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August 26, 2015

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Scaling the heights

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Health and safety professionals hold down demanding positions. Stephen Flounders offers new practitioners advice on how to gain credibility and respect and explores what professionalism means

Being a health and safety professional can be tough. You often need to hit the ground running on new projects, gain respect quickly from sceptical employees, and motivate people to do things they would not otherwise do.

In a career spanning more than eight years, and having worked with both large and small UK-based and international companies, I have come across a diverse range of safety practitioners. What has always fascinated me is what professionalism means to different people, cultures and organisations.

‘Being professional’ can mean different things to different people. For some, it can mean something as simple as wearing a suit. For some, it’s about competency, while for others it’s all about accountability.

But what exactly does it mean to be professional? Why does it matter and how can people who work in health and safety get better?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines professionalism as “the competence or skill expected of a professional”.

This definition shows that professionalism is about a range of different attributes required to do a job rather than a single attribute.

Why does it matter?

When you become a qualified practitioner, and you join IOSH, you become part of a wider community whose aim is to create a world of work, which is safe, healthy and sustainable. This is an ambitious aim and clearly we cannot achieve it as individuals; we need the support of the wider business world to help us deliver.

Being professional and gaining respect and credibility from the people we work with is one of the steps towards us achieving this aim. If we all are professional and taken seriously, then these small individual gains can add up to make a remarkable improvement in health and safety standards.

In order to be a professional, I would argue that a practitioner needs a number of essential attributes:

* Knowledge.

* Competency.

* Ethical conduct.

* Accountability.

* Emotional intelligence.

* Image.

Take some time to reflect on your own professionalism by focusing on each one.

Knowledge: As health and safety professionals, you need to be qualified. Whatever qualification route you decide to take, be it NVQ, NEBOSH diploma, or an MSc, these qualifications need to be kept up to date. Being a professional is about personally committing to your own continuing professional development so that you can improve your knowledge, ensure that you are the best at what you do and to offer the best advice that you can.

Competency: This is not just about an individual’s personal knowledge. It’s also about their skills and experience, which they develop as they travel along their own professional journey. When a person is new to the profession, it’s harder to demonstrate competency because they do not have years of experience to draw on.

If this is the case, it’s better to focus on getting the job that you are working on done, do it well, reflect on and learn from your mistakes and be reliable and manage expectations. This will go a long way with the people that you work with and will help you gain respect. As health and safety professionals we need to be solution-focused rather than finding problems and making excuses.

Also remember to be humble – if you don’t know something or a project goes beyond the limits of your competency, don’t be afraid to admit it. IOSH has over 44,000 members, draw on their collective knowledge and competency. Someone should be able to help you.

Ethical conduct: Keep your word; be honest and upfront. Think about what your core values are as a practitioner and stay true to yourself. Don’t be backed into a corner. IOSH has a code of conduct that all practitioners are expected to follow. Take a bit of time to read and digest it.

Accountability: Be responsible for your actions and hold your hand up if you have made a mistake.

Emotional intelligence: Being self-aware is really important, particularly when dealing with others. When interacting with people, put yourself in their shoes, work out why they may be behaving in a particular way, and show empathy. By being aware of others’ needs, you can adapt your behaviour and the way you communicate with people to help get the right result for everyone.

Image: Be the smartest person in the room. By that I mean, not just with what you are wearing, but what you are saying too. Take time to really prepare for meetings, think about what you are going to say and the impact it will have. If you want to know more about your organisation and the people that work for it, take time to read its annual report – you will learn a lot about what the key business challenges are and how you can help.

It’s a process: Transitioning from practitioner to professional may take some time. It involves being self-aware, self critical and moving forwards positively.

Here are some easy things that can help you on that journey:

* Be prepared – wherever possible take some time out to prepare and think about how you want to be perceived in meetings, your emails and reports.

* Be reflective – think about what you could do better and how you can continually improve. Then take some time to log it on your CPD log.

* Walk in someone else’s shoes – think about the people you work with, their needs and be responsive to them.

* Get learning – we never stop learning, think about how you can increase your competence as a practitioner and your competence in the organisations and sectors that you work in.

Stephen Flounders is a senior consultant at System Concepts Ltd


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