Almost 90 percent of respondents consider their job “very stable” or “relatively stable.”
Safety leaders need to be able to speak the language of upper management and relate to workers.
Safety professionals facing job insecurity say gaining additional skills and certifications may improve their odds of getting a new job.
By Ashley Johnson, associate editor
If current trends hold steady, the number of occupational safety and health jobs will outpace the number of trained professionals to fill them, according to NIOSH. In a report issued last year, the agency warned of an upcoming shortage and highlighted additional skills employers wanted from new safety graduates. Leadership and communication topped the list.
Mastering those areas is crucial for experienced, as well as new, safety professionals, suggests findings from Safety+Health’s annual Job Outlook survey. The survey, conducted in May, was sent to 14,950 subscribers – 1,292 of whom responded for a response rate of 8.6 percent.
Asked to rank nine skills that safety professionals need in addition to industry-specific expertise, most respondents put communication with upper management, communication with workers/training, and leadership in the top three – an indication of both the importance and interrelatedness of those skill sets.
Consistent with last year, 87 percent of respondents consider their job “very stable” or “relatively stable.” Almost half of respondents work in manufacturing or construction, and more than one-third are managers. Regarding staffing, 23 percent have recently added staff to their department; one-quarter plan to hire in the next 12 months.
Looking down the road, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that jobs for occupational safety and health specialists will grow at 9 percent (which is slower than average) through 2020, compared with 13 percent for occupational safety and health technicians.
BLS identified communication as an important quality for both groups, which lines up with survey responses.
Tom Schneid, director/chair of the graduate division of safety, security and emergency management at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, explained how communication functions on multiple levels. “I think critical and creative thinking is absolutely essential, and the ability to communicate with upper management to be able to justify your program, with middle management because those are the people you’re working with every day to get it done, and with your hourly workforce to integrate your programs and get them working on the shop floor,” he said.
In the pages that follow, survey respondents discuss their experience with communication and leadership and reflect on their personal career outlook.
Communication with upper management
When making the pitch to upper management, Patrick Genovese, risk management coordinator for DuPage County, IL, focuses on the financial impact.
“A person must be able to present in an executive-summary fashion their needs and how it’s going to affect the company’s ROI,” he said. “If they’re not able to be a good presenter in front of the board, suit and tie, they’re not going to be successful getting buy-in to the program, nor the money for training.”
Genovese believes safety professionals also need public speaking skills to address large groups, although they should not do all the talking during day-to-day interactions with workers.
“Being a good listener is very, very important, and being able to be a good investigator – to have your eyes and ears open all the time,” he added.
Stephen Frost, quality/environmental health and safety coordinator at Jupiter, FL-based PSM, which makes aftermarket gas turbines, said both upper management and workers want to prevent injuries, but management may not realize its message is coming across as “get it done regardless of safety,” and workers may need education on identifying hazards.
That is where he comes in, Frost said, “teaching them to communicate better from the top down and teaching the employees to pay attention to what they’re doing and communicate back up to management saying, ‘Hey, this is a dangerous situation. How can we overcome the hazards that are created?’”
Communication with workers
Reaching workers requires being sincere and relatable, several respondents told S+H.
“The safety professional must act as an educator; must look upon the employees as students,” Genovese said. “[Employees] are expected to perform their specific task that the safety professional may or may not be able to perform themselves. It’s the safety professional’s job to analyze that task and educate the employee on how to perform the task safely. And to do that, they can never, ever talk down to an employee – never.”
Ken Whittle, safety/facility manager for an equipment distributor in Fort Worth, TX, recommended building a friendly and easygoing rapport with workers. “I think when they see that you’re trying to partner with them, you’re going to get a lot further than if you try to cite regulation and code,” he said.
Whittle’s job involves traveling to different distribution centers, and one approach he uses is to engage workers about their interests outside of work. He said warehouse workers may be put off by his business attire, but he dispels preconceived notions by sharing that he races off-road dirt bikes – something they do not expect to hear from a safety professional. That type of conversation “helps people see you now as a real person that they can have a real conversation with,” he said.
Whittle emphasized being empathetic and humble. Safety professionals have expertise, “but the competence you don’t have is what these people are experiencing every day,” he said. “Not everything is textbook.”
An important part of communication with workers is following up. If employees raise concerns but never hear back, they will stop reporting, according to Scott Mendelson, director of environmental health and safety at DZ Atlantic, a maintenance firm headquartered in Philadelphia.
Hazard reports at DZ Atlantic are posted in a log that includes the person responsible for correcting it and the anticipated completion date. Mendelson said the benefit is twofold: Employees are involved in the safety process and can hold their supervisor accountable.
Many of the qualities mentioned for effective communication also apply to safety leadership. Jim Peck Jr., environmental health and safety manager at Hawaii Marine Cleaning in Pearl City, said leaders have to “genuinely care about people.” Being a leader, he noted, is different from being a manager.
“The big difference is managers – and they’re needed – tend to take care of a lot of the administrative stuff,” Peck said. “But it’s really leaders who motivate people and basically get them to move in the direction that the organization needs.”
about how the economy is causing fear and feelings of job insecurity, especially among some older safety pros.
The challenge for safety professionals is that they operate on a continuum between trust and fear, which Peck compared to a seesaw – when trust is high, fear is low, and vice versa. Employee trust is crucial, but must be earned and is easily lost, he said.
Mendelson also stressed the importance of trust. “Education is one thing, and education is very important to understand the foundation of the skills,” he said, “but if employees don’t trust you or employees don’t know who you are, you can write all the manuals and all the programs that you want to, but employees are not going to follow that.”
He considers being able to relate to workers on the shop floor “one of the key fundamentals of having a safety program” – and other respondents agree.
As Whittle said, “The respect and the power of leadership will often just follow suit if you can just show these people that you are here to help; you’re sincere; you listen.”