Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Reflections on the Safety Profession for NAOSH Week

This week in North America we celebrate the North American Occupational Safety and Health week. Like any such day or week commemorating something, it’s a time for reflecting on where we’ve come and where we’re going. As a profession we’ve made some great strides. According to the latest statistics, far fewer people are getting hurt or killed at work in North America than at any other time since we have numbers. This is something we can all be proud of.

Additionally, we see a marked increase in safety education with many more degrees in safety becoming available than ever before. This coincides with the revolution in social media, which allows the transmission of knowledge and connection of ideas from across the world in ways that were unheard of just a few decades ago. Our profession is growing stronger everyday and that is encouraging.

However, we still have much work to do to. The rates of serious injuries and fatalities continue to remain at a relative plateau and are even rising in some areas. Further, our profession remains relatively disjointed and influenced by outdated and unproven theories. Rather than rehash what’s wrong with our profession (we already did that here), we thought perhaps some ideas on a vision for the future of the safety profession would be a good way to celebrate NAOSH week. So here’s some thoughts on what our ideal future for the safety profession would be:
  • A coherent scheme for entering the profession that reliably and validly separates professionals from non-professionals so that those entering the profession have the tools they need to effectively perform the tasks of a safety professional. This would include a combination of education, experience, and certification. A safety professional recently brought up the idea of an apprenticeship system, which sounds interesting as well.
  • The safety profession would have two complimentary tracks – research and practitioners. Each track would have its own scheme for entrance, but there would be significant overlaps and both tracks would have systems of communication and feedback so that practitioners are guided by relevant research and researchers receive feedback from practitioners in a way that informs and guides new research questions.
  • Safety is no longer measured by the absence of accidents, but is measured by the presence of resilience, adaptive capacity, and success. We may even go so far as to say that traditional indicators such as recordable rates would become obsolete and replaced with a new set of proactive indicators, but that may be a bit too provocative for some. So we won’t say that out loud.
  • Safety professionals all have a strong understanding of system theories. We’re not talking about management systems (often those who understand management systems don’t understand systems theory, ironically). We mean understanding system architecture and relationships. This would help safety professionals identify organizational problems more quickly and suggest better interventions.
  • Safety will move from a profession based off of command and control, where we believe that people are a problem to control, to one of facilitation, where people are a resource to harness and are the source of safety and success in our organizations. In a way, safety would be democratized. People’s innovation and adaptability would be utilized rather than inhibited.
  • Because safety facilitates innovation, adaptive capacity, and resilience, business leaders no longer see safety as a necessary evil, but rather as a tool to achieve organizational goals, like productivity and quality. Safety professionals work actively with other organizational leaders to create success in the organization, rather than being the only one holding the organization back.


We certainly don’t claim to have all the answers as to how to achieve the above and don’t believe that our ideas don’t come with their own challenges that will have to be overcome. We just think that if we move in this direction we’ll be a lot better off than we are today. What do you think?

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