Job Outlook 2012

Safety professionals say they need leadership and communication skills to succeed, in addition to technical know-how

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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.

Leadership

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.”

'Things change'

Job insecurity, delayed retirement concern some safety professionals

Life was not supposed to go this way.

A site safety manager* in construction told Safety+Health that he worries he will soon be out of work after 27 years in the safety field and almost a decade with his present employer. His employer was taken over by another company in 2010, and the construction industry as a whole has taken a hit. “There’s a great deal of fear,” he said.

He added that many of his co-workers are operating on the “fear factor” – they do not want to find new jobs but know they need to start looking. “I didn’t figure at this age I was going to have to look,” he continued. “Things change. It’s not just changes at my company; the economy changed.”

While the majority of respondents to the 2012 Job Outlook survey expressed confidence in their job security, 2 percent chose “I believe strongly I will lose my job” and an additional 11 percent indicated a “slight possibility” they will lose their job.

Another theme that emerged in this year’s survey was putting off retirement. Among respondents who had planned to retire within the next five to 10 years, 44 percent said the economy has delayed their plans.

One was a man who was laid off in 1999 after 30 years with an insurance company. The respondent, who is in his mid-60s, said he experienced age discrimination while looking for another job – one interviewer asked his age and others told him they wanted younger workers.

On top of that, the recent financial crisis drained his retirement cushion. He now is working for the local government “and I don’t anticipate retiring,” he said. “I can’t even envision when that’s going to happen because I’m trying to recoup from the ’07-’08 disaster.”

A safety manager in the health care industry said he was nervous about losing his job because his employer was bought out by an investment firm and his group likely will be sold off, leaving him at the mercy of the acquiring company.

Looking back, he expressed regret that he put off becoming a Certified Safety Professional because he did not expect to stay in safety. “If I had to do any one thing to shore up my hire-ability it would be the CSP designation,” he said.

The construction site safety manager also listed actions he wished he had taken to improve his career prospects, such as taking professional development courses and networking with other safety professionals. “You have to prepare for the what-ifs,” he said, raising the following scenario: What if a safety professional has been doing the same thing at the same company for 10-20 years and suddenly has to find a new employer? “You’re going to be at a keen disadvantage,” he said.

Faced with the possibility of having to find a new job, he is considering leaving construction or even switching professions.

“I’m optimistic about safety as a trade,” he said. “I’m pessimistic about my situation, and I’m sure a lot of other people are too.”

*Names withheld to allow respondents to speak openly about their job situation.

– AJ

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