Health and safety is still seen by some business owners as a cost, a burden and an unfortunate legal requirement.  It is perceived to be over the top, bureaucratic and getting in the way of work being done.

Safety professionals have a tough job to do to convince business owners and senior managers in large organisations that what we do and contribute actually adds value to the business. Many health and safety officers and managers have migrated into the area having started their careers elsewhere and I am a prime example of that myself.

Best present

My career was in HR until I was asked to take over the Safety side of things in 1989 after I had been in Bausch & Lomb for only 3 months.  In hindsight it was the best present I ever got as I took to it with gusto and have enjoyed my career in it ever since.  However not all those who have been given responsibility for health and safety have warmed to it as I did.  Some, to be fair to them, never asked for it, never wanted it and resent it being thrust upon them.  As with all things when their heart is not in it they will rarely take a real interest in it and will never make a good job of it.

On the other hand if health and safety responsibilities are given to someone who genuinely likes it, enjoys it and gets some job satisfaction from it then stand back and watch they rise to the challenges, work at it, hopefully have an impact and possibly develop a career within it.

A vocation

I have said it before and I will say it again now that I believe that health and safety is a vocation not a job.  It is in the same category as nursing. You either like it or you do not.  If you don’t really have a feel for it then find something else to do.

As the health and safety discipline has progressed the skills that safety professionals need has also changed.  In the early days technical skills were needed and they were focused primarily on solving physical safety problems, some of which still exist in some sectors. But now that the physical safety side of the world of work have largely been sorted out (the machines are guarded, the chemicals are labelled and controlled, the production processes have health and safety built in at every point, the noise is abated, the forklift drivers are well trained and their machines well maintained etc.) there is a whole new range of issues challenging health and safety people.  They are broadly in the area of psychological/human factor issues such as safe behaviour, safety culture, human error, hours of work, the effects of shiftwork, sleep deprivation, stress, bullying etc.  So there is still much to do and much to offer but not all practitioners have the necessary skillset to move on to these new and interesting areas.

New skills required

The new skills required now include:  influencing skills, communications skills, the ability to tell a story to bring people with you and collaboration skills hopefully topped off with a level of passion.  Sadly some practitioners have not kept themselves up to date, have not upskilled themselves, have not educated themselves on the new emerging issues of behavioural safety, safety leadership, even nanotechnology etc.  They became complacent and when the tide went out they were the rusty old boat left stranded on the craggy rocks as illustrated in the picture.

Passion

I believe in passion in everything.  Passion for health and safety is a must have if you are to convince others that (a) you mean what you say, (b) that this health and safety initiative you are talking about is not just a flavour of the month notion and (c) that everything you do is based on a real concern for all those at work.

Problem solver

So the new generation safety practitioner needs to be well trained, competent, experienced member of management.  They need to be recognised as a person who is a useful, resourceful problem solver who regularly comes up with good workable ideas that allows the work to be done but in a safer way and who ultimately protects the organisation’s most valuable asset – their people.

Membership of IOSH

Hopefully all up and coming and established practitioners are also Chartered Members of IOSH or are working towards becoming Chartered Members.  Being a member of IOSH is the badge of competence bestowed upon those who meet essential criteria by the biggest and only Chartered professional health and safety professional membership organisation body in the world.  It tells your employer or your clients that you are serious about your career and are constantly updating yourself in all aspects of health and safety so you can continue to make a difference to worker’s lives.

Not a nursing home

The health and safety profession is no longer a nursing home for older managers whose main role has gone and who have been moved sideways into a cul-de-sac s and have been found something to do while they coast quietly to retirement.   The days of the enthusiastic amateur is gone. This is now a serious profession that needs to be taken seriously by those that practice it and those that interact with it.  Let’s face it – we are in the business of saving and protecting lives.  What could be more serious than that?

So what kind of a safety professional are you?