THE CHANGING ROLE OF THE SAFETY PROFESSIONAL
The safety professional’s role is important. And it is changing. As more organizations take on safety as a strategic priority, they are recognizing an invaluable ally in their safety experts. The hard part is knowing how to deploy this resource most effectively. BST’s latest book, the Zero Index, describes this challenge as the Expertise discipline: Defining and enabling safety experts to contribute to safety and organizational objectives. At the basic level, the safety professional’s role tends to be policing compliance issues. At the higher-functioning levels, safety experts are trusted partners in change across the organization.
Developing the Expertise discipline is sometimes as much about changing perceptions as it is about developing the role. In one company we worked with, safety professionals performed a traditional, technician role familar to many organizations. The professionals collected data, compiled reports, and, frequently, acted as enforcers. Not surprisingly, their interaction with executives was limited to delivering reports using previously determined templates. When a new senior safety director met with this group, he was struck by how little of their insight and experience made it way up where safety strategy was formed.
The new director set out to position safety professionals as consultants to executive leadership, rather than just technicians delivering information. The trick was to “up their game”; they needed a new model for what safety professionals were and could be. The director organized a series of training sessions using serious injuries, a major organizational concern, as a focal point. The objective was to help the safety professionals become comfortable with analyzing incident reports in a deep way and then developing their ability to collaborate with others on addressing their findings, specifically the high-potential exposures in covered in their analysis.
Safety professionals in this organization now routinely pull together data analysis that separates exposures and near misses by severity potential (high, mid, low) and present their findings to executives personally, in addition to delivering reports by email. The result is that safety professionals and executives are having a much different discussion than they did previously. Safety experts (as they are now known) point out areas of concern to executives, advise leaders on how best to apply resources based on potential, and provide an “on the ground” picture of safety functioning that executives wouldn’t get otherwise. As the safety director put it, “We’re applying safety expertise now to organizational learning instead of ‘putting people in jail’.”
In our experience, the position, function, and contribution of the safety correlate with the sophistication of safety strategy and execution. When safety professionals are limited to the enforcement of rules or the running of programs, the expertise available to the leaders who drive the strategy and operation of the organization is similarly limited. On the other hand, when organizations engage safety professionals as partners in change, they necessarily create access to safety and performance expertise at the highest levels in a way that supports operational excellence.