Occupational safety and health (OSH) practitioners today are operating in a young profession that has witnessed significant and fast-paced change. In this, the first of a three-part series, Professor ANDREW SHARMAN discusses the evolution of the role from safety officer to safety practitioner, and explores what the changing world of work means for those in the profession today.

Back to the future
It’s 1975, a time of high political pressure, and workplace democracy is shaken as storms brew in social as well as economic climates. A safety officer by the name of MC Bryant writes an article for the UK Annals of Occupational Hygiene titled “A Safety Officer’s View of the Future”. Bryant’s plea is strong, that in these times of great change, the UK must “harness these skills to resolve the hazards which plague our environment. Our objective is clear – a safe and healthy future for everyone who works.”

With words resonating through many developed economies around the globe, Bryant suggested that the role of the safety officer had unfortunately “developed in a fragmented and somewhat undisciplined way”, pointing out that the common aspects of the job were typically to facilitate poster campaigns, act as a workplace hazard inspector, or at times behave like a safety policeman with limited skills in proposing practical remedies to the risks he encounters.

Sure, we snigger at the idea of a safety “policeman”, eagerly patrolling the workplace with clipboard in hand, ready to pounce on offenders for not wearing their PPE, for horsing around, or to conduct some sort of time and motion safety review. But almost four decades ago, back in 1975, it seems that this was how it was. Luckily, today it’s entirely different. Isn’t it?

Well, not really. Health and safety has for too long been “done to” people. In the years since Bryant’s plea, a one-way relationship has developed, which revolves around checking that people are doing the right thing, complying with standard operating procedures and working safely. Communication from safety officers would occur where employees were found to be working unsafely, ignoring hazardous conditions, making mistakes, or when there’d been an accident. Conversation starters would typically include:
• “I see you’re not wearing your safety glasses”;
• “You should be following the pedestrian walkways”;
• “The law says we need to do this”;
• “I’m going to do a safety audit on you”.

Such statements reek of the responsibility that has been levied upon these individuals but that has been undermined by their own approach. As a result, the ownership, action and accountability for safety all rest firmly on the safety officer’s shoulders, rarely moving beyond.

Many of these individuals relish the call to arms, the responsibility and “the power to call stop”. With a direct line to the managing director or CEO, and the final decision to block changes or halt the production process on grounds of safety, the safety officer prides himself on his ability to assert – and demonstrate – that “safety is the first priority around here”.

In the background though, life goes on, and the goodwill once freely given by peers on the management team rapidly dries up, allies become enemies, closing their ears, and cooperation turns to obstruction. As Bryant wrote back in 1975: “Many safety officers have suffered from the isolation imposed upon them by the organisation for which they work.” Disappointingly, the truth is that many still do today.

Almost 50 years later, in many organisations around the world, the job of the safety officer can still be a lonely one. Divergent agendas are, sadly, all too often commonplace – where the safety officer wants safety first, ahead of production, profit and performance, but the production manager wants to get the goods out the door.

Or the safety officer wants to eliminate risk, but the board want to take risks in order to develop new business models. Horns become locked and progress grinds to a halt. It’s too easy, though, to blame the individual here. We cannot fault the safety officers, the people who have been delegated these duties, and strive to do their best. Indeed, where we have ended up is more a product of the organisational culture, which has discreetly facilitated this catch-22 situation.

A tale of three practitioners: the Monk, the Missionary and the Mercenary

Let’s look now at three specific stereotypes that have evolved in the OSH profession.*

The Monk
Attendance at a training course often generates a sense of self-worth in OSH practitioners, and realising the importance of consultation, they diligently distribute drafts of each new procedure document to all managers on their sites. When negative feedback comes in, the Monk views it as picky, and that the managers don’t really understand safety the way he does; instead they seem more interested in avoiding cost or the extra activity that the new process requires. And so it goes on, the careful preparation of procedures and the meticulous noting of their issues boosting the importance of the role of safety officer.

The procedure documents continue to be issued, though the OSH practitioner has now noticed that comments on his drafts have dried up. The managers have at last realised that he is the expert in this difficult area of workplace safety. But he’s also noticed that several departments are slow to implement the new ways of working, and in some areas of the business they just seem to ignore the procedures altogether.

“Hmm, this just shows that the company doesn’t really care about safety at all,” he muses. Nevertheless, he continues to maintain the networks with his new acquaintances in safety positions at other organisations, extracting their best practices to use at his place of work in the desire to ensure that his procedures are always the very best they can be.

The practitioner has efficiently created a niche for himself as a subject matter expert on an apparently exceedingly difficult specialism. His work is clear to him – to establish best practice in safety in all areas of the organisation. If he can do this, the accidents will stop and the pay rise will come.

What he does not see, however, is that he has effectively distanced himself from the rest of the organisation. He has become what Mike Buttolph of Cranfield University in the UK refers to as a safety Monk, devoted to the meticulous maintenance of the good book – his Safety Manual, living in isolation in his office at the end of the building. While some of the team still believe he has some knowledge or skills that add value, others feel he’s become unreachable and appears to be operating in a different world.

The Mercenary
Buttolph asserts that the second form of practitioner is the Mercenary. He is a safety “activist”, who takes centre stage within the organisation when it comes to matters of safety. He’s the go-to person and can usually recite the letter of the law for any given workplace risk, explaining in detail where the breach is, and what the penalty for failing to resolve it will be.

His training sessions to the management team revolve around how seriously safety failings are taken by the regulatory bodies. He ensures that the managers are well aware that on the mission to “safety first”, he has been given carte blanche from the CEO to stop any task, machine or process that he feels is not being undertaken with safety as a priority.

Regarding himself as the “protector” of the organisation, his “command and control” style of influencing is tolerated by his colleagues, none of whom wish to fall foul of the law and end up on the receiving end of an enforcement order. Like monthly payments to the mafia, there’s always someone willing to buy him coffee in the hope that it’ll be remembered when the safety inspector arrives on site.

The Mercenary has successfully turned safety into a mystical black art, a sort of “stealth and safety”. Under his instruction, his peers have all realised just how complex the science of safety is, and that there really is no-one who really understands how to carry out risk assessments, lead safety studies or get to the bottom of accident investigations when he’s not around.

Even when his peers have a go, these managers find themselves unable to cover off the broad range of risks that they know the Mercenary will find on his return, so the majority leave it well alone – it’s far better that the safety officer stays the fount of all knowledge and they get back to doing what they know best, running production.

Beyond his precise attention to detail, the Mercenary cultivates an air of nonchalance and can appear reluctant to get involved. His terms of engagement are usually split between the assumption that no-one else is as skilled as he, or because no-one else has the desire to try to solve these complicated safety puzzles.

Safety meetings are held with all the formality of a regimental inspection. To prove that safety is a line management responsibility, the production manager chairs the meeting, though with the Mercenary at his right hand to provide the direction, reference to the safety rules and regulations, and in times of hesitation, the words to fill the voids of his conversation.

The company prides itself on its safety management system, confident that between the covers of that pristine yellow lever-arch folder each manager has been given (and signed away their lives for) lies a wealth of detail, legislative reference and specification. The folders gleam on the shelves like the latest special offer carefully positioned on the used-car forecourt.

Updates to the policies and procedures within the folder are stamped “urgent” and despatched from the safety office on a monthly basis. Upon receipt, the managers slide them into the polythene pocket at the front of the folder, mentally noting their plans to file them into exactly the right thumb-tabbed, indexed section before the next safety audit.

Ah, the audit. Conducted each quarter in a hard-disciplined style that smacks of military inquisition, they leave auditees floundering to find evidence of compliance and demonstrate their good practices. The urban myth of another department attaining an audit score of 90% continues to float through the air, and seems still potent enough to provide something to strive for.

Like the Monk, the Mercenary has also found himself a niche as a safety specialist. A tolerated arch-angel who springs in to save the day and protect the company when things go wrong and the threat of regulatory action becomes reality. The mystique with which he shrouds his skills swirls like a superhero’s cape.

The Missionary
The final stereotype in Buttolph’s trilogy is the safety Missionary. This pure and faithful evangelist is on a mission to convert everyone to become believers in the power of safety.

A close call with a workplace accident some years earlier provided the calling he needed to lead himself towards the light. Adorned with the very latest in PPE, the Missionary practises what he preaches.

Always looking on the bright side of life, the Missionary sees safety from a humanitarian perspective, knowing that his colleagues are intrinsically good people who want to work safely, and that the managers are constantly striving to always do the right thing – though on occasion he accepts that they are too overwhelmed by their day jobs to do it.

The Missionary believes that these managers need someone to whom they can confess their safety sins, to explain just why they couldn’t get safety right, and then to learn what to do next.

Penance is rarely imposed. His parables are preached through the form of best practice examples, benchmarking opportunities and new safety checklists. All well-intentioned and gently offered – but they leave managers with a feeling of disconnection; this off-the-shelf one-size-fits-all just … well, just doesn’t fit.

Rather than seeking clarity, the manager keeps his head down to avoid more of the same from the Missionary, and the workers pull together to protect their colleagues. Of course, it’s hard to fail to respond to the Missionary’s joy and passion as he smiles constantly on his audit tours of the workplace, so civil greetings are exchanged freely – but, despite the warm feeling and well wishes, the Missionary is out of touch with the realities of the shop-floor and the strategies of the boardroom.

Blind eyes, bureaucracy and niche-carving
While Buttolph’s portrayal of these safety stereotypes was developed nearly two decades ago, it still provides an excellent and relevant analysis of the development of the role of the safety practitioner, and many organisations may feel a sense of familiarity with one or more of these characters. Each one shows how the safety profession has the power to drive – unintentionally – the management of safety in the wrong direction.

The Monk has a dogmatic drive for his organisation to be the best in safety, but cannot see beyond his own spectacles. He has failed to engage any of his stakeholders and has become a slave unto his own agenda.

The Mercenary builds bureaucracy through generating a sense of fear within the management population. Fear of enforcement, of production loss, of penalty. A fear against which only the Mercenary can protect. Believing in the superhero’s invincibility … but the smoke and mirrors don’t help anyone.

The Missionary’s gentle character and genuine desire to be at one with the world prevents him from “raising the game” – and driving a sense of pace and urgency in his modern business as they pursue performance improvement.

Each carves their own niche within the workplace, isolating themselves on a safety island, where management peers are happy to turn a blind eye and let them reside, so long as they don’t have to do the “safety work” themselves.

The OSH profession has long faced challenges regarding public perception. Ideas of “safety police” jump quickly to mind for many people. Why not ask people in your organisation what they think of when they hear the words “health and safety”? Try to spot whether they see the role of practitioner as Monk, Mercenary or Missionary.

Now think about your company’s vision for OSH. What are the characteristics needed for an OSH practitioner to turn this vision into a reality? Where are the areas you could focus on now?

In the next issue, I will explore the catalysts for the evolution of the OSH profession, and describe how the Monk, Mercenary and Missionary came into being.

* The terms ‘he’, ‘his’ and ‘himself’ refer to both males and females in these roles.

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