Preparing For An Uncertain Future: What Should Tomorrow’s Safety Professional Should Be Studying Today?

Note:  I am publishing this post a few hours ahead of schedule as I will be traveling tomorrow.  I hope you enjoy this week’s offering.

The job that safety professional will be doing in 2020 probably doesn’t even exist today. This creates a difficult situation for educators and employers alike. The field of safety has systematically drifted away from policing and enforcement in interesting, exiting and creative ways. How can students prepare for the job of the future? By studying some disciplines that may not be part of their core curricula. Statistics: At the heart of six sigma, lean, and Quality Operating System (QOS) lies statistics and certainly a working knowledge of statistics is an important foundation oon which these methodologies are built. But a deep understanding of statistics is crucial to the safety professional. Statistics are the language of safety. In the U.S. safety is described in terms of statistics calculations and safety professionals that don’t understand statistics are incapable of understanding what these figures tell them about their organizations performance. And a keen understanding of statistics can also help safety professionals to identify areas where the organization is at greatest risk of injury, the most dangerous jobs, the most dangerous activities and even the demographics most at risk. Armed with such knowledge, safety professionals can recommend substantial changes to how the operation functions and significantly improve workplace safety. If safety is an expression of the probability of an individual being injured than a mastery level knowledge of probability and by association, statistics is paramount. Planning A critical skill that is seldom taught in collegiate settings but that is nearly universally expected by employers is project planning. Solid planning is essential in safety. Profje planning can help safety professionals to reduce waste and free up valuable time and resources from scoping a project to resource leveling safety professionals need complete understanding of planning skills. Trigonometry And Calculus Linear progressions can be used to predict how a company will perform (relative to worker safety) without intervention and logarithmic progression can be used to predict how a company will perform after an intervention has been deployed. By comparing the two progressions a safety professional can demonstrate the value of an intervention and the contribution of the safety professional. While this sounds complicated, Microsoft Excel can do both progressions. If software can complete this work, why then study higher mathematics? Without understanding the underpinnings of the progression the safety professional is unable to judge if the graphing is accurate. Furthermore, one who allows software to do his or her thinking has no business in the safety profession. Organizational Behavior One should never mistake organizational behavior and behavior-based safety. Organization behavior deals with the psychology of groups within an organization; it’s the study of how populations think and act, and is crucial for the safety professional to understand. Meeting Skills Another seldom taught but oft-expected safety skill is the ability to plan and execute effective meetings. Probably the biggest drain on the safety professional’s day is the astronomically huge amount of time wasted in unproductive meetings. In addition to studying the traditional skills associated with effective meetings, students should learn how to determine when a meeting is required. Business Writing/Journalism The ability to accurately communicate a coherent thought is a core skill that every college graduate should possess and yet business is full of functional illiterates and while engineer with the writing skills of a not so bright baboon might be acceptable, a similarly endowed safety professional is unacceptable. Journalism courses teach important skills that safety professionals use every day—skills like conducting an investigation, interviewing, and constructing a concise report respite with in-depth analysis. Journalism also teaches investigative techniques and whether writing a memo or presenting the findings of an incident the journalistic method teaches writers to answer the questions “who? what? where? when? why? and how?” of any situation. Another benefit of the journalistic method is the emphasis on clear communication at a relatively low reading level. Far too many professionals (safety and otherwise) try to emulate lawyers and write in legalese in their communications in an attempt to sound more professional. Unfortunately, legalese is inappropriate for most correspondence because the primary purpose of legalese is to confound the issue. If contracts were written clearly and were free of vagaries one would not need a lawyer to interpret them. This is not jaded thinking, Legalese is designed to deliberately confuse key points because when one is agreeing to be contractually obligated to fulfill a commitment one typically desires a bit of wiggle room on the criteria for successfully delivering on these promises. In other words we pay layers to use language that is open to interpretation and that allows us to weasel out of our commitments if need be. Journalistic style of writing seeks to accurately and efficiently communicate the facts and that is the only acceptable way for a safety professional to communicate. Spanish This may seem like North Americanocentric thinking, but Spanish is one of the fastest growing languages and particularly in the U.S. more and more workers are Spanish speaking. For those in other countries students should be studying the language of tomorrow’s work force because one who is charged with the safety of another should at a minimum speak their language. Anthropology, sociology, and psychology A long time ago, someone (I’m too lazy to look it up) proffered the notion that 90% of all injuries are caused by unsafe behaviors and cottage industry was born. Certainly behaviorism is an important part of worker safety, but attempts to commericalize this fact have been misguided and largely have fallen flat. And as much digital ink that I have devoted to this topic, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. While attempting to use behavior modification to “trick people” into working safely, is simple minded an understanding of how negative reinforcement can dissuade people from participating in safety improvement efforts and even reporting injuries. An organization can easily unknowingly reduced desired behaviors in a population simply because it has created a negative response. Take for instance the case of someone who is painfully shy that is publicly praised and rewarded for making a safety suggestion; what is the likelihood that the similarly inclined will suggest improvements? The safety professional of the future will need a general appreciation of sociological and anthropological concepts. In very real terms, the workplace is a society and is governed by the same basic tenets as society at large. Another important benefit of a fluency in the behavioral sciences is an understanding of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and how it manifests in worker safety. While there are other courses that safety students should complete—ethics, management, and labor law spring to mind—the field of study outlined here should be sufficient to create a foundation on which a solid curricula viratae can be built.

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