Key relationships for the safety pro
Who do you need to know at work?
On any given day, safety and health professionals can interact with colleagues who work everywhere from corner offices to the shop floor.
Developing working relationships with key individuals and departments can help you make the workplace safe for all – while also allowing you to become a credible and dependable resource.
“You’re the conduit between the worker and the management, guiding the whole team through the safety vision, whatever that may be,” said Jack Jackson, senior safety consultant at SafeStart. “You have to build a trust that you’re going to do what you’re supposed to do from management’s standpoint and from an employee standpoint, that you have their best interests at heart.”
Simple conversations – on topics from fishing to food – can open lines of communication with employees.
“It’s the small conversations that just seem like general chitchat that can really bring forth the safety issues,” said Harley Corren, safety specialist at Ahlstrom, a specialty paper manufacturer in Wisconsin. “A lot of it is common ground and trust. Be present. Find out what their issue is. Also, find out what we can do to solve that issue.”
Before sharing a safety concern, some workers may have been thinking about it for a while. So, listening to those concerns and responding in a timely manner can forge a positive connection.
“You’ve got to give them that sense of empowerment,” Corren said. “They’re the ones we’re protecting. They have to be comfortable with you.”
Your ideal team should be “a triad of leadership, safety and HR,” said I. David Daniels, president and CEO of ID2 Solutions and a safety consultant. “In a mid-sized to large organization, you can’t do it without those three. Period.”
In some small organizations, an HR person might be assigned the responsibility of handling safety efforts. In larger organizations, safety and HR efforts overlap in multiple areas. These can include employee behavior and recordkeeping.
Having the ability to connect the people who design items and/or processes with those carrying out the work is of great value to you as a safety pro, said Jackson, who added that working closely with engineers has been “a revelation” for him.
“That’s a relationship – from a safety standpoint, an ergonomics standpoint and an efficiency standpoint – that the safety person could really be a conduit between the engineers and the floor-level employees,” he said.
Having a seat at the table alongside the CEO, chief financial officer and/or chief operating officer of your organization is a major advantage. But which relationship should you cultivate?
“As high as you can go,” said Richard Fairfax, a principal consultant for NSC Networks – part of the Workplace Area at the National Safety Council and former deputy assistant director at OSHA. “The C-suite is absolutely critical.”
When you get an opportunity to speak with your organization’s leaders, Fairfax urges you to get to the point.
“I’ve seen it time and again,” he said of colleagues who prepare 30 PowerPoint slides for a meeting with C-suite leaders. “What they don’t realize about that head person is you’ve got five minutes to get your point across. Have three, maybe four slides on how this is going to benefit them. Once you’ve done that, it’s going to open the door.”
Although this group’s main focus is on production and revenue, a good relationship can benefit safety, said Lindsey Schroeder, an environmental, health and safety consultant with Colorado-based Hellman & Associates. For example, when taking employees off a production line for training.
“If we can build a strong relationship with the director of operations and production manager, they can trust us that we are pulling their employees for something that has true added value, whether it’s compliance related or trends we’re seeing with safety concerns on the floor that we need to touch base with employees about,” she said.
Building credibility with the team that works in and around a facility every day is a major plus.
“Anything that safety people want to get done, it’s going to be done by maintenance,” Fairfax said. “Maintenance people know the ins and outs of all the equipment and the operations.”
Maintenance workers can also help you learn how things work.
“I’ve seen time and again, in my own experience, when a maintenance person says, ‘That’s a great idea, but it ain’t gonna work,’” Fairfax said. “When they explain it to you, you say, ‘Ohhh.’ You can go back to them and say, ‘We have to provide a protection, so what do you suggest?’”
For Brandy Bossle Zadoorian, CEO and principal consultant of Five Forks, SC-based Triangle Safety Consulting, the relationship with the maintenance team also involves oversight of its members’ safety.
“They often need a lot of training for their work,” she said. “They lock out machinery. They’re usually on the roof, so they’re doing fall protection. They’re in aerial lifts. They drive powered industrial trucks.”
Bossle Zadoorian acknowledges that this relationship isn’t an obvious one. But its value is critical.
“They buy the chemicals that come into a facility,” she said, “and they really need to understand the procedure to ensure a chemical has been reviewed and whether it’s been approved before it’s bought and then brought into the facility.”
Having a safety pro to guide them through policies and procedures will make sure only approved chemicals are onsite.