Health and Safety Professional – What’s in a name?
Nick Bell, Dr Colin Powell and Dr Peter Sykes address the various roles that a health and safety professional might perform.
In recent years, I have read numerous articles asking our profession what we should call ourselves and how broad our functions can or should be. These articles have included a proposition from a prominent figure in the world of behavioural safety that we should jettison the ‘health’ from health and safety, and focus exclusively on injury prevention. Others have intentionally removed ‘health and safety’ from their job titles altogether. The reasons for doing so range from beliefs that health and safety has lost credibility, to a perception that it poorly describes what the profession actually does.
Whatever we are called, and what other responsibilities are attached to our role, will reflect how we (or someone on a higher pay grade) see our ultimate purpose. For example, senior managers might believe that meeting objectives, including health and safety targets, revolves around securing and monitoring compliance with standards. It is then quite possible that ‘compliance’ or ‘quality’ could end up in a health and safety job title (giving us the Q in SHEQ (safety, health, environment and quality)). If the role involves a more expansive look at the threats facing an organisation then words such as risk, security and resilience may appear in job descriptions.
If the health and safety function is perceived to revolve around keeping the working environment safe and healthy it may be placed within a team that is responsible for managing buildings. Responsibilities for fire safety, asbestos or other building-related issues, such as Legionella, may then be incorporated into the role.
Even if we go with health and safety as a label, what words do we append to it: officer, advisor, manager, coach, innovator, practitioner, technician etc.? Each of these give a different message about our perceived status in the organisation and how we envisage the role.
In recent years, I have seen ‘wellbeing’ appearing in the title of health and safety jobs and training courses. Wellbeing is something of a woolly term. It is sometimes seen quite narrowly as preventing stress or other illnesses. Arguably, these are things that the health and safety profession should be involved with anyway (unless you believe that the role should purely focus on safety). In this case, wellbeing is possibly just being used as a job title because it is currently in vogue.
Wellbeing is much broader than illness prevention and is also wider than promoting good physical health (e.g. putting fruit in canteens or subsidising gym membership). Wellbeing can be seen in terms of helping people to feel fulfilled and achieve their potential. This includes considering the way that they are managed and whether they have ‘good work’. I see this as a crucial element of achieving positive mental health in the workplace.
Inspired by a BBC article, I concluded that “humans must flourish” would be a decent organisational value. It could support an ethical organisational culture that might prevent some of the Dickensian practices that have been covered in the press in recent years. I wonder whether “humans must flourish” would be a good motto for the health and safety profession?
For some people, these ideas are just naïve or idealistic thinking and are more suited to ‘hippies’ than the health and safety profession. However, my recent research has uncovered the safety benefits of wellness. People have spare brain power and physical energy to allow them to pay attention to their tasks and their environment so they can be much more aware of and respond much better to the realities of work (rather than ‘work as imagined’). They also have energy to invest in their relationships with colleagues (and maybe their managers), and this can create a collaborative workforce where people support each other, often in informal ways. These are essential ingredients of ‘safety differently’ and if workers have the energy and motivation to apply themselves to their work and relationships it is a good indicator that they are engaged.
Accommodating each other
My research has illustrated that interesting ‘psychosocial’ mechanisms kick in when people feel that their needs are being met. They can begin to ‘identify’ with whoever is helping them to meet their needs, so that the goals of the team, not just individual goals, feel important. This helps explain why they don’t just spend all their extra energy on Facebook! They can also start to take on board these other people’s point of view, so that a team can agree what ‘norms’ they should build into their work roles. For example, in one focus group I ran with a construction team it became very clear that accommodating each other was an important, unwritten rule that kept the site ticking along (e.g. changing where and when someone was doing a job, to allow another person to finish their work, or lending materials between teams).
With these conditions in place, workers are more likely to want and be able to take steps that will protect others or promote health and safety (and not simply avoid harming themselves or other people). This may be because they have taken on board norms such as “mates looking after mates” or they simply feel that looking out for their team is the sensible or right thing to do.
On the other hand, if a person’s work, working conditions or manager are so awful that the worker is taking a metaphorical tour of the pit of misery (dilly, dilly) it is very unlikely they will have the energy or motivation to look beyond their own immediate needs and tasks.
In summary, our job titles can be much more than a badge. They give messages about how we perceive our role and, more importantly I believe, say something about our worldview and values. It seems critical that any professional should be clear about their own values. This does not mean rattling off a code of conduct but really getting to the heart of what we want to achieve and why that matters to us.
Go forth and flourish.
Nick is due to speak on 20th June at the Safety and Health Expo 2018. See his talk, entitled ‘Health and safety is a drama! – Understanding and influencing behaviour’ at 13:00 in the Operational Excellence Theatre.
Join Nick for a lively and interactive session which presents behaviour as a performance and explains how we can influence the drama.
The talk explains how and why we occupy different roles throughout the day and perform those roles using scripts (or ‘norms’). Some of our scripts help to keep us and other people healthy and safe…and some do not. Nick draws on a range of theories and case studies to explain:
- Why we perform our roles in the way that we do
- What it takes to change our scripts
- How these ideas support then take us a step beyond ‘safety differently’
- How all of this links to engagement and wellbeing
Sleep and Fatigue: Director’s Briefing
Fatigue is common amongst the population, but particularly among those working abnormal hours, and can arise from excessive working time or poorly designed shift patterns. It is also related to workload, in that workers are more easily fatigued if their work is machine-paced, complex or monotonous.
This free director’s briefing contains:
- Key points;
- Recommendations for employers;
- Case law;
- Legal duties.