Thursday, June 5, 2014

Safety by Accident: A Call for Action from the Safety Profession

Note: This blog is a brief summary of a presentation that Paul Gantt, our President and Founder, is presenting at next week’s ASSE NationalDevelopment Conference, Safety 2014, in Orlando on Monday, June 9th at 3:15pm EST (session 539).

In speaking with a safety professional recently we got to talking about how he got into the safety profession. Like so many other professionals in our field, he did not intend to become a safety professional. He was a floor supervisor for a company that got bought out and rather than being laid off, the new organization that purchased his company offered him a position in the Environmental, Health, and Safety (EHS) department. He had no previous experience in EHS at all, he sort of just fell into it.

Now, don’t get us wrong, this particular person has done a pretty good job in the years since starting in the profession. However, it does highlight an interesting and perhaps disturbing trend in the safety profession – the fact that the overwhelming majority of safety professionals who got into the profession did not intend to get into the profession. This fact alone is not a problem. But like so many other things in our profession, we must understand the unintended consequences that result from this.

To illustrate these consequences, compare the safety profession to other professions, such as medicine or engineering. Typically people get into these professions at an early age and because they want to. So they go to college, take internships, and get locked into the fundamental institutions of the profession (i.e. professional associations, academic institutions). In the safety profession though, given that the majority of safety professionals fall into the profession rather than intentionally join the profession, we don’t see that. What we see is a situation you would expect to see in an environment where a profession is made up of ad hoc professionals. Here are some examples:
  • The average professional who joins the profession will be less qualified in terms of knowledge, education, and training.
  • This will lead to an overall lower average level of knowledge, education, and training for the profession as a whole.
  • The average safety professional who joins the profession unintentionally will be less likely to be aware of institutions that exist to shore up the profession, such as professional associations and academic research.
  • This leads to a highly divergent and fractured knowledge base due to a lack of continuing education.
  • Further this leads to a lack of profession-wide forward thinking and innovation, as we’re always trying to play “catch-up.”

One can also draw correlations between this lack of entry standards for our profession and the compliance culture that permeates most safety professional thinking. After all, if you haven’t been given a theoretical and practical foundation for thinking about safety and you have been thrust into a safety position, needing to get up to speed quickly, the most efficient thing to do is to mentally outsource your safety thinking to compliance with regulations. This is why if you ask the majority of safety professionals what the safe way to do something is they will respond by parroting some form of regulatory requirement.

We do not blame these professionals and we do not mean to disparage the well-intentioned and passionate individuals who joined the profession by accident (in fact, Paul, who’s giving the presentation mentioned above, is a safety professional by accident too). Rather, as Paul will discuss in Orlando, problems do not get solved until problem solvers identify the breadth and depth of the problem. We have many highly-intelligent individuals within our profession and at SCM we believe that if you get enough highly-intelligent people in a room and give them the proper parameters for problem solving some really amazing things can happen.

But Paul will have more to say on this topic next week, so we won’t steal his thunder.

What are your thoughts on how to improve the safety profession?

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