Job Outlook 2012
Safety professionals say they need leadership and communication skills to succeed, in addition to technical know-how
Communication with workers
Reaching workers requires being sincere and relatable, several respondents told S+H.
“The safety professional must act as an educator; must look upon the employees as students,” Genovese said. “[Employees] are expected to perform their specific task that the safety professional may or may not be able to perform themselves. It’s the safety professional’s job to analyze that task and educate the employee on how to perform the task safely. And to do that, they can never, ever talk down to an employee – never.”
Ken Whittle, safety/facility manager for an equipment distributor in Fort Worth, TX, recommended building a friendly and easygoing rapport with workers. “I think when they see that you’re trying to partner with them, you’re going to get a lot further than if you try to cite regulation and code,” he said.
Whittle’s job involves traveling to different distribution centers, and one approach he uses is to engage workers about their interests outside of work. He said warehouse workers may be put off by his business attire, but he dispels preconceived notions by sharing that he races off-road dirt bikes – something they do not expect to hear from a safety professional. That type of conversation “helps people see you now as a real person that they can have a real conversation with,” he said.
Whittle emphasized being empathetic and humble. Safety professionals have expertise, “but the competence you don’t have is what these people are experiencing every day,” he said. “Not everything is textbook.”
An important part of communication with workers is following up. If employees raise concerns but never hear back, they will stop reporting, according to Scott Mendelson, director of environmental health and safety at DZ Atlantic, a maintenance firm headquartered in Philadelphia.
Hazard reports at DZ Atlantic are posted in a log that includes the person responsible for correcting it and the anticipated completion date. Mendelson said the benefit is twofold: Employees are involved in the safety process and can hold their supervisor accountable.
Many of the qualities mentioned for effective communication also apply to safety leadership. Jim Peck Jr., environmental health and safety manager at Hawaii Marine Cleaning in Pearl City, said leaders have to “genuinely care about people.” Being a leader, he noted, is different from being a manager.
“The big difference is managers – and they’re needed – tend to take care of a lot of the administrative stuff,” Peck said. “But it’s really leaders who motivate people and basically get them to move in the direction that the organization needs.”
The challenge for safety professionals is that they operate on a continuum between trust and fear, which Peck compared to a seesaw – when trust is high, fear is low, and vice versa. Employee trust is crucial, but must be earned and is easily lost, he said.
Mendelson also stressed the importance of trust. “Education is one thing, and education is very important to understand the foundation of the skills,” he said, “but if employees don’t trust you or employees don’t know who you are, you can write all the manuals and all the programs that you want to, but employees are not going to follow that.”
He considers being able to relate to workers on the shop floor “one of the key fundamentals of having a safety program” – and other respondents agree.
As Whittle said, “The respect and the power of leadership will often just follow suit if you can just show these people that you are here to help; you’re sincere; you listen.”