Safety cop or safety coach: A question of balance

I still remember many of my teachers from my high school days, and each had a different style for managing the classroom. One older teacher was the old-school, strict disciplinarian type, a real stickler for the rules. You couldn’t so much as whisper in her classroom without incurring her wrath. (I remember being the focus of many of her reprimands over the course of that year.)

Another teacher was a young guy right out of college, trying to make his way through those first years of teaching. He was mostly worried about being the “cool” guy and wanted the students to like him. Needless to say, we often took advantage of the long leash we were given.

Looking back now, I realize neither environment was conducive to optimal learning. In the strict environment, I didn’t feel I could be creative, and I usually resented anything the teacher said to me. In the latter, the class was more about freedom and having fun, but I’m not sure how much we actually retained at the end of the day.

For safety professionals on the job site, a similar issue of balance is always a challenge. In my experience, the best ones know just where that happy medium lies.

Good cop or bad cop?

The “safety police” vs. the “safety counselor.” The guy who orders strict, draconian safety policies vs. the laid-back monitor who wants to be everyone’s friend. In truth, a safety professional must have qualities of both.

The strength of a safety professional lies in his or her ability to know and understand what’s acceptable in the industry, and what will work for the company, its workers and its culture to develop and maintain an effective and efficient safety and health program.

The safety professional must know and understand that each company, industry and location is different. What works at one company may not work at another, and what works at one office or location may be unsuitable at the office in a neighboring state. I’m grateful we have Travis Miller, IEC’s Safety Manager, on the team because he realizes the importance of identifying the strengths and weaknesses of each group and recognizing that each one may be at different levels – with unique hazards and challenges – in relation to safety and health.

Understanding your audience

Like almost everything in life, most of it comes down to proper communication. The safety professional should use whatever means necessary to ensure proper communication with employees at all levels through effective training, safety briefings, safety committee meetings and other methods. And it all hinges on how effective the safety professional can communicate with workers on the job site, says Patrick Genovese, risk management coordinator for DuPage County, Ill., in Safety+Health Magazine:

“The safety professional must act as an educator; must look upon the employees as students. [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.”

Most important, you need buy-in from everyone on the job, so be sure all groups are properly informed of safety-related plans and procedures to encourage participation at all levels. Everyone on the job site should be able to easily understand the correlation between the safety hazards and the consequences of how it will affect the worker. After all, what seems simple and obvious to the safety professional may not be to the workers. By taking the time to explain and communicate information effectively – even if it means repeating information and using different methods – you’ll ensure understanding of the level of seriousness.

Of course, employees must also feel comfortable approaching the safety professional. One of Travis’ strengths is his open-door policy. He never micro-manages our team and trusts them to do the job within their groups. Safety professionals should offer guidance and suggestions about safe work practices when and where appropriate—being firm when necessary but also patient, professional and polite at all times.

The cornerstone of safety

The safety professional doesn’t have an easy job, but the most successful companies across the country have all learned to maintain that essential balance on the job site, which allows them to uphold a high standard of safety while also understanding the dynamics of each crew, location and project.

If only all my high school teachers could have been like that…

Nilson Goes serves as the chief of operations and general manager at IEC. How do you best maintain a high standard of safety on each project? Share your thoughts on our Facebook page or tweet them @IEC_KC.