Job Outlook 2012

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

August 1, 2012


  • Almost 90 percent of respondents consider their job “very stable” or “relatively stable.”
  • Safety leaders need to be able to speak the language of upper management and relate to workers.
  • Safety professionals facing job insecurity say gaining additional skills and certifications may improve their odds of getting a new job.

If current trends hold steady, the number of occupational safety and health jobs will outpace the number of trained professionals to fill them, according to NIOSH. In a report issued last year, the agency warned of an upcoming shortage and highlighted additional skills employers wanted from new safety graduates. Leadership and communication topped the list.

Mastering those areas is crucial for experienced, as well as new, safety professionals, suggests findings from Safety+Health’s annual Job Outlook survey. The survey, conducted in May, was sent to 14,950 subscribers – 1,292 of whom responded for a response rate of 8.6 percent.

Asked to rank nine skills that safety professionals need in addition to industry-specific expertise, most respondents put communication with upper management, communication with workers/training, and leadership in the top three – an indication of both the importance and interrelatedness of those skill sets.

Consistent with last year, 87 percent of respondents consider their job “very stable” or “relatively stable.” Almost half of respondents work in manufacturing or construction, and more than one-third are managers. Regarding staffing, 23 percent have recently added staff to their department; one-quarter plan to hire in the next 12 months.

Looking down the road, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that jobs for occupational safety and health specialists will grow at 9 percent (which is slower than average) through 2020, compared with 13 percent for occupational safety and health technicians.

BLS identified communication as an important quality for both groups, which lines up with survey responses.


Tom Schneid, director/chair of the graduate division of safety, security and emergency management at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, explained how communication functions on multiple levels. “I think critical and creative thinking is absolutely essential, and the ability to communicate with upper management to be able to justify your program, with middle management because those are the people you’re working with every day to get it done, and with your hourly workforce to integrate your programs and get them working on the shop floor,” he said.

In the pages that follow, survey respondents discuss their experience with communication and leadership and reflect on their personal career outlook.

Communication with upper management

When making the pitch to upper management, Patrick Genovese, risk management coordinator for DuPage County, IL, focuses on the financial impact.

“A person must be able to present in an executive-summary fashion their needs and how it’s going to affect the company’s ROI,” he said. “If they’re not able to be a good presenter in front of the board, suit and tie, they’re not going to be successful getting buy-in to the program, nor the money for training.”

Genovese believes safety professionals also need public speaking skills to address large groups, although they should not do all the talking during day-to-day interactions with workers.

“Being a good listener is very, very important, and being able to be a good investigator – to have your eyes and ears open all the time,” he added.

Stephen Frost, quality/environmental health and safety coordinator at Jupiter, FL-based PSM, which makes aftermarket gas turbines, said both upper management and workers want to prevent injuries, but management may not realize its message is coming across as “get it done regardless of safety,” and workers may need education on identifying hazards.

That is where he comes in, Frost said, “teaching them to communicate better from the top down and teaching the employees to pay attention to what they’re doing and communicate back up to management saying, ‘Hey, this is a dangerous situation. How can we overcome the hazards that are created?’”

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.”

'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

Survey says ...

In addition to industry-specific technical knowledge, what other knowledge or skills are important for safety professionals to have?

  1. Communication with upper management
  2. Communication with workers/training
  3. Leadership
  4. Emergency preparedness/response
  5. Environmental regulations
  6. Engineering
  7. Ergonomics
  8. Industrial hygiene
  9. Human resources

Respondents had the opportunity to weigh in with “other” skills safety professionals need that were not represented on the list. Here’s what some had to say:

I think that all of these are on an equal playing field. Safety professionals should know a little bit of all of these things.
Knowledge and experience with construction safety.
Training skill – the ability to teach others in classroom settings.
General Industry and Construction Standards/Regulations are more important in my line of work.
Business and Financial.
Anything other than above, such as time management, ATF, DOT, DoD, Fire Department inspections, the many applicable consensus standards, etc.
I deal with all safety and environmental type of regulations, from city to international.
Common sense along with a healthy dose of mechanical aptitude. Critical thinking to see solutions beyond simply enforcing regulations. Excellent writing skills coupled with superior reading and comprehension skills to properly interpret applicable regulations.
Need to be able to speak to the cost of workers’ compensation in all its forms (e.g., premium, cost of injuries, transitional duty and legal aspects). Be sure that safety programs developed address the leading cost drivers for workers’ compensation and intervention strategies.
Workers’ Compensation/Loss Control.
Analysis and relative comparisons.
Involvement – An organization can only enhance its health and safety system through partnerships – senior management and employees working together to reduce injuries, insurance cost and improving morale. Getting employees intimately involved in the safety system is a key ingredient for maintaining an effective safety management system. A “we versus them” mentality will doom the safety system.
DOT regulations.
OSHA and other similar industrial and occupational safety regulations.
Strong computer skills, i.e., PPT, Excel, Visio, MS Office.
Communication, writing skills, efficiency.
1st tier supplier support and community network.
Building, fire, energy, mechanical, fuel-gas, existing building and property maintenance codes; knowledge of the 1910 and 1926 regulations. The ability to communicate how to meet the compliances requirements and keep a safe workplace.
Risk identification and problem solving are nowhere on that list and seem to be at the top for me. It isn't ergonomics, or IH, it is risk across the board.
Wellness programs.
OSHA regulations.
Job ownership, including responsibilities and accountabilities.
Change Management, Culture Change/Creation, LEAN and Behavior-Based Safety principles. These can all be lumped together … however, these three subjects cannot be overlooked. I think most of my colleagues and myself are engaged in these types of safety management activities more than 60 percent of our time in this day and age. The evolution of the EHS field has created workplaces that need to be in a constant state of change and improvement in order to grow and progress.
Excellent writing skills; excellent work completion/effectiveness skills; excellent laboratory safety (for academic areas) skills; excellent computer skills; outstanding “self-starter/assertiveness/collaboration” skills; outstanding ability to work with multicultural workforce and aging workforce. Excellent and continued networking within and outside of one’s organization. Without these skills, one will fail in today’s workplace.
Ability to develop trust and credibility by building relationships with people throughout all levels of the organization.
Education – professional development, certification, employer support.
Behavior-based safety approaches.
In the utility industry, a safety professional must have a clear understanding of the hazards that a utility worker faces. These hazards may change from job to job and sometimes are driven by others outside of the company. Examples: weather, distracted drivers, neighborhood violence. The safety professional must know the regulations but also understand reality.
Local and federal safety regulations knowledge is very important.
Management skills.
Ability to speak in front of a large audience.
Need to be able to write site-specific safety plans, company policies, procedures, etc., thorough knowledge of the workers’ comp system, OSHA, ANSI and other standards, etc.
Interpret regulation.
Quality, ISO Certification, Six Sigma.
Good instructor.
You cannot be an effective safety professional without the ability to lead and communicate up and down the chain.
Alignment with business priorities.
As a safety professional, it is important that you have an understanding of what the employees are working with and their attitudes toward safety.
Understanding of workers’ compensation and disability/absence management relative to ergonomics and IAQ.
Empowerment to do my job.
Any type of specialized safety training has to rank higher than IH or HR.
1. We hire Industrial Hygienists to work exposure and industrial illness issues.
2. HR is HR; we review FECA claims and make recommendations and keep the OSHA 300, but we’re not the office of primary responsibility for workman’s comp.
In every workplace there is a unique dynamic to how things are done and the safety culture within the organization. I believe that understanding and becoming an integral part of the existing culture is important to effectively identify how to progress and make improvements.
Knowing the site requirements. Most industrial facilities have a series of requirements over and above industry standards. Site-specific requirements are not always communicated to the craft until something goes wrong.
Lean manufacturing.
Professional credentials.
Impact on business due to new regulations and limitations.
Understanding the full range and development of safety protective equipment, human factors as they change with generations and OSHA standards.
Prepare for inspections with MSHA; keep up with all equipment maintenance.
Knowledge of codes, licensing regulation, accreditation standards and government regulations. Also, budgeting and cost saving knowledge.
Infectious diseases, allergies, chemical sensitivities (i.e., health issues).
I believe that successful use of social media, knowledge/experience in job-related apps and data collection/analysis tools are very important now and more so in the near future.
Lack of resources to properly implement and maintain safety programs.
Environmental, health and safety regulations.
Hazard identification and mitigation.
Problem solving – too many people only point out what is wrong without contributing to the solution.
The ability to function in the field or on the floor.
Financial literacy related to safety and health initiatives.
General management skills are very important to any safety professional who wants to succeed.
Change management.
Understanding workers’ compensation is very valuable. It is the true measure of a safety program. The cost of all incurred expense divided by the number of man-hours worked gives you a cost per hour. This is figured into the hourly benefit rate. If accidents go down the cost goes down.

Safety Professions Employment Outlook By Industry – 2010 & 2020

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