How to Keep Your Job as a Safety Professional
It seems in life sometimes that getting a job is all about who you know, but regardless of whether or not that is actually the case, once you have a job, there is no doubt that keeping it depends on what you know. In only the rarest of situations is an employer going to continue to pay somebody that adds no value to their organization. If you’ve managed to land yourself a Safety Director’s position, it’s time to look at your track record and your approach going forward to determine if you’re doing what it takes to keep it.
Be a Salesperson
Not everybody likes sales, and that’s unfortunate for somebody in this field because there’s a lot of selling to do. As a Safety Director, you have the burden of showing an employer why something is good for them even if it doesn’t produce revenue and the burden of showing an employee why their behaviors need to change even though they’ve been doing something the ‘wrong’ way for years without negative consequence.
Let’s look at dealing with your employer first. As idealistic as we’d like to be about safety, the fact remains that it is and always will be just as dependent on the bottom line as any other department in your organization. “Because it’s the right thing to do” may be a great selling point when the economy is good and business is booming, but when a company is existing on marginal or no profits – or worse, losing money – safety seems to be one of the first items cut from the budget. Why? Because the Safety Department can’t show that it’s bringing in revenue. It is much harder to convince somebody that your department is worth it because you are not losing x amount of dollars than it is to convince somebody that your department is worth it because you are bringing in x amount of dollars. Not losing money is theoretical. Making money is concrete.
So, how can the idea of safety be sold? By knowing facts and figures. Find out the average cost of medical treatment for a hand laceration and compare that to investing in new gloves. If you’ve had these incidents it’s easier to pull up historical data to make your case, but if you haven’t, hop on the internet, the information is out there. Some employers may be thinking that if they cut their hand, they’d bandage it up and go back to work. They need to realize that it could be much worse than that: emergency room or urgent care visit, stitches, follow-up visits, possibly physical therapy, lost time or production, hiring and training of new personnel or cross-training of existing personnel to pick up the slack. Remember the statistic that indirect costs (retraining, lost production, etc.) are about 4x the direct costs (medical care and salary).
Selling safety to employees should, theoretically, be easier, but for some reason the workforce seems just as reluctant as employers to do what is necessary, despite the fact that it is being done to ensure their own well-being. Employees get comfortable in their way of doing things and don’t want to change (there’s that inertia again). Sometimes they are receiving pressure from supervision to work faster (and sometimes it’s just their own misconception that faster = better). Sometimes it’s simple stubbornness – the “don’t tell me what to do” factor. Other times, safety just isn’t “cool” or “manly”. Whatever the reason, it is an impediment to progress and you, the new Safety Director, need to sell the idea to them. Why is it better for them? Do you have proof? “Statistics are statistics, but how does it affect me?” And the biggest problem: “You don’t care about me, you just want to save the company a few bucks.” These are all obstacles you need to be prepared for. Perceptions need to be changed. Employees need to understand that every single one of those statistics was a person saying, “..but how does it affect me?” They need to understand that caring about them and saving the company money don’t have to be mutually exclusive. You will be selling the idea of safety your entire career.
On top of this, in order to keep your job, you’re going to need to continuously sell yourself. You need to show your employer that you are ‘the guy’ – that you are the person best suited for this job. Sure, once you have the position you have inertia in your favor (the idea that searching for, hiring, and training somebody and basically starting over from scratch is not worth the effort), but inertia is only so strong. You need to be effective. You need to show results. You need to show that you are innovative, hard-working, and effective. Do your job well and your record will speak for itself.
Be a Communicator
If the boss doesn’t know who you are, you’re expendable. If the workforce doesn’t know who you are, you’re going to be ineffective. In a larger organization, where a director has subordinates within the safety department, your time in the field or on the floor will be reduced as you worry more about policy and procedure, worker’s compensation case management, meetings, and other executive tasks, but in smaller organizations field presence is a much larger part of your job. Either way, a Safety Director needs to spend time in the trenches, but by no means should this time simply be spent floating around telling people what they are doing wrong.
If you want to keep your job as a Safety Director, you need employee buy-in to your program. In order to do this, you need to make sure they understand that you genuinely do care about their well-being. Accomplishing that is not hard. Instead of going into the field with the idea of finding all the mistakes, take the time to talk to the employees. Get to know them. Ask them how their weekend was or if their wife had the baby yet. Ask them how their daughter’s first year of college is going or if they saw the game last night. I had one employee on a job who was a tough, stand-offish guy who wanted to do the right thing but didn’t always take the time to understand what the right thing was. However, he also didn’t take kindly to being corrected. One day I got the best piece of advice: ask him about his dog. The next morning when I approached him, I told him I heard he had a dog. He lit up and started talking about his puppy and what a good dog she was. We chatted for a few minutes before I went on my way. Each day I see him, I now begin the conversation with, “How’s the dog?” And, when I need to discuss an issue with him, he is approachable and willing to listen to my criticism or suggestion.
Relationships with the men and women in the field are priceless. I’ve witnessed too many safety “professionals” make their jobs ten times harder because they feel the need to be adversarial with the workforce. They wield their power like a sword, chopping off the heads of those who do not comply (not literally, of course). This wins you no favors. In this situation, workers may actually not comply out of spite. Right or wrong, non-compliance is certainly not a desired outcome. I’m not saying there isn’t a time and a place for being stern and enforcing your disciplinary program, but as the saying goes, “You catch more flies with honey….”
In addition to direct communication with individuals, you need to communicate your message. Safety should always be on the minds of your employees, not just when you happen to show up in their work area. Meetings, signs, newsletters, and safety reminders are all ways to make sure both your employees and your employer are thinking about safety. Bad things can happen when your workforce becomes complacent, so remind them about safety so often that complacency becomes impossible.
And remember the “co” in communication – meaning “both” (okay, I understand that the actual word root here is “com”, not “co”, but play along!). Communication, to be effective, must be a two-way street. Listen to your superiors so you have a solid grip on what they are looking for and listen to the men and women on the front line. Often, they’ve been doing their job for years if not decades, so they probably know a thing or two about it.
Finally, none of this matters if you’re not getting results. You may feel you know more about safety than any other director out there. Maybe you can recite the OSHA regulations chapter and verse. Maybe you’ve been implementing behavior based safety programs since before they were popular. Maybe you could train a lemur to fly the space shuttle. It all amounts to nothing if your people are still getting hurt, your workers are still violating policies and regulations, your management teams have not bought into the program, and – as much as we hate to admit it – your statistics haven’t begun an upward trend. If you’re going to sell, are you closing the deal? If you’re going to communicate, does the other party understand what you’re saying? There are many safety programs out there – and many safety professionals – but are they any good? The only way to know is to monitor the workforce, collect, track and analyze data. If I don’t review or chart my near-misses for analysis, then reporting them does no good. If I don’t test the workers to find out if they understood what they were taught, then training may have been pointless. If I can’t get management to sign-off on a purchase order or agree to allow the time for training, then developing a program was worthless. Always review what you’re doing and strive to improve it. That is how to keep your job as a Safety Professional.