By Phil La Duke
Uncertain times make us risk adverse. And in a tenuous economic recovery it’s easy for safety professionals to play it safe. Making waves when the organization is looking for ways to cut costs is professional suicide. As the old Eastern-European adage holds: “the nail that sticks out gets hammered.” I suppose you can forgive safety professionals for wanting to stay out of the fray—to just keep their heads down, do their jobs and hope against hope that when the people wielding the axes look to make cuts, the safety professional emerges job intact. While it makes sense to be concerned about your job; it seems like every day there is some new attack on safety. Unfortunately and ironically, the very nature of the safety professional’s job makes playing it safe impossible. Operations leadership needs efficiency gains and overall improvements not just to compete, but to survive, and any function that doesn’t support this is cannon fodder. Businesses just can’t afford to retain safety professionals who aren’t obsessively pursuing better ways to do things. Playing it safe requires you to stay out of sight; do your job well, but not too well. You certainly aren’t going to recommend some risky initiative. What if it doesn’t work? It’s your name and reputation, if not your job itself on the line, why risk it? All these arguments seem to make sense except risk is our business. Safety professionals have to monitor the health of the organization and recommend adjustments—sometimes radical adjustments—where necessary. The days when you could do the same old mediocre job and survive are over. The safety professional’s job is all about taking chances. We have to confront ignorant supervisors who take inappropriate risks in pursuit of production improvements. We have to intervene when maintenance shortcuts put workers in jeopardy. And we have to confront leadership when their priorities are out of whack. But most of all we need to take aggressive steps before intervention is necessary. When times are toughest is when workers need us the most. We have to fight for funding while cuts are being made all around us. When operations slow, we need to go to bat for training (it is practically an O’Henry poem the way businesses are either too busy to provide adequate training or to slow to keep people on the payroll, and thus unable to train them) and preventive maintenance. But one thing we can’t do is remain silent and look the other way while inappropriate risks are being taken. It sounds like I am talking out of both sides of my mouth; last week I went on and on about how safety wasn’t necessarily the number one priority. But consider this: safety is changing, and yes it isn’t always the top priority it is always a criteria for success. So how can you serve two masters? How can you take risks, keep your job, and make the workplace safer? A couple of ways actually: • Do Your Job Better. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and rethink much of what you’ve been doing in safety. Take a hard look at your safety management system and ask yourself if you can achieve the same results (or better) using some other approach. Can you get there cheaper, faster, using a simpler model, or with less infrastructure. Even if you decide to keep doing what you’ve been doing, you should ask yourself these questions (and not just now, periodically, even frequently.) Strip away all the fads and dump any safety activity that doesn’t provide demonstrable and quantifiable value. Forget get what you think you’re achieving through these activities and focus on what you can prove. Oh, and getting results isn’t enough, you have to demonstrate that the effort and resources to achieve these results are actually worth it. While many vendors will tell you that their way is the best way to achieve a result, they are in business to make money, not protect your job. • Re-engineer the Safety Function. It’s not enough for you to do your job better if your safety function isn’t particularly viable. Tear down your safety department and start over. Start by re-writing your charter and re-establishing your goals. Your business has likely changed since you last reorganized your function and you need your goals and activities to align with the changes in business climate and function. We either change or we become extinct. • Renegotiate. Contact everyone with whom you are currently doing business and start over. Too often vendors raise their prices when they find themselves in an economic pinch. Instead of putting up with vendors who take your business for granted, put everything from gloves and earplugs to consulting out for bid. • In-source. The best way to protect your current staffing levels is to stop sourcing their work out to vendors. When the bean counters are looking to save money they aren’t automatically looking for heads to cut from the payroll. • Get Out In Front. Don’t wait for your boss to come to you and tell you that you need to cut costs. Approach your boss with a simple goal of cutting your operating costs by 10% and then do it. When times are good we tend to add little niceties to our function and these “extras” tend to become relics that we carry with us long after we can afford to keep them. • Become Self-Funding. One trick I learned a long time ago is that self-funding departments (that is, functions that save or take in more money than they cost) are the ones most likely to survive drastic restructuring. Identify those areas where you save (or in some rare cases, make) money. Prioritize those activities that bring in the most money while requiring the smallest amount of effort. You’ll typically find that the other activities aren’t as important or crucial as you once believed. It’s never easy to stand up for what you believe, and changing to adapt to a tough environment is never easy. But playing it safe often makes leadership think that you aren’t doing enough to warrant keeping you around. When it comes to protecting your job as a safety professional you gotta take risks.