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Shades of Grey of the Safety Professional

Why shades of grey? No, it has nothing to do with the book and movie “50 Shades of Grey,” even though a part of me wishes it would. It’s more than that. Being a safety professional, everything is not black and white like what you might have learned in college or what a safety enforcement officer would tell you. It is, in fact, different shades of grey, something that everybody learns as they grow as a safety professional.

Part of this article is based on my experiences and some from other safety professionals that I have worked with. At my first full-time position as a safety professional, I didn’t fully understand the concept of shades of grey as I saw the legislation as black and white and “the law is the law.” No compromise, even though the human resources director tried to explain the situation to me. It has only been throughout the years that I finally understood what he was talking about.

Before we really get started, I’m curious to know why you became a safety professional in the first place. I strongly recommend that you always remember the main reason why you wanted to be a safety professional because it will make it easier when you go through challenging times throughout your career. For myself, the main reason why I fell in love with this profession is that I can make a difference in people’s lives and to increase their safety consciousness.

The goal of this article is to help direct those who are new to the safety field or have a couple of years under their belt. I know for myself, I wish that I would have had this information when I first started in this amazing field as you will discover for yourself.

One challenge that you will face at the start and throughout your career is changing the general view of people that you are the “safety police.” You will discover that some people will see your job as strictly enforcement instead of what it really is. Even today, I sometimes have difficulty explaining to the general public what I do as a safety professional as some just see your role as making sure employees wear their hard hats.

I believe that the role of a safety professional is to be a guide and coach for employees, supervisors and managers by providing them with the skills and training to perform their jobs safely. The way I explain this is that as a safety professional, I am the one holding a flashlight in a dark room showing the way to get to the door safely. It is up to the employees to follow the path that I have shown them.

How to Be Successful as a Safety Leader

So what information has made my life easier as a safety professional? Actually, there are several elements safety professionals should be aware of in order to be successful in their career.

Initiative

To be successful as a safety professional, you must have a certain amount of initiative. You shouldn’t wait for someone to tell you what to do next unless directed by your supervisor/manager. I recommend when you are first hired, ask your supervisor/manager what he or she expects from you in this position. This will tell you how far you can go with your initiative and the range of responsibility of your position. This will alleviate of lot of headaches for you.

Carry a logbook

I strongly suggest that you get and carry a notebook, or logbook. The purpose of having logbooks is to protect yourself in case something happens where the company, management, or employees try to blame you for an incident, saying that you didn’t tell them that something wasn’t safe, or that you are required to testify in court. Write down anything that you find odd; arguments that you have with employees, supervisors, or management; situations where recommendations were not accepted; when you know decisions made were against EHS legislation or the code of ethics. Basically, keep a log of anything that you think should be written down.

It is important that your notes are accurate and factual. You do not want to write down assumptions but you should include exact quotes. The sooner you can write the event in your logbook the better. The longer you wait, you increase your chances of forgetting important facts or parts of the conversation.

Keep up with education

The safety field is constantly changing, so staying ahead means you need to keep up with education. It can be by taking courses through universities, colleges, safety associations or by attending health & safety conferences. Keep in mind that the courses you take should be of benefit to you at your place of employment or the industry you would like to work in. It is also a great opportunity to meet fellow safety professionals and create valuable resources. If you intend to obtain a safety certification, you will be required to have a certain amount of education and if you want to maintain that certification as well.

Code of ethics

Code of ethics is probably the most complex element. You will go through certain situations in your career where you will have to make choices as to which battles you should fight and which ones you shouldn’t. Not every battle is worth fighting. Even though you may be in the right, you might still lose your employment.

I remember an occasion where I was giving a confined space training session. I mentioned that the pipes going into a tank must have a flange in order to prevent any chemicals or liquid getting into the tank. To my surprise, the employees asked me if I liked my job and if I was sure I wanted to proceed with this. Later one of the senior managers told me that I had opened a can of worms. So yes, the legislation is clear on what is expected from an employer but sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture. Most enforcement officers will be happy if you can demonstrate that the safety program and culture is improving at your place of employment.

Networking

Networking can definitely become an asset for you as a safety professional. The more people you meet, the more resources and professional relationships you will develop. You can network at health & safety conferences that you attend. Also, any types of courses you attend (safety and non-safety) are great places to meet people and network. Becoming a member of an association (whether safety or non-safety) can help you to network as well. Make sure that you bring business cards with you when you attend any events.

Mentorship

I was very lucky when I first started my career in the safety field. I had a great team of safety professionals around me and a great manager who was my mentor. They took time and were patient with me while I was learning to be a safety professional. I strongly encourage you to find a mentor or a group of safety professionals that can do the same for you. If there are none at your place of employment, become a member of a safety association. Safety association members will be more than happy to help out with any questions or challenges you may face at your place of employment. I still reach out to my fellow members on a regular basis to obtain feedback or recommendations. I am pretty sure if you ask one of them to be your mentor, he/she will be more than happy to help you.

Interpersonal skills (soft skills).

Interpersonal skills (soft skills) are crucial if you want to become a great safety professional. I would easily say that the work of a safety professional is 80% soft skills and 20% knowledge.

Imaging yourself rowing a canoe, with you rowing in one direction and everybody else is rowing the opposite way. You won’t get very far, and similarly, you won’t be able to improve your safety program or culture at your place of employment if you’re always going the opposite direction from everybody else. Your goal is to make everyone row the same way you are.

It is guaranteed that you will have to deal with difficult individuals or groups that don’t share the same goals as you. You will need to learn how to win over all kinds of different personalities. You should take advantage of any training that you can acquire on interpersonal skills, such as how to deal with difficult people. It also helps when you can find some common ground with the person in question.

At the end of the day, you can be right all you want but if you can’t get people to follow your lead, you will not be successful.

Challenges and Rewards

As you can see, this amazing career isn’t as easy or clear as you might think. Anything in life that is worth doing always comes with its share of challenges. You will have some good days and some rough days. I know for myself, it is rewarding when the people I work with go home the same way they came in and when employees come to me and explain their efforts in going the extra mile so that their fellow employees remain safe from safety hazards and injuries.

I love this profession and I hope that the information that I have shared with you will be useful as you start your journey as a safety professional.

Christian Fournier, CHSC, is the safety and training coordinator with Fornebu Lumber Company Inc., Sawmill Division, a specialist lumber production and forest management business based in New Brunswick, Canada.

Source: EHS Today

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