Be careful what you wish for: Is the safety “profession” being sidelined?

Let me start with a few caveats and/or disclaimers.

First, this post has been inspired by a number of articles and discussions on line about the “practice” of safety and the safety “profession“. I only qualify profession because of the amount of disagreement about whether people who advise about safety are professionals, and what their role is.

Second, this is an outside looking in discussion (I am a lawyer by training and practice for the last 20+ years), and inside looking out (I run a combined law firm and safety consultancy, specialise in safety management and have been a senior health and safety adviser in the oil and gas industry).

Finally, this is a top down view. Most of what I do these days is designed to help senior executives and boards understand if their health and safety risks are being controlled. Part of this means that I spend a lot of my time challenging safety managers to show that what they do works.

With all of that on the table, the point of this post is to raise an observation: It seems to me that more and more safety managers and advisors are being excluded from the table.

When it comes to decisions and strategies that organisations genuinely care about, the safety manager is simply not present.

This first struck me about 10 years ago. At the time I was involved in a depressingly high number of matters that involved fatalities and in every case, the decision makers dealing with the fatality did not include the senior safety advisor. General managers, CEO’s, HR managers, CFO’s – they were all there, but not the safety manager.

Thinking about this further, in more recent times (about the past 5 years) I have noticed two key trends.

One is the due diligence debate.

In Australia a number of jurisdiction have introduced legal obligations on “company officers”, requiring them to demonstrate personal due diligence with respect to the management of health and safety risks.

It seems to be that this “debate” has been hijacked by lawyers (apologies to my friends in the law) and that the safety advisors are completely ill equipped to deal with the issue. If you look online at the articles, commentary and observations about due diligence in Australia it is a discussion dominated by lawyers.

My personal experience is that I am often called into an organisation only because the senior safety advisor cannot explain the due diligence obligations to the executive managers, nor clearly define a way to manage those obligations.

What this (it seems to me) has led to is:

  1. Safety advisors are not driving key executive management initiatives that impact safety; and
  2. Safety management has become little more than “legal risk management”, which may or may not drive good safety performance.

The other observation come from the oft quoted phrase “safety is a line management responsibility“.

It seems that a number of businesses are embracing that philosophy and using it as a driver to reduce the health and safety “head count“.

Again, my personal experience is a high level of frustration from businesses about the poor quality of service from health and safety advisors. It is one thing to push responsibility for safety onto line management, it is another thing all together to use that as an excuse for not doing your job – a perception that the safety profession has been burdened with.

While senior executive accountability and line management responsibility are cornerstones of effective safety performance the safety profession must define its role and place in that framework.

We must also add value.

Hiding behind mountains of paper, unrealistic and unachievable aspirational safety objectives, jargon and the inability to explain the relationship between what we do and how it adds value all contribute to marginalise safety advisors from  management and the workforce.

What value do we add?

9 thoughts on “Be careful what you wish for: Is the safety “profession” being sidelined?

  1. Safety Advisors are being ignored, and not asked for their opinions, even though they are on the front line, and management want to dominate, and ignore any advice.

  2. Greg – that is spot on , the issue of adding value is not understood and I find that safety “professionals” do not understand or try to understand how the business functions — inputs, outputs, key drivers and organisational relationships.

  3. one of the reasons safety people are being left out is the work is being done by the wrong level and the wrong people are at the wrong levels (see stratified systems theory).

  4. I think the reason safety officers are left out the decision making is because most safety officers are obsessed with safety, whereas everyone else is obsessed with getting the job done.
    Until safety officers see themselves as just another part of getting the job done and not searching for the mystical holy grail of “safety” they will not be taken seriously.

    1. I agree with Kevin wholeheartedly. When all of our OHS training is about hazard identification, risk assessment, controls and compliance is it any wonder younger OHS advisors are lost. Where are we taught how businesses operate, negotiation skills. The majority of our time is spent selling an idea or trying to change behaviour yet these skills are absent from safety training.

      1. You and me both. I have just spent the entire day trying to get people to see safety in a different light. I am 60, I am hoping to make a change before I retire.

  5. All is not lost…
    Australia has commenced the pathway to certification of both practitioners and professionals. A body of knowledge has been defined, university courses are being accredited by an independent Board, and a Certification Board is due to be formed in January 2014.

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