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A seat at the table

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown C-suite leaders the value of safety professionals

March 28, 2021

Much about our workplaces has changed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, including how safety and health professionals and their work are perceived by their organization’s C-suite.

And rightly so, says Regina McMichael.

“Now we can say, ‘We were part of the superheroes of COVID,’ even though we weren’t health care providers,” said the president of The Learning Factory Inc., a safety education and training company. “Let’s hope we were COVID preventers. For the first time, we can take off this ‘government regulator’ cape and put on a real superhero cape that says we were part of the solution.”

For many industries, especially those with essential workers, the pandemic created numerous safety and health concerns. Communicating the latest guidance on mitigating the spread of the coronavirus has been a key priority for more than a year, along with locating and securing cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer and facemasks. In addition, many safety pros helped reimagine workspaces to encourage physical distancing and performed temperature checks at facilities.

Experts say that just as the pandemic hasn’t ended, neither has the impact safety pros are having on the workers they help protect – or the value they exhibit to the people in the C-suite.

Safety speaks, C-suite listens

With COVID-19 still a concern at worksites, executives are taking notice of the importance of their safety teams, said David Michaels, who headed OSHA for more than seven years during the Obama administration.

“The thing I hear from safety directors at middle-sized companies and large corporations is they’ve never had such access to the C-suite, the heads of these organizations, because of COVID-19,” Michaels said during a November webinar hosted by the University of Colorado. “And I think that’s not going to go away. I think there will be more opportunities in the private sector” for safety pros.

“The need for industrial hygienists and experts in not just safety, but health, who understand infection control in workplaces will not go away,” he continued. “Because we’ll see more government action on this, we’ll also see more private-sector action on this.”

So, communication between C-suite executives, employees and safety pros will continue to be critical.

In a June survey conducted by Savanta Inc., an environmental consulting firm, more than 3,900 workers and business leaders in 11 countries – including the United States, Canada and Mexico – were asked about their at-titudes around trust in the workplace and crisis response/management.

Thirty-two percent of the workers said they’d like more communication from management during the pandemic, while 35% of the C-suite executives said a lack of communication was their primary regret.

‘No barrier’

For some safety pros, collaborating with the C-suite throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been no different than other times.

“We’ve always been active participants with the C-suite and executives,” said Theresa Ciatto, director of safety at Primus Builders Inc., a designer and builder of cold storage facilities in the United States and Canada. “There’s really no barrier.”

Having “open-door” access to the C-suite has allowed Ciatto to ensure everything workers needed to stay safe has been made available.

“We’re trying to stay on the forefront of having access to equipment, PPE, cleaning supplies,” she said. “It was very difficult at the beginning. Having the understanding that it was going to cost more, they were willing to put forth that effort and that cost. There really weren’t any issues.”

When questions about COVID-19 were prevalent throughout the nation’s workplaces early last year, Brian Gawlik took advantage of his relationship with the C-suite at M. A. Mortenson Co.

“We always have a voice,” said Gawlik, who is the construction company’s safety manager.

On daily 30-minute phone calls, Gawlik was among an estimated 200 people from his office discussing the lat-est safety-related issues. The result provided team members, from the foreman level and up, with the latest in-formation and guidance on hand sanitizer, facemasks, physical distancing, carpooling and contractors.

If hand sanitizer, COVID-19-related posters or other items for a jobsite were needed, Gawlik said safety came first.

“It was never a question of, ‘Why are you doing this?’” he said. “It was, ‘OK, let’s go get that.’ We always feel like safety is never, ever questioned.”

The challenge now for safety pros is to remain front and center with C-suite executives and the general public. Maintaining that presence in the C-suite must be the goal, as well.

‘It starts at the top’

Twice during his career, John Fenton has served as a safety director. Today, he’s the CEO of Patriot Rail & Ports.

During the early days of the pandemic, Fenton sat down with his safety director to strategize. Those meetings offered a lesson on the value of getting safety pros involved early on.

“We sat down on a Monday and he and I and a few other folks talked about what we needed to do,” Fenton said. “We put together a very comprehensive plan in three days. We thought we were way ahead of the game.

“By Friday, we fully implemented it, had shut down our offices and the world changed dramatically.”

As an essential service, Patriot Rail & Ports relied on its safety culture to oversee workplace sanitization and physical distancing protocol, along with finding and procuring cleaning supplies and PPE.

“It was a whole team effort, but it was orchestrated by the safety team,” Fenton said. “They coordinated it. I was so thankful for what we had.”

Building a strong safety culture that benefits an organization during a crisis can’t be done overnight or with a flip of a switch, Fenton says.

“It starts way before an event and it starts at the top,” he said. “You’ve got to understand the rigor and the dis-cipline it takes. But it starts with, ‘Do you really care about people?’ Everything we do is through people.

“You can’t delegate it. You have to be genuine. You have to do the right things. Period. Sometimes it costs money. Those are all investments in your people. You can’t just all of a sudden turn it on and say, ‘Gee, we’re going to have a great safety culture.’”

Maintaining safety’s voice

A recent trip to her mailbox revealed to McMichael just how much the COVID-19 pandemic has made society aware of safety. A discount retailer’s flyer was advertising hand sanitizer, wipes and masks under the words, “HEALTH AND SAFETY DEALS.”

McMichael was “so excited” that she took a picture of the flyer.

“Those just aren’t our words anymore,” she said. “Everybody says, ‘Stay safe.’”

The challenge now for safety pros is to remain front and center with C-suite executives and the general public.

Photo: RichLegg/iStockphoto

Just as an advertisement and a neighbor wishing you well both mention health and safety, the public is more aware of professionals whose focus is keeping others safe.

“As a profession outside of the C-suite, we’ve got a presence that we’ve never had before, except after huge tragedies, which COVID is,” McMichael said. “We’ve got to hold on tight to that, not let it go and maintain it going forward.”

Maintaining that presence in the C-suite must be the goal, as well.

“I hope they see us beyond compliance,” McMichael said. “That’s not the case everywhere. I hope they see the safety professionals’ relationship with the workforce and with the business side of the house merging with that humanity.”

That reality will take some work, however. McMichael said meeting C-suite executives in their arena is a must. That could mean safety pros finding a business mentor and building connections with executives.

“What we bring to the table is not just managing stickers on the floor,” she said. “Everything we do is about the business.”

Ciatto said speaking the same language as those in the C-suite is important for the profession. In training, for example, each group or department benefits from sessions tailored to its role.

“That should include your C-suite, because they’re going to see it a little differently,” she said. “You have to be able to get them to understand if you’re more proactive here, it’s actually a benefit to your customer. It’s a benefit to your sales. It’s a benefit to your employees.

“In the end, there’s a better profit margin, but, first and foremost, it’s a better culture. Your employees want to stay, your subcontractors want to always work with you. There’s growth for everyone involved.”