advice for new safety professionals

Advice for New Safety Professionals

One of the most common questions I get while networking is what advice I have for new safety professionals.

It’s a seemingly simple question, but there are so many important elements to the safety profession that it’s difficult to distill into only a few points. While some may choose to focus on regulatory knowledge, safety certifications, and education, I actually consider soft-skills and relationship-building to be the most important factors for success.

Things I’ve Learned as a Safety Professional

When I first started in safety, I viewed everything as black and white. Laboratories and organizations were either “in compliance” or they weren’t.

In the years since, I have discovered that safety is a continuum. Many program elements fall into gray areas and “true safety” is often independent of regulatory compliance.

As safety professionals, our primary responsibility is to guide organizations and employees on a continuous safety journey. We need to appreciate that the risks and hazards that are obvious to us may not be apparent to those with a “black and white” mindset or a “we’re safe because we haven’t had any incidents” philosophy.

It’s easy to forget what it’s like to view the workplace through a “non-safety professional” lens.

Consider that as you communicate and build relationships throughout the workplace.

Keys to Building Relationships as a New Safety Professional

As mentioned above, I view relationship-building as one of the keys to success for a safety professional.

So whether you’re new to safety or you’re an experienced safety professional at a new site or organization, it’s important to focus on relationship-building skills.

With this in mind, consider the following pitfalls that can prevent initial success:
  1. Touting expertise or education before demonstrating value.

    It’s common for new safety professionals to face resistance when they enter a new workplace. The key to overcoming this initial “feeling out” period is to demonstrate value as soon as you can. Too many safety professionals go in with the expectation that they’ll automatically be respected because of their previous experience, expertise, or education, but relying solely on these elements can rub co-workers the wrong way.

  2. Dismissing the expertise of experienced workers.

    Experienced or senior workers are important allies for new safety professionals. They generally have a great understanding of the workplace and command respect from fellow employees. It’s always best to accept and acknowledge that they know more about a particular process or operation than you do. After all, they’ve been performing it routinely for years. Make a point to learn from them first before offering thoughts on possible improvements.

  3. Public-shaming instead of private coaching.

    This is quite possibly the fastest way to turn a workforce against you. You may have seen other safety professionals “call out” employees as a way to use peer pressure to facilitate change. In my experience, this rarely works, especially if you are new and still building your reputation. Pulling someone aside and providing corrections in private is a much better approach.

  4. Implementing changes without explaining the “why”.

    Making and implementing changes is a common component of safety program improvement. However, it can also create a point of contention when changes aren’t handled properly. Regardless of how minor the change may seem, it’s always important to articulate the “why” and rationale that’s driving the change.

  5. Pursuing or announcing big changes without including other key players. 

    I’m a big advocate of “finding your allies” when managing a safety program. If you’re the sole safety professional in the organization, it’s easy to feel isolated. This feeling can be amplified if you’re required to make big changes. However, this pressure can be mitigated by including other key players in the decision making process. The source of the help will vary from organization to organization, but “common allies” include safety committees, facility supervisors, or experienced employees.

  6. Providing only negative feedback.

    In safety, it can be easy to fall into the trap of only highlighting deficiencies and violations. However, positive reinforcement of good work practices boosts morale and is often more effective in the long run. Incorporating kudos and praise into your trainings and walkthroughs can go a long way toward building relationships and your reputation.

  7. Overstating or exaggerating the hazard level.

    It’s critical to be honest and forthcoming about the hazard level associated with various processes. It may be tempting to rely on “shock and awe” to promote compliance with safety policies. However, this strategy can backfire if hazard levels are overstated. Think of it as the “crying wolf” equivalent for safety professionals.

  8. Being invisible.

    The best way to build positive relationships is by making an effort yourself. This means getting out of the safety office and being visible throughout the workplace. The more frequently you interact with others, the more comfortable they will be with your presence.

  9. Jumping to conclusions or victim-blaming before asking questions.

    Incident investigation is an unfortunate, but very real component of the safety professional role. I view each incident or close call investigation as an important learning experience. After ensuring the individual receives any necessary treatment, the most important outcome is highlighting key safety takeaways for program improvement. Too many safety professionals jump to conclusions or cite “human error” with minimal effort to identify the underlying factors. This interferes with improvement, and in worse case scenarios may discourage employees from coming forward in the future.

  10. Playing favorites or looking the other way.

    Consistency is key in safety! This is true for both relationship and reputation building. Make sure your oversight and guidance is consistent throughout the organization. If employees perceive double standards or favoritism, it can be very difficult to overcome.


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