Are Safety Professionals Endangered Species?

The safety professional has been falling in status of late. I suppose one could blame the economy after all, troubled companies just don’t have the money that they might have ordinarily spent on new fangled safety processes. One could also blame the politicians—some the vacuous gas bags that pass as politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have characterized safety as costing jobs, being overly protective of workers, and in general needlessly wasting business’s valuable time. But I prefer to place the blame squarely on the safety professionals themselves. Safety, in its present form, really hasn’t been around that long. Sure there have been attempts to protect workers—most notably the efforts of organized labour to improve working conditions and the safety of the work environment—but safety as a mega industry is a relatively new phenomenon. The rise of safety has seen the function move from the position companies stuck good-natured and well-meaning dim-wits to the rise of snake oil salesmen who fancy themselves Machiavellian grand master puppeteers capable of manipulating the behavior of the workers with a bell and some pizza. And as funds get tighter and resources increasingly scarce there isn’t a whole lot of adaptation happening in the safety community. Too many safety professionals still try to compel that which they cannot inspire. After 15 odd years of trying to change things Safety remains a police force, although now some try to do police the populace with complex schemes dressed as culture change. When the environment changes only the most adaptable are able to survive and thrive. And while changes to the business landscape have been profound the reaction from the safety community have been all but imperceptible. To find one of the best examples of the “let them eat cake” mentality one need not look very far. The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) is sponsoring a people-to-people safety delegation to Brazil. The cost per individual is substantial, and it’s fair to say that most of the participates won’t be doing so on their own dimes. I am not trying to denigrate the program, although personally I can’t find a sound business justification for sending a safety professional to Brazil to attend meetings with their South American peers. But forget the specifics of this program and focus, if you will, on how out of touch a safety professional has to be to even suggest that his or her employer. Even with my relationships with several safety magazines I wouldn’t dream of suggesting they fund this boondoggle. The problems facing the safety profession go deeper than expecting companies to make expenditures on questionable trips. Safety still hasn’t found its Deming, when Deming developed his revolutionary approach to quality, an approach that would ultimately form the foundation for Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma, he didn’t immediately go door-to-door like Moze Pray hawking Dixie Bibles. Safety professionals, conversely, show very little decorum in their haste to commercialize every half-baked scheme that flashes across their minds. And if the theory has holes in it, no problem, just sponsor a research study that supports your junk science. A good safety process should be malleable and evolve over time. Once an organization has mastered compliance it needs to concentrate on lowering injuries through hazard management. Solid hazard management works very well in injury reduction, but too often safety professionals lose steam after the low-hanging fruit has been picked. From there Safety professional need to be prepared to tackle the tough problems of serious injuries occurring seemingly randomly. To face those challenges safety professionals need to have a significantly deeper understanding of probability and statistics. Throughout this evolution safety professionals need to do a better job at linking their activities to strategic initiatives of the overall organization. If Safety is going to survive it needs act quickly and decisively. First, safety professionals have to demonstrate the value they provide to the organization and to advertise the contributions that they make to the overall operating efficiency. If your overly complex safety initiatives are costing the company more than it can ever hope to recoup you need to simplify your process and connect it to the continuous improvement of business systems. If Safety can’t directly impact the bottom line, it can indirectly impact the cost of injuries by reducing its expenditures, or at very least it can stop pissing away profits on non-essential safety activities. The economy will eventually rebound and recover, but unless Safety begins to see itself as a partner in making the workplace more efficient it may not survive in any meaningful way. Those safety professionals who ignore the changes in the business landscape will go the way of the Moa, the dodo, and the Tasmanian Tiger, but hell, they got a free trip to Brazil out of it.

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