we can move on to the equally challenging issues such as: human factors, ergonomics, well-being, protecting workers from bullying and excessive stress, managing nanotechnologies and workers based in other countries.

The key quality – passion

I feel that these somewhat softer human factor issues demand a different set of skills than the earlier ones that focused on the hard, physical issues.  They demand a greater level of communication, an understanding of human psychology, managing change and above all influencing the key decision makers in the organisation.  The other sill they need is passion.  Without it, many senior managers will not take you seriously.

Realistically, not all health and safety practitioners can meet the new demands.  Looking back at where many of the original pioneers came from, it was from production, engineering, quality and security.  Most of them started their careers somewhere else but ended up, happily or otherwise, in health and safety. Now it is more common for graduates to choose health and safety as a career and they can qualify up to PhD if they want to.

My trajectory into health and safety was unusual in itself as I came into it from human resources and only took it on because my boss at the time felt it would be a good move for me.  It also happened because the manager with responsibility for health and safety, who also covered training and development, disliked health and safety intensely and saw an opportunity to push it in my direction and persuaded the departmental head to ask me to do it.

In hindsight it was the best favour he could have done for me as I took to it like a duck to water.