What is the most difficult task that a safety professional faces in their position? I am sure that I could ask 100 different safety professionals this question and get at least 105 different answers, mostly based on the last situation they had to resolve. But what I am really talking about is the most difficult task any of us in the safety field face, which is convincing ourselves that we truly make a difference. So often we see our guidelines, training, manuals, signage, and hard work ignored. And it often seems to be ignored until there is a serious incident that should not have happened, and which suddenly involves us in a “rush,” a “critical,” or simply a “CYA” situation. All of a sudden all our hard work is brought to the forefront and paraded before insurance carriers, local safety officials, and sometimes even OSHA. But we as safety professionals realize that if all of these things being shown had actually been followed to the letter, the incident would probably not have happened in the first place. So the thought is created, “Do we actually make a difference?” Our goal as safety professionals is not to just protect the company after an incident has occurred. Our goal is to create an environment in which the incident cannot happen, and this does not happen when all—or even any—of our work is ignored.
So how can this far too common situation be corrected? Of course, we must start at the top. If we do not have the full agreement and support of top management in our company, the program will not work. This can’t just be “lip service,” it must be a complete commitment to a safe work environment. This means that the “boss” must be aware of and follow the same guidelines as any of the employees in the company when it comes to safe job practices. It also means that management must be willing to fairly and equitably enforce the safety guidelines. This can be a challenging situation. We’ve all been in situations where the people who see themselves as being “at the top” think they’re above abiding by the same rules everyone else is required to, both in terms of safety procedures and everything else, like showing up on time and being dependable. It’s been said that leadership involves never asking anybody else to do something you wouldn’t do yourself, and employees notice these things. And when they start to get a sense of unfairness—like being required to wear hearing protection in certain areas, or a hard hat, while the production manager does not— it will always have a negative affect on morale. It’s important in situations like this for the safety professional to find a way to point out the discrepancy in a way that gets everybody onboard with no hard feelings. Talking about how you choose to “lead by example” in your own position might offer a good example, while also conveying your message in a non-confrontational way.
I find that many times management will ignore the safety guidelines in favor of productivity. This is a false savings. While the productivity may be increased in the short term, it opens the door to greatly harming productivity in the future due to injuries, or because of employees feeling that they are not being valued or protected as they should be. Human nature, being as it is, dictates that an employee who is feeling unvalued or put upon is likely to be much less productive than an employee who realizes that the company has his or her best interests at heart.
All this sounds great, but what if the top management fails to recognize these facts, or even just does not care? Then it becomes the safety professional’s job to train them, right along with everyone else. This is an unpleasant job, but it is critical to the success of the company’s safety program. If upper management cannot be convinced of the importance of the properly designed safety program, it is doomed to fail at the job it was designed for. There are vast numbers put out by the federal government that should convince anyone of the importance of a properly constructed and run safety program, but it usually becomes the duty of the safety professional within the company to compile these numbers in such a method that they will be understood and believed by management. Remember, managers are not generally trained in safety, and they have many other responsibilities. It is therefore up to us—as the trained and knowledgeable safety professionals—to properly convey the information they need to become familiar with, and to make sure they support it both in terms of actions as well as their attitude.