By Phil La Duke
NOTE: If you are reading this, thank you. The fact that you took the time to read this and maybe even reflected on these points before making a comment either here or on LinkedIn means a lot to me. Maybe there’s hope for us all after all. Sorry for that interruption so without further delay…
We have a lot of disagreements in the world of safety, but the one I find most interesting is whether or not the organization likes the safety professional. For my part, I would like to think the population should like the safety professional. What’s not to like, this is a person whose job it is to ensure to the extent possible that the place where we work won’t kill us. To others, being hated by the population is a badge of honor; some so much so that they mistake hatred for respect.
Some time ago I sat through a course on hazard recognition, and while the content was very good the instructor well…at one point he turned to the plant safety professionals and said with a simpleton’s grin, “you will be the most hated men in the plant”. More recently, a safety veteran told me that he tried not to get too friendly with the workers because it could compromise his effectiveness when he had to “get on them about wearing PPE or some other rule infraction”.
It gets to a “chicken or the egg” situation, do people dislike the safety professional because he or she does his job well, or is the safety professional able to do his or her job more effectively because he or she is disliked.
There are two ways to look at the job of safety professional: as a key resource for making the organization more effective, or as the hammer that enforces the rules.
At the heart of the argument is this: are safety practitioners little more than safety cops—jack-booted thugs doing the bidding of Human Resources? Or is there job to focus not on rules and enforcement but on making the company better, not just at safety but overall.
I don’t think a person can be effective in the safety role without being three things: liked, capable, and fair. If I am hated for these things, and I’ve worked for a couple of places over the years who thought I was too friendly (no I wasn’t dragged into HR, get your mind out of the gutter) but I have always put myself in the worker’s shoes and when some puffed up, self-important safety goof drunk on his supposed power told me to do something I would ask myself two questions: 1) can this ass-clown fire me? And 2) does this drooling idiot have my best interest in mind or is he just trying to show me he’s the boss? Well guess what, you can’t MAKE me do anything. I’m an adult and I will decide what I do and live with the consequences. Write me up? I’ve been written up before—it doesn’t mean squat. Fire me? Well then you just went from a guy with some meager financial control over me to a man I intensely dislike and who fired me. Just a guy. A guy I might meet at a gas station, or a supermarket, or a bar. Just a guy who took pride in the fact that people hate him, and now he’s face to face with a guy who hates him. Or maybe he won’t be face to face, maybe he’ll be jaywalking and someone he was once so proud to be hated by will be driving down the road. Just a guy. Or maybe I’ll just hate you, do EXACTLY what you say in my finest passive aggressiveness and patiently undermine everything you try to do until they fire you and can go find a job and make a whole new workplace hate you. Either way what have you accomplished besides being thought of as various body parts to which people don’t like being compared? Nothing. You have done nothing but puff up your ego. You can tell yourself you saved lives but we both know you added more risk than you subtracted.
Personally, the best safety professionals I’ve ever met, (and for the record I have met many exceptional, dedicated, fun, and all around great human beings who work in safety, but just like the chocolate covered roach in the box of Raisonettes all it takes is one to make you view the entire population with a hint of suspicion and distaste) tend to be liked and respected by the population; they’re not seen as tyrants or cops, but as pretty cool people who are watching your back and making sure (as best they can) that you work you do doesn’t kill you or make you sick; they’re the guys who are there for you. If I like the safety guy and he or she knows me I am more likely to listen to what they are asking me (not telling me) to do. They will tell me why I need to do it, what the potential risks are for not doing it, and often ask me to help them out by complying. If I have a friendly relationship with the safety guy I am likely to comply just because I know that at least in his or her mind they only want what’s best for me. And if by chance there comes a day when he is just a guy I meet in a bar, well chances are pretty good I’m going to be glad to seem him and buy that man a beer; because he’s just a guy who spent so much time looking out for me and I appreciate it and I like him.
Now, which guy do YOU want to be?
 The word “guy” is a gender neutral term; look it up.