There is a growing movement in safety. It is one that recognises that we need to approach safety differently if we are to make advances as a profession. It is therefore inevitable that the discussion turns to education. What should we be teaching safety professionals (old and new)? Do we need different safety training for a different approach to safety? For what it is worth I don’t think that better, more or different education for safety professionals is what is needed to transform our profession.
Two years ago I wrote the post Safety is in the Making. In it I included the following ’12 most striking tendencies of safety professionals’ which captured the characteristics, not the knowledge, that I believe safety professionals should posses. So to me the fundamental change that is required from safety professionals is our approach, not our knowledge. For example, we need safety professionals that engage with people to help them come up with solutions.
When it comes to helping develop solutions, you may say that we already do this and it is called consultation. But in my experience consultation usually involves getting employee input on an already thought out and and mostly developed solution (e.g. a procedure, new initiative, process, control etc). The problem with this is that someone has already decided that the solution is the right one. The person was usually an ‘expert’, maybe even a ‘safety expert’.
As an expert there is an expectation that you know what the right solution is. How many safety experts or safety professionals are prepared to say ‘I don’t know what the solutions is’? How many are prepared to say ‘I will facilitate the best possible outcome that I can by seeking a diverse range of perspectives’? Because if we did say that, then why do you need safety professionals? Why wouldn’t an organisation utilise people who are good at asking questions, listening, communicating, bringing people together, seeking out ideas? Or maybe that is what safety professionals should be. And in that case, why shouldn’t safety professionals come from all different walks of life? Why couldn’t an artist work as a safety professional?
I am not saying that we don’t need formal safety education. And for some people that may be a great way to develop their thinking and approach. But I do have a number of issues with formal safety education. One of my concerns is that it prescribes what a safety professional should know. To me this goes against a safety differently approach. For example, who are we to say that there is a standard way to investigate incidents. Or that incidents must be investigated to identify root cause (or investigated at all for that matter). Maybe there are different ways for dealing with incidents that better add value to the workplace. The same can be said for risk management, safety management systems, auditing etc.
I also don’t think that having safety qualifications should be the only avenue or a prerequisite for a person to become a safety professional. I am not saying that we don’t need subject matter experts. Nor am I saying that a subject matter expert can’t be a safety professional. I just don’t see why someone with an open mind and the ability to work with and support people can’t work in safety. And if they are called on to provide advice in an area that they don’t feel that they know enough about then they say so, and help to find someone that can.
I was discussing my views on safety education (and other matters) with a colleague and the conversation turned to trust. If I had to come up with words that I associate with safety they would definitely include creativity and trust. And I think that trust has a big part to do with what makes a good safety professional. Trust in yourself. When faced with making a decision or offering an opinion do you look to yourself for the answer? Do you think the problem over and come up with your own take on the situation? Do you trust in your own ideas? Do you trust that even if you don’t have an answer that you will be able to facilitate an outcome? Or do you look externally to established methods and so called tried and tested approaches? I believe that we need safety professionals who trust in their own ideas and don’t blindly follow methods and approaches that they were taught.
So if more, different, better safety education isn’t the best way to evolve our profession, then what is? I wish that I had the answers. Maybe we need to challenge people’s view of what a safety professional is and what they do. Maybe we should promote safety professionals as being creative, solutions focused, out-of-the-box thinkers who enable success in the workplace. If we could do this then we may attract new people to the profession and employers may look beyond safety qualifications when recruiting for people to work in safety.