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Companies have been combining the safety department with security for decades. But why, and is it a good idea?

KEY POINTS
  • Some safety and security experts believe the two departments feature many commonalities, including a desire to keep workers safe.
  • Benefits of combining the two departments include economics and streamlining, some say.
  • Combining the two may not work for every company, and it could overwhelm the worker placed in charge, experts warn.
By Kyle W. Morrison, associate editor

For years, occupational safety and health professionals have been in charge of ensuring proper procedures are followed for requirements such as lockout/tagout. But should they also be in charge of locks on a company’s front door?

Tasking a safety professional with security responsibilities, or vice versa, is nothing new. Michael Fagel, a consultant who has taught both safety and security classes at several universities, highlighted this trend nearly 30 years ago in an article he wrote for the National Safety Council’s Meat and Leather Newsletter.

“In recent history, industrial organizations have seen an increase in the roles of safety and security being placed into the same administrative function,” Fagel wrote in the June 1980 newsletter.

In the decades since, that trend has continued. Experts have seen more safety professionals taking responsibility for security training, while security professionals are taking more OSHA or other occupational safety training.

“Things have gotten more combined,” Fagel said in a recent interview with Safety+Health. “Security and safety have more of a common thread than they ever did.”

‘Common thread’

That commonality is being proactive to protect people – employees or the public – from intentional or unintentional harm, said Edward Krueger, director of the Criminal Justice Center for Innovation at Fox Valley Technical College in Neenah, WI. “Some of the fundamental elements of safety and security [are] relatively common,” he said, including protection of employees, development of reports, interviewing people and case action.

Krueger said he has seen more security personnel taking on safety-related responsibilities, such as fire code procedures, medical procedures, OSHA regulations or various safety laws.

Both fields also have grown more formal throughout the years, especially since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to Gerry Cavis, a former Secret Service agent and presently a managing director of security for NASCAR. Where before the two were viewed as “nonchalant and informal,” Cavis said safety and security now are considered a “daily operational component” of an organization, adding that liability is another strong link between the two.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, safety and security became more intertwined, Cavis said. The Department of Homeland Security was created as an umbrella organization to oversee offices and agencies such as FEMA, the Transportation Security Administration and the Office of Health Affairs. “The one thing the world is evolving to in terms of safety and security is a more unified effort,” Cavis said.

That point also is illustrated outside the federal government and the workplace: Some universities and colleges have combined their safety and security departments. Three years ago, Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond merged its safety and security programs to create the Safety, Security and Emergency Management program, said Fagel, who taught at the university.

“The students required it,” Fagel said of the merge. “The students are hungry for a degree for both avenues together.”

Practicality

However, not everyone agrees that safety and security is the best combination. About three years ago, Borden and Remington Corp., a Fall River, MA-based chemical distributor and manufacturer, had a separate director for both security and safety. Following the retirement and death of those respective directors, the two positions were combined. Gregory Fowler is now the company’s director of safety and security – two jobs with tasks he said do not always mesh well.

“The majority of the stuff, they’re kind of independent,” Fowler said of safety and security. While he agrees some aspects of the two go hand in hand, such as protecting individuals from a terrorist attack, he sees more of a link between safety and environmental at his job.

Working at a small company that employs fewer than 50 people makes it easier for Fowler to handle both safety and security. However, in a larger facility, especially one that deals with hazardous chemicals, managing both requirements could be difficult, he said. “A company with higher hazardous chemicals, mandated by the EPA to follow risk-management protocols – that’s a daunting task right there given the amount of chemicals,” Fowler said.

JoAnn Dankert, National Safety Council senior consultant, cautioned that not every organization will benefit from merging the two departments. For some, placing a single person in charge of both security and safety may be spreading that individual too thin, a position Dankert experienced firsthand. While working for Coca-Cola in the mid-’90s as a regional safety manager, she also was in charge of security for her site.

“I can see where people would push back being concerned about the sheer amount of work and what it means,” Dankert said. “It’s hard enough to be a safety person when you’re called at 2:00 in the morning when someone is injured. Now they’re calling you on holidays and weekends because the gate won’t close.”

Merging

As with many things, having a single person in charge of both safety and security all depends on how the company executes the plan. Work­ing on a large site may require additional safety and security staff to assist with routine tasks, Dankert said.

A merger could help an organization save money by streamlining two departments. But experts stressed the need for caution when it comes to using such an action to save money by reducing staff. “We’re all cutting staff; those are the times. But you have to balance risk with who you let go,” Cavis said. Employers need to ask what the organization may be losing by letting an employee go and the effect it will have on the organization’s mission.

A transition program that includes proper training for either the security or safety professional is very important for any merger being considered. Fowler said he benefited from working at his small company for 14 years. In that time, he got to know the ins and outs of the facility, and even shared an office with the head of security. This more intimate work atmosphere allowed for an easier transition into his current post, as he was able to learn from his co-worker and assist him, he said. “Being at a small company, you can definitely jump in there and help someone out,” he said.

Dankert advised against giving security responsibilities to someone in charge of developing a safety program because doing so may overwhelm the individual. “Smaller organizations are probably just catching it as they can,” she said. “If they’re struggling with safety, they’re probably struggling with security.”

Although taking on additional tasks is a résumé-builder, security and safety professionals need to recognize the limits of their capacity or capability, Cavis said, adding that any shortcomings could be eased with the proper staff.

That lends itself to a popular theory among safety and security experts: It’s everyone’s responsibility. “The responsibility of safety and security, the well-being of our co-workers and visitors and the facility itself is a responsibility that belongs to all individuals,” Krueger said.

Safety and security have changed from the years when one simply meant a locked door and the other a hard hat. Those working in the fields now realize the importance of being more professional and proactive, according to Krueger. Regardless of whether one’s background is in safety or in security, professionals know the two have the same mission and recognize how similar both end missions are, he said.

“Historically, I think individuals leaned in the direction of their strongest field of knowledge. It might be security, it might be safety,” Krueger said. “Today, however, that’s not a barrier for the professional. Given the task at hand and realizing the importance of safety and security, the professional doesn’t distinguish between the two.”

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