For safety professionals and safety teams, staying close to what matters in your role is crucial to being effective and bringing about change that can help improve the safety of work, now and in the future. Here’s where to start.

1. Focus on the work – not the processes

As a safety professional, your focus needs to be on the work that people perform. Sounds simple right? Not the safety processes. Not the organisation’s safety risk profile. It’s your job to focus on the work that people are doing and how they can be supported to do this safely.  

The object of understanding and analysis is work, not safety processes. Safety professionals should focus on current and future work. Yet more often their focus is on the past – like an investigation looking at something that happened weeks ago. This is not being proactive.

Safety professionals need to be obsessed about people’s work.

2. Show you understand and care about people

This sounds like a no brainer but for many safety teams, people can be left behind with the ever-growing politics and administration of safety. If you want to have influence when it comes to safety, you need to understand and care about people’s lives, not judge people and situations. An effective safety professional is not the judge, jury and executioner, they are the friend, servant and trusted advisor.

Once people see you as someone who takes the time to understand each person’s situation at work and care about how it affects them, you’re more likely to be seen as someone whose advice can be trusted. This will enable you to get the understanding of work that you need, and the relationships to influence change.  

Safety professionals need to be people, people.

3. Invest in professional learning and growth

There’s a world of safety intelligence beyond your workplace. If you want to be more effective in your work, connect with leaders and others in your field to develop your knowledge and bring that back into your organisation. Safety management is an applied trans-disciplinary science meaning that a safety professional needs at least a working understanding of: psychology, sociology, management science, organisational behaviour, engineering and many other disciplines.

Showing that you belong to a broader landscape of safety professionals and taking an active role in the sector – whether that’s to understand best practice or learn new skills – makes you more valuable and likely to make impact and bring real change. Research shows that leveraging external lessons for your organisation increases your influence with stakeholders.

Safety professionals need to be life-long learners.

4. Be a role model when it comes to conversations

Learn how to disagree constructively and encourage others around you to do the same. Show that you’re comfortable with open and challenging conversations around safety, and if you’re not, learn how to be. Safety professionals need to question and be questioned. If you always agree with your manager and stakeholders then your role is unnecessary.

Organisations open to change are often open to disagreement too – how else do people learn to evolve their thinking or skills? When it comes to the safety of work, we need role models to invite and promote the benefit of disagreement so more people speak up. This is increasingly difficult in modern organisations that desire conformity and harmony however research shows that diversity of ideas is critical for maintaining safety.

Safety professionals need to have the difficult conversation.

5. Learn to ask questions, rather than give opinions

Asking ‘is that how we should think about this issue?’ can be more constructive than stating an opinion and waiting for others to share their own. While disagreeing is a skill worth developing, so too is the ability to ask questions and elicit insights from your team and fellow colleagues. It is likely that having others come to a realisation of their own through your questions will be more influential that telling them what they should think.

Modelling this style of enquiry encourages others to do the same and can help to reduce the labelling of workers who disagree with safety practices as risk takers. Asking ‘why do you think that?’ of a person’s reaction allows people to share their opinions in a… safer, ahem, space.  A safety professional learns by asking questions rather than stating what they know.

Safety professionals need to practice the art of humble inquiry.

6. Keep your cool – stay rational at all times

Safety has become a loaded topic, one that divides people into those who care and those who don’t, by virtue of how they respond to suggestions and changes in the workplace. Try to avoid becoming emotional or judgemental in challenging conversations. Safety professionals need to be curious about ‘what is’ in their organisation, not fixated on ‘what should be’. 

If you’re going to disagree with someone, bring data, facts and a professional opinion, to reduce the likelihood of people reacting emotionally or with judgement towards you, but at the same time, do not equate difference of opinion with a person not caring about safety. It is not always right to be right.

Safety professionals need to bring data and insight to management decision-making.

7. Create space in your day to enquire

The most difficult step is also the most critical when it comes to being effective as a safety professional. If you want to improve how you work you need more space. Getting to know people, building effective relationships, and understanding the challenges in their roles requires time.

As safety professionals, you need to know what’s going on in your organisation. If you’re in meetings from 9am to 5pm, that’s going to be impossible. Understanding people and their work means taking the time to enquire and investigate and collaborate on solutions.  You need to follow the trail of weak signals to proactively manage emerging and future safety risks.

To be an effective safety professional, you need upwards of 50 per cent of your role allocated to white space, where you have time to pick up the phone, follow a hunch, get out into the field and see what’s going on – to focus on current and future work, which is your job after all.

Safety professionals need the autonomy to openly roam their organisation. 

BONUS step… be clear about the role of safety

Very few organisations take the time to decide what role they want safety professionals to play. But it’s critical to make sure everyone’s aligned around the same goals. Once you decide and communicate ‘we want our safety people to focus on work’, ‘we don’t want our safety professionals tied up in meetings’, then everyone can move ahead together.

The role of a safety professional is not to be a grand overseer of form-ticking and head-down compliance. A primary focus for safety professionals is to help their stakeholders understand the role that is most effective for them to perform and how the organisation can best support them.  Start the conversation now to build a role with impact.

Safety professionals need to clarify their role to their organisation.