Transforming the Role of the Safety Person

By Nicole Barrett, Psychologist

May 15, 2017

role of the safety person

Let's talk about the role of the safety person. I say 'person', because labels such as safety leader, safety manager, safety advisor and safety officer conjure up specific images and expectations about what these people do which may or may not be aligned with their role in action.

Invariably there is hierarchy in role titles. Safety leader implies an exclusive focus on setting the strategic direction, resourcing requirements and modelling the priority of safety. Safety manager stimulates a picture of oversight and assurance, whereas safety advisor or officer tends to ignite images pertaining to the 'doers' of safety.

For the purpose of this article, it's the doers of safety that I am most interested in exploring.

I need to refer back to my previous article, 'The Anxiety of Safety', to provide some context. The article points to a systemic pattern where leaders, managers and operational roles often split off their role in safety and hand it over to the safety 'expert'. In response, the safety person internalises these projections and can find themselves over functioning or doing 'all things' that are remotely connected with safety. The outcome is that the function of safety is seen as something that is separate and 'other' than the real work, instead of being fully integrated in the operational roles.

Theoretically we know that role clarity is one of the criteria leading to employee engagement and effectiveness at work. Yet, ask a safety person what their role is and, even within the same organisation, you will find different answers.

I guess the question that first needs to be addressed is, what is the purpose of the safety role in the current context? How can they extract meaning from their work and deliver ongoing value to an organisation? And, do they have the capability to do so?

Earlier this year, I did some work with an energy company in NZ and this very issue was a consistent theme. The company is well on the way to transforming their culture which has had substantial impacts on the safety person's role.

With the emergence of 'safety differently' (Dekker, 2015), and increasing attention on creating generative safety cultures, it's time to stop and reflect on the consequences for the role of safety people.

In my view, the role of the safety person largely depends on the leadership, culture maturity of an organisation and the role that is 'given' to them by the system. Let me offer two distinct roles as an example.

  • The safety officer - by the very nature of the term, this role implies a position of authority and an element of control and order. The officer is seen as the safety expert. They set the standards, develop the procedures, investigate, audit and assure that the workforce is following the rules. The future of their role is secure because, more often than not, the experts are the only ones that understand all of the rules and requirements.

  • The safety advisor or safety business partner - is an alternative role title which points to giving specialist advice and supporting the business in its strategic pursuits. The role is about influencing, coaching and enabling others to take ownership of safety and action in their role. As the workforce come to learn, understand and be more competent in applying the safety system, the future of the role becomes insecure.

Any movement toward 'safety differently' presents a very real dilemma for safety people and the transition phase has the potential to activate an unconscious role purpose to 'survive'. My most recent research revealed that safety people are finding it challenging to lift beyond what they have always done because they simply don't have the skills... and this worries them. For example, activities such as facilitating frontline involvement, communication, organisational learning, culture and change management are not key skills and competencies in the traditional curricular. To demonstrate this sentiment, here's what one safety person offered:

"We (HSE Advisors) are wired the way we are and it's hard if you don't have the skill or see why we need to be different in our role. We don't have a degree in change management to support what we do. We are getting better, more open, but the biggest thing is breaking the habit of doing what we have always done. When the pressure is on, I revert back to what is easy for me to do".

Adding complexity to this issue, even where safety people espouse or are stated to be authorised and have the skills to take up their role in different ways, they are seduced back to the 'norm' because the organisation needs them to reduce its anxiety and give the illusion of keeping the organisation and its people safe. That is, leaders and operations continue to depend on safety people to control things and the status quo is sustained.

What is the future role of the safety person?

In 2013, my research found that unclear roles and role boundaries between safety and operational people had strong implications for individuals' and the organisation. Without an aligned purpose and role clarity, there is substantial variance in how safety people get utilised which can range from simply being an extra pair of hands to a trusted advisor and coach. In this instance, safety people often found themselves being loaded up and asked to deliver against such a wide variety of expectations it was impossible to do so in a way that was effective and valued by the organisation.

Since first reporting this research, little progress has been made and the question of role purpose and primary task for the safety person continues to bubble up in my work. At last year's safety psychology conference, there were notable distinctions in terms of organisational strategies and how the safety role is understood. It was clearly evident that a sense of confusion about what is required in order to remain relevant while future proofing the role exists.

Like most things, there is no right or wrong answer. The role of the safety person will be dependent on many things. Wherever it is that your organisation stands along the path of safety evolution and maturity, I offer 3 things to mull over. Attending to these will help minimise the personal impacts on safety people and your organisation during periods of transition:

  • The dependency on safety people to do 'all things' safety is co-created. Leaders and operational roles give it, and safety people take it... that's their job and it pleases management. This dynamic supports the system in maintaining the status quo, safety remains separate and the question of 'who owns and does safety' is left uncertain.

    Insight: If your organisation is on the journey of transforming how it approaches safety; proactively and deliberately manage all aspects of the change and do not underestimate the level of resistance that will occur at both a personal and organisational level.

  • Later research I conducted with Dr Claire Ryan (2014) demonstrated that incongruence between role expected (by the safety person) and role given (by the organisation) has a direct impact on engagement, role efficacy and work-related stress among safety people. Also, role ambiguity leads to significant variation in how safety people get used in an organisation which inhibits them from taking up their authority and effectively working within the boundaries of their role and deliver perceived value.

    Insight: Align, remove the noise and get perfectly clear on a shared view of the purpose of the safety role; what it is that they are really being asked to do, and why is the transformation necessary?

  • Like any other change, asking your safety people to step away from the traditional and undertake new activities is going to raise concern and discomfort.

    Insight: Involve your people to align on the role then equip them with the appropriate support, knowledge and skills; they need to let go of the old and build muscle and confidence in delivering against the new order. Alternatively, bring fresh blood and other specialist backgrounds into the team so that the group collectively delivers a holistic solution whilst transferring skills and knowledge.

In truth, organisations need both technical and adaptive approaches to safety and we must ask ourselves; is it reasonable to expect all these skills can sit with a single person?

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