Back to the future

Preparing to speak to an audience of some 800 safety practitioners in Abu Dhabi recently, I pondered the evolution of the safety profession.

During my research, I came across a paper that clarified our collective objective as “a safe and healthy future for everyone who works”.

It also suggested, however, that the role of safety practitioner has “developed in a fragmented and somewhat undisciplined way”, and pointed out that the common aspects of the job are typically to facilitate poster campaigns, act as a workplace hazard inspector, or at times as a safety policeman holding limited skill in proposing practical remedies to the risks encountered.

The paper was dated 1975. More than four decades later, has anything changed?

The Monk

Many safety practitioners carve out a niche for themselves as a subject-matter expert. The role is clear: to establish best practice in safety in all areas of the organisation. If one can do this, the accidents will stop, and the pay rise will come.

However, this position risks effectively distancing the practitioner from the rest of the organisation, becoming what Mike Buttolph, of Cranfield University in the United Kingdom (UK), refers to as a safety monk: being devoted to the meticulous maintenance of the good book, the safety manual, while living in isolation in an office at the end of the building.

While some of the team still believe the monk has some knowledge or skills that add value, others feel they’ve become unreachable and appear to be operating in a different world.

The mercenary 

The mercenary is a safety activist who takes centre stage in the organisation when it comes to matters of safety. They are the go-to person and can usually recite the letter of the law for any given workplace risk, explaining in detail where the breach is, and what the penalty will be for failing to resolve it.

Their training sessions for colleagues revolve around how seriously regulatory bodies view safety failings, and ensuring that the managers are clear that, while on their mission of putting “safety first”, they have been given carte blanche from the CEO to stop any task, machine or process that they feel is not being operated with safety as priority.

Regarding themselves as the “protector” of the organisation, their “command and control” style of influencing is tolerated by their colleagues, none of whom wish to fall foul of the law and end up on the receiving end of an enforcement order.

The mercenary has successfully turned safety into a mystical black art, a sort of “stealth and safety”. Under their instruction, their peers have all realised just how complex the science of safety is, and that there is no one who really understands how to carry out risk assessments, lead safety studies, or get to the bottom of accident investigations when the mercenary is not around.

Even when their peers have a go, these managers find themselves unable to cover the broad range of risks that they know the mercenary will find on his or her return, so the majority leave well alone – it’s far better that the safety officer stays the front of all safety knowledge and the managers get back to doing what they know best; running production.

Beyond their precise attention to detail, mercenaries cultivate an air of nonchalance and can appear reluctant to get involved. Their terms of engagement are usually split between the assumption that no one else is as skilled, or because no one else has the desire to try to solve these complicated safety puzzles, safety meetings are held with all the formality of a regimental inspection.

To prove that safety is a line-management responsibility, the production manager chairs the meeting; though with the mercenary at his right hand to provide the direction, reference to the safety rules and regulations and, in times of hesitation, the mercenary’s words to fill the voids of his conversation.

Like the monk, the mercenary has also found a niche as a safety specialist; a tolerated archangel who springs in to save the day and protect the company when things go wrong and the threat of regulatory action becomes reality. The mystique with which they shroud their skills swirls like a superhero’s cape.

The missionary 

This pure and faithful evangelist is on a mission to convert us all to become believers in the power of safety. A close call with a workplace accident some years earlier provided the calling they needed to move towards the light. Adorned with the very latest in personal protective equipment (PPE) the missionary always practices what he or she preaches.

Always looking on the bright side of life, the missionary sees safety from a humanitarian perspective, knowing that his or her colleagues are intrinsically good people, who want to work safely, and that the managers are constantly striving to always do the right thing – though on occasion he or she accepts that they are too overwhelmed by their day jobs to do it.

The missionary believes that these managers need someone to whom they can confess their safety sins, to explain just why they couldn’t get safety right, and then to learn the lesson of what to do next.

Penance is rarely imposed. The missionary’s parables are preached through the form of best-practice examples, benchmarking opportunities, and new safety checklists. All these are well-intentioned and gently offered – but they leave managers with a feeling of disconnection. This off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all just … well, just doesn’t fit.

Rather than seeking clarity, the manager keeps his head down to avoid more of the same from the missionary, and the workers pull together to protect their colleagues. Of course, it’s hard to fail to respond to the missionary’s joy and passion as he or she smiles constantly on the audit tours of the workplace, so civil greetings are exchanged freely – but, despite the warm feeling and well wishes, the missionary is out of touch with the realities of the shop floor and the strategies of the boardroom.

Blind eyes, bureaucracy and niche-carving 

While these safety stereotypes were developed two decades ago, they still provide a relevant analysis of the development of the role of the safety practitioner.  Perhaps you feel a sense of familiarity with one or more of these characters. Each shows how the safety profession has the power to – unintentionally – drive the management of safety in the wrong direction.

• The monk’s dogmatic drive for the organisation “to be the best in terms of safety”, means they may not see beyond their own spectacles. They have failed to engage their stakeholders and have become a slave unto their own agenda.

• The mercenary builds bureaucracy through generating a sense of fear – of enforcement, of production loss, or of penalty. A fear against which only they can protect, believing in the superhero’s invincibility, though the smoke and mirrors don’t help anyone.

• The missionary’s gentle character and genuine desire to be at one with the world prevents him or her from raising the game – and driving a sense of pace and urgency in a modern business as they pursue performance improvement.

Each carve their own niches within the workplace, isolating themselves on a safety island, where management peers are happy to turn a blind eye and let them reside, as long as they don’t have to do the “safety work” themselves.

What went wrong?

There are two principal reasons for the evolution of safety into monk, mercenary or missionary roles. First, the delegation of all things safety to a single person: the safety officer. Historically, the exclusive remit of the safety officer was the prevention of traumatic injury. Why this focus upon only those most serious of risks?

If we consider the role of those managers within the production environment, on an average day, they face many challenges and problems: production pressures, customer complaints, deadlines, quality control and assurance, product recalls, plant and equipment breakdowns and maintenance, raw material shortages, cost of goods sold, staffing and absence – to mention but a few.

Some managers may have benefited from some general management training – however, many others will have learned their craft through the constant immersion in these daily events. However, no matter which learning route has been followed, the rub is that the average manager is simply not trained to deal with danger.

Accidents, while certainly opportunities for learning, by their very nature do not occur with such regularity as other management issues. When they do arise, the manager strives to balance production and safety while taking care of the injured party.

In good organisations, the safety officer will be there, ready to catch these safety failures, and resolve them with little fuss, as his or her own contribution to keeping the machines running. However, this approach does nothing to further the manager’s ability to manage safety. The safety officer has become an organisational “safety net” and so, for as long as he or she keeps catching the issues, why bother doing anything differently?

The second reason is the creation of the black art of bureaucracy. The ideology of a structured approach to safety (through the sharing of information and open, cohesive working practices and relationships) has been frequently obscured beneath layers of bureaucracy as well-meaning safety officers, unsure of expectations, find themselves in a Catch 22 situation: trying to help management, but unaware of the need for – or application of – proportionate risk management.

The officer, while trying his or her best, diligently drafts policies and procedures to fill the safety file and keep the regulators away. Safety officers have meticulously developed libraries of risk assessments, revised standard operating procedures and, at the same time, alienated management who see their time spent mired in paperwork, which seems irrelevant to the work required and too bureaucratic.

Accordingly, the great risk we run is for organisations to assume that everyone within shares the same common understanding of how the organisation works, and, specifically, how safety works. Before long the organisation has developed its own problem-oriented culture towards workplace safety, and negative stigmatisation and isolation have taken hold.

Overlaid across these two challenges are fast-growing perceptions of an increased litigation culture in many countries around the globe, which has fostered a fear-based philosophy where the production of such voluminous documentation has become regarded as the only way to provide vital armour-cladding to protect against legal action.

Ironically, this approach widens the disconnect between safety and reality, and strengthens the belief that safety can only be “done” by the experts.

Over the last 40 years, the safety profession has experienced a profound evolution, from redefinition of roles and responsibilities, to a dramatically changing regulatory landscape. The approach of the safety practitioner must also continue to evolve as organisations and expectations change around us.

Henry Ford said: “If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you got.” The future will be for those who not only keep pace with change, but can manage to stay ahead of the curve.

To break through the glass ceiling and truly drive added value from safety back into the business, we need a step-change in our approach, from being reactive to being responsive.

There is no room for the monk, the mercenary, or the missionary in the safe new world. The role of the safety officer has evolved, and will continue to evolve, beyond the specialist practitioner remit, and into the safety leader.

Published by

Andrew Sharman

Professor Dr Andrew Sharman is managing partner of RMS – consultants on leadership and cultural excellence to a wide range of blue-chip corporates and non-government organisations globally. He’s a chartered member of Saiosh; immediate past president of the Institution of Occupational Safety & Health; and chairman of the board of the Institute of Leadership & Management.
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