In this “rebranded*” rendition – a snippet from his latest book Humanising Safety, due to be published later this year – BRIAN DARLINGTON explores which approach is best in the risk and safety fields … policing or caring?

I was walking with a colleague on a site in northern Russia some 13 years ago when we saw a man without any fall arrest equipment working on a pipe bridge. My colleague, who was employed as a project safety advisor, asked him to climb down so that we could have a discussion.

Fearing the repercussions, the man bolted along the pipe bridge’s slippery walkway (it was the middle of winter and the freezing -38 °C temperatures left ice on the structure and walkways). My colleague ascended the ladder as quickly as humanly possible and chased after him. Thinking back, it was like a scene from an award-winning motion picture where the bad cop tells his partner “Wait here at the crime scene – I’ve got this one.”

With a sweat-stained forehead, and utterly exhausted, my colleague proclaimed that he couldn’t catch the person and had no clue where he ran to (in this motion picture the culprit got away). This scene was a clear indication that the safety department’s role was seen as a policing one, with zero tolerance, where any observed violations would be dealt with accordingly. This is an approach followed by many other companies around the globe.

Don’t get me wrong, I am certainly not advocating that risk and safety teams should disregard any health and safety legislation or a company’s requirements. But issues could be approached in a more humanising and personal way – one that reflects a culture of caring and a willingness to help rather than always the “heavy hand of the law”.

Are we considered to be caring and helpful?

Two key characteristics should shine through if safety is to be humanised: mindfulness (to be caring) and a willingness to help. Unfortunately, in traditional risk and safety the tools and models do not support an approach that is caring or helpful. Many of the tools and models taught result in (mostly unintentional) bullying, which is the total opposite of what is needed.

It also seems as if people employed in the risk and safety field believe that they are the enforcers of the relevant occupational health and safety legislation, rather than considering themselves as a humanising help-centred profession.

When describing someone as caring, it defines a person concerned about others who seeks what is in their best interests. Helping, on the other hand, is “when someone provides assistance or support to another person or group of persons”.

When considering words aligned with care and helpfulness, we include words such as listening, engaging, educating, empathy, sympathy, facilitation, understanding, support, and trust. Risk and safety should be no different.

Those employed in the risk and safety field should spend time on the “shop floor” getting to know the employees and understanding their specific situations, concerns, and difficulties. The key to helping and caring is engagement. This is achieved by listening with intent and sufficient attention to others, both on an individual level and on a group basis. Focusing on the human aspects rather than on the objects and conditions reflects a caring and helpful approach.

Is something wrong?

I have visited many operations and companies during my career and on various occasions I have heard the following questions greet risk and safety persons when they arrive at a working area: “Did I do something wrong?”, “What has happened?”, “Is something wrong?”, and “Has there been an accident?”. An employee once informed me that the only time he sees the “safety officer” is when something has gone wrong.

These types of questions or comments clearly indicate that the safety department or individual risk and safety person is regarded as someone in a policing role, who probably only sets foot on site when there is an accident, something has gone wrong, or someone has contravened the rules and procedures.

Unfortunately, one of the negative traits of many persons employed in the risk and safety field is a mindset of wanting to catch people out and punish them accordingly. The result is that when anyone sees the risk and safety person watching them, they immediately think they are trying to catch them doing something wrong. They also believe that had they done something wrong, they would soon be punished for doing so. I have been on sites where everyone stops working when the risk and safety person arrives, in order not to be caught doing something wrong.

Staying in touch or left out of touch?

Life as we know it, which has been no different for centuries, is about being connected, accepted, belonging, and staying in touch with what is happening. However, being a risk and safety person practising the skills of traditional safety and policing does not achieve any of these and certainly does not allow one to stay in touch with what is happening.

The need to belong naturally creates certain in-groups and out-groups. Thus, being in a policing role in risk and safety will without any doubt result in exclusion from the in-group. Being excluded means that staying in touch with what is actually happening on the shop floor becomes impossible; employees prefer not to approach the risk and safety department for assistance or guidance in a proactive manner. Other trade-offs of being excluded include the covering up of issues, not reporting close-calls and incidents, and not raising any concerns.

I reiterate that risk and safety persons need to spend time on the shop floor to understand the issues of concern and to provide help, guidance, and support where needed. They need to be seen as part of the team and not as someone who is difficult to communicate with, or someone who creates nervousness or fear whenever they are on the shop floor. This can only be achieved by developing relationships and open discussions, as well as showing a sense of care and helping towards others.

Are our titles a hindrance to caring?

Think about the titles given to people working in the risk and safety field across the world: “safety officer”, “safety marshal”, or “safety inspector”. In my opinion, these are counterproductive to our efforts to develop a safety culture of support, trust, and engagement. These terms suggest an element of policing, which is not how we want to be regarded. I prefer titles based on a supportive role, such as “safety advisor” or “safety coordinator”.

Words that are allied to the idea of policing include “monitoring”, “checking”, “enforcing”, and “keeping watch” over others. Unsurprisingly, the same words crop up when you ask people what the “safety department” means to them.

One of the negative phrases used by risk and safety goes something like this: “The safety legislation requires you to comply.” Well, you could not be engaging in much more policing than this! It is far better to engage and have an open discussion, through proper dialogue, regarding the risk and safety and to ensure that people understand its importance.

Here is something for those employed in risk and safety to consider: do the teams on the shop floor view you in a supportive role (safety advisor) or do they see you as police? If they see you in a policing role, safety will be viewed in a negative light and the tendency might be to ignore whatever is being addressed. Risk and safety departments should offer support as part of the team to find the best solutions. After all, the role of risk and safety is to support (including caring and helping), not to be responsible for fixing everything. This is something we often get wrong.

Leaders need to be aware that words have significance and meaning, so when working towards the desired culture the titles of the risk and safety persons should be carefully considered. Those reflecting the policing approach such as safety officers or safety marshals, for example, will unconsciously communicate that risk and safety professionals have policing roles.

Discovering and engaging? Or is it just an interrogation?

I often hear people start an investigation with something like, “This investigation is focused on finding the facts and not apportioning blame”. However, once the investigation begins, this principle is forgotten and the tone of the questioning leans towards the accusatory. As a result people tend to feel nervous and they clam up.

I have been part of investigations held in boardrooms (definitely not a neutral venue), which were full of managers and safety people wanting to understand the circumstances of the incident. The trade-off here is that the injured or involved party is totally intimidated as they are surrounded by all sorts of people asking questions and listening to their answers, frantically taking notes, cross questioning, directing the discussions, and not suspending their own agendas.

When setting up investigation teams, it is not common for companies to include a counsellor who provides support to the persons being interviewed. I was recently involved in chairing the investigation of a serious incident, during which the team included an occupational health practitioner with counselling experience. Her role was to ensure the persons being interviewed were not placed under stress. She was there to put them at ease and to call time-out when needed.

The feedback from these interviewees was positive as people felt their well-being was considered. The company had also ensured a counsellor was present immediately after the incident itself as support to everyone involved. This is very different to the traditional approach, where agendas are not suspended, and the main aim is to attach blame with little consideration for the well-being of those involved.


Imagine the difference risk and safety professionals would make if they moved from traditional safety approaches where they are seen as being in a policing type of role, to one that is of a caring and helping nature, focused on positive interaction, partnerships, and assistance with problem solving.

Such a change would also place the industry as a whole in a positive light – one that would help to develop the desired culture within an organisation.

*The name change, from “Safety from the Heart” to “Embodied Safety”, aligns Brian Darlington’s column with his website  

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