Three competency elements of the safety professional 1


The October 2012 edition of The Synergist, the magazine of the  American Industrial Hygiene Association, included a frank interview with Niru Davé of Avon. Dave says that many safety and health professionals have a low level of competence.

He explains his statement through his belief that there are three competency elements in a safety professional:

  • Knowledge – staying up-to-date with the information in your field
  • People Skills – respect and approachability, and
  • Contribution – communication and involvement, participating in and generating a strategic approach.

These elements could apply to any profession and to any professional association, or industry group. Indeed these elements can be both personal and organisational. For instance, any member-based organisation should establish a base level of knowledge and provide services to improve that knowledge’s currency and applicability. The people skills in this instance would involve improving the “brand” and corporate reputation of the organisation – developing an authoritative voice in the community. the third element would include lobbying, research development, engaging with decision-makers and, perhaps, setting the agenda.

Davé says that internal safety advisers should, in some ways, consider their role as consulting to senior management, to applying the techniques and skills of the consultant in presenting information and options. Executives often seem to give additional weight to external, independent advice over internal suggestions. This needs to be balanced with the advice provided through the corporate structure or, if possible, generate greater trust and respect. The “consultant’s way” may be a useful strategy.

Davé also advises safety professionals to get out more in their own company. If safety can have a potential impact on any element of a business’; operations, it is important to know what those operations are. This should not be to interfere with that operation but to know the business so that potential risk points can be anticipated and incorporated into the safety advice.

One particularly practical advice from Davé was that “To some extent, you can better influence senior leaders by knowing their style.” This is certainly not advocating that safety professionals be sycophants but by not always talking exclusively about safety, one can personalise the relationship and encourage safety to be seen as part of the broader culture of a workplace and not a silo, a sign or a clipboard site walk.

Kevin Jones

One comment

  1. Hi Kevin. I must say, having worked in both consulting and internal WHS roles over the past 20+ years, that I have generally found that these three competencies have stood me in good stead. Let me paint a personal picture to ilustrate –

    Over all of that 20+ years I have found it has not been difficult to stay up to date with knowledge and changing legislation even as I moved across multiple industries and in some cases multiple jurisdictions. Most (if not all) regulators publish media and ‘news’ type stuff in both hard and soft copy. I’m currently subscribed to WorkCover NSW e-News. This keeps me abreast of developments at that level within the NSW jurisdiction. Also I have been a long time subcriber to the NSW Parliamentary Counsel’s Office Bulletin issued every Friday afternoon. This is a tool I use to stay abreast of upcoming changes to acts and regulations as they pass through the various layers of Government.
    I’m also subscribed to a number of blog sites like SafetyAtWorkBlog where WHS current affairs are raised and dicussed between peers. And I find there is a wealth of information available via the web if I need to research specific issues.

    My approach to people/interpersonal skills were learned early on (pre-WHS) as a frontline supervisor and middle manager in a manufacturing/maintenance environment where I learned that I built better relationships with people in other functions, and got better service and support than my peers, when I was able to talk their (technical/jargon) ‘language’. That said, I’m currently in the Disability Services sector and I can talk about general and specific disabilities issues at all levels whilst also incorporating WHS aspects and issues into the conversation. This has enabled me to establish significant respect from people at all levels of the organisaiton from exec to frontline staff. I even have regular interaction with some of our clients and employees with disabilities.

    On the communication and contribution section I’ve found it pointless to focus on ‘sprouting the law’ and requiring compliance to those minimum, often generic, standards without recognising the ‘real life’ constraints that others are faced with. Having an ability to ‘speak the language’ AND apply the legal/regulatory standards to realtime cases and come up with business-unit/site/person specific solutions to problems has also contributed to my standing within the organisation.
    It has been seriously refreshing in my current role to have a significant number of front line and middle managers seeking my contribution from the start of an issue. I haven’t had to get the ‘big stick’ out for some time. I take that as them having confidence in my ability to support them.

    And the proof? Our workers compensation performance has improved out of site in the past 2 years, with reduced claim numbers, averge claim costs and lost days per claim; and premiums are falling despite significant (almost 25% in the past 2 years) growth in the business and payroll. That’s not all down to me. But I have been a signifcant agent for change in the approach to prevention activities.

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