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May 23, 2013

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The profession – Convert to type

In 1999, SHP published a pair of articles on how typical modi operandi of safety and health practitioners could unintentionally undermine the valuable work they did. Fast-forward 14 years — has the style in which practitioners carry out their business moved on? Michael Emery reflects on the state of the profession then and now, and on how it needs to develop.

Monks, mercenaries, missionaries and mentors were the four stereotypes of practitioner that Mike Buttolph, a visiting fellow at Cranfield University, described in two articles exploring the effectiveness of the profession in influencing business about the importance of health and safety.1,2

In the context of recent discussions regarding the role of the safety practitioner, it is perhaps worth reflecting to what degree, if any, things have changed since Buttolph put pen to paper, and to what extent the profession has taken on board his comments and recommendations for its development towards ‘mentor’ status. First, let’s remind ourselves of Buttolph’s four safety practitioner stereotypes.

The monk

Promoted from the engineering workshop for his positive attitude and his simple approach to safety, Andrew epitomises the monk style of practitioner.
He is concerned with developing and preserving the safety manual — i.e. there should be a comprehensive set of rules, properly enforced. His body of work is derived partly from his own knowledge of those activities with which he is familiar but also — and primarily — from material obtained via his network of safety colleagues. Each new entry into the manual is issued in draft for consultation purposes, but Andrew dismisses any negative responses, believing that managers and supervisors are simply trying to avoid extra effort and cost.

Monks like Andrew live apart from the rest of the organisation. They believe that health and safety is primarily a specialised field and that their role is to establish best practice, which managers then have a duty to implement. That managers often don’t implement their procedures is seen by monks as a symptom of an organisation that doesn’t really have safety at heart.

The mercenary

Safety professionals who are mercenaries perform the role of activists. One character who exhibits these characteristics is Bruce, who volunteers — albeit giving every appearance of being reluctant to do so — for the things he says others can’t do, or don’t want to do.

Bruce is the lynchpin of safety management in his company. He arranges training to equip managers and supervisors with the skills they need — with risk assessment and accident investigation, for example — but, when it comes to the crunch, only Bruce seems able to do these things properly. Managers chair health and safety meetings but it’s Bruce who does all the talking — and, when the manager’s really busy, Bruce can be relied on to chair the meeting, albeit begrudgingly.

Managers are reluctant to acknowledge the situation, uncomfortable with how little grasp they have of health and safety matters in their department. During audits they’re helpless — they can’t find anything, they don’t know anything. Indeed, they would use any excuse to cancel an audit unless Bruce is at their side.
Safety practitioners who are mercenaries see safety primarily as a technical subject, and one which only they are able to perform competently and to the required standard. In truth, it is a means by which they can make themselves indispensable. What safety management there is, is like a house of cards; if Bruce were ever to leave, it would all fall down.

The missionary

Charles epitomises the missionary style of practitioner — an evangelist preaching the ways of safety, with the mission of making believers of us all. Charles is convinced that, in their hearts, managers and supervisors want to do the right thing; they are intrinsically good and they care for their employees — all they need is motivation.

Managers find Charles difficult to turn away. He’s a personable chap and his heart is in the right place — it’s just that they’re extremely busy and, well, the whole thing seems a bit elusive. The managers want help from someone who’s prepared to listen to the challenges they face and understand the constraints they’re under, and provide advice and assistance accordingly.

While responding with promises of help, he is only able to deliver more case studies, more examples of best practice and more platitudes. The managers develop a habit of avoiding him, or switching off whenever he speaks. Ultimately, they need to know what it is they’re doing wrong and they need assistance that is specific both to their needs and the constraints within which they operate.

The mentor

Safety practitioners who are coaches and mentors pursue a different objective to monks, mercenaries and missionaries. Douglas is driven by the belief that rules and procedures that managers develop for themselves will also be owned by managers and, consequently, implemented more effectively than those imposed on them. He sees it as his role to influence what it is managers want to do and then influence, through coaching and mentoring, the standards they achieve.
Douglas understands his objective is to ensure that safety is afforded the right level of priority, so he always sets out to ensure that the senior managers and leaders of the organisation demand high standards of their teams.

He understands that people, by and large, do what they think pleases their boss and they perform according to how they’re measured. There is, therefore, little point expecting too much of managers and supervisors if they’re measured on output, quality and cost, but not on safety.

Once managers and supervisors have an interest in safety — whatever the original motivation of that interest — they will, with Douglas’ support, achieve higher standards than would otherwise have been the case. He believes managers have the answers, and that coaching and mentoring skills are required to help them find the right solutions. Managers become accustomed to the fact that Douglas isn’t going to solve their problems for them and, by finding solutions for themselves — with Douglas’s help and support — they become more knowledgeable and better equipped to manage health and safety.

The world that was

Buttolph’s articles appeared at a time when the world hardly seemed to notice safety professionals. Public interest in safety was focused primarily on the absence of personal accountability, following a catalogue of high-profile disasters — the King’s Cross fire (1987), the Herald of Free Enterprise (1987), the Clapham rail crash (1988), Piper Alpha (1988), Hillsborough (1989), and the Southall train crash (1997).

Within the profession, the corporate manslaughter debate hadn’t really gathered momentum and, to all intents and purposes, practitioners seemed more concerned with their own status and why it was they ranked lower than colleagues in other roles. Many practitioners had hoped that the introduction of the ‘Six Pack’ at the beginning of the 1990s would boost their profile — as well as their salaries — in much the same way that the ‘Total Quality’ revolution had propelled the profile of quality professionals in the preceding years.

Few safety practitioners could have foreseen the extent to which the safety profession would be pilloried for disproportionate and incorrect decisions taken in the name of health and safety — a phenomenon partly symptomatic of a more general reaction against political correctness and the ‘nanny state’. However, Buttolph did foresee that the progress of health and safety could be jeopardised by the way some practitioners worked and that the underlying issue was one of effectiveness.

By exaggerating easily recognisable features of some safety practitioners through caricature — and gently lampooning some of their worst tendencies — Mike’s central objective was to show that monks, mercenaries and missionaries keep control of safety in a way that is harmful to their organisations and, ultimately, to the profession. He believed that coaching and mentoring skills could make all the difference.

What are coaching and mentoring skills?

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), coaching and mentoring are both development techniques based on the use of discussions to enhance the skills, knowledge, or work performance of an individual. Precise definitions are difficult to find and the terms coaching and mentoring are generally interchangeable.3

There is broad consensus, however, that coaching is a non-directive form of development, where the coach — using highly developed listening skills and by asking insightful questions — pulls ideas, suggestions and plans from the coachee. Mentoring uses the same skills as coaching, but is generally used to describe a situation where a more experienced colleague uses their greater knowledge and understanding to support the development of another.

A coaching conversation is a structured conversation, which is enabled or facilitated — as opposed to being directed — by the coach. An uninitiated coachee may be unaware of the conversation’s form.

There are numerous models of coaching, each providing different processes or methodologies for solving problems and each with their own nuances. The most famous of the models, and the one to which most delegates are introduced first, is the GROW model, which is often attributed to Sir John Whitmore,4 although its exact origin is not entirely clear and several others have contributed significantly to its development. The different stages of GROW are:

  • Goal — what is it you want to achieve from the conversation?
  • Reality — identifying the who, what, where etc., and the assumptions and feelings that may be limiting progress;
  • Options — what could help take this forward; what’s possible?
  • Wrap-up — the agreement: what are we committed to doing and when?      

GROW is by no means the only recognised model, and most professional coaches are likely to have developed their own model according to who they are and their particular style and approach.

Coaching skills for safety people

Whatever the model, the fundamental objective of coaching is an alliance between the coach and the coachee, which serves the latter’s agenda. Responsibility for finding the solution to a problem is never wrestled away from the coachee; the coach is simply there to guide and support the coachee in his/her exploration. As all safety people know, managers are responsible for health and safety and have to own the solution to any problem. This is absolutely consistent with coaching principles.

Safety practitioners generally understand the law and the standards that need to be achieved but they rarely fully appreciate the pressures and operational constraints that exist within departments and which influence the choices open to managers.

Practitioners who are coaches and mentors listen and ask more than others. They identify limiting assumptions and challenge them with a view to opening up further possibilities. They place themselves in the coachee’s position and, in so doing, appreciate issues from their point of view, teasing from them what is practicable within the constraints under which they operate.      

Safety professionals who are coaches believe that managers and others are capable and resourceful, and they use coaching techniques to get the best and most practicable solutions from them.


To what degree, if any, have things changed since Mike Buttolph’s work almost 15 years ago? Few would dispute that, in many businesses in the UK today, health and safety is afforded a higher priority than has ever been the case. This may be the result of new legislation and tougher penalties by the courts but it could also be partly because employees are better educated about risks and less willing to be exposed to them.

Many might also agree that managers are better educated about their responsibilities, less acquiescent and more demanding of the support they receive from safety practitioners. But to what extent has the profession taken on board Buttolph’s observations?

In October 2005, IOSH published a report detailing the UK’s involvement in a multi-national study by the European Network of Safety and Health Practitioner Organisations into the role of occupational safety and health practitioners.5 A total of 1621 Registered Safety Practitioners from the UK took part in the survey, which established the diversity and complexity of the practitioner’s role and highlighted high levels of activity with regard to informing and discussing as one of the professional’s core tasks. The report also observed the implications this had for training and guidance materials needed to support competence in these areas, particularly in communication skills.

Many observers may nevertheless point to a near-obsession with technical training that exists in the UK and the limited presence, and availability of soft-skills training for practitioners continues to undermine the work they do, which is ultimately detrimental to the profession.

During a panel debate at last year’s IOSH conference, HSE chair Judith Hackitt told delegates: “Your aim is to do yourself out of a job” — remarks that caused a certain amount of controversy at the time among the Institution’s members. However, the following remarks, also made by the HSE chair during the same debate, generated less of a reaction: “This profession is at a very important point of its evolution. Where you want to be and where you want to be seen to be is a question you have to ask yourself.”6

At this year’s conference, Ms Hackitt’s core message ran along similar lines: “Never, never allow bosses to delegate health and safety to you. You have to push it back up to them.”7

Whether or not monks, mercenaries and missionaries exist today — if, indeed, they ever did — it could be argued that the prevailing debate in the profession remains the role of the practitioner and what styles of safety practice are likely to be the most effective.

1     Buttolph, M (1999): Styles of safety practice: Monks, mercenaries and missionaries (part 1), Safety & Health Practitioner, March 1999, pp31-38
2     Buttolph, M (1999): Styles of safety practice: The parallel safety culture, and the way out (part 2), Safety & Health Practitioner, April 1999, pp17-21
5     IOSH (2005): What practitioners do. A survey of UK Registered Safety Practitioners to determine their roles and tasks

Michael Emery is the owner of Lancashire-based Securus Health & Safety Limited.

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Michael Emery
Michael Emery

Hello safety lady,

Thank you for the comment. If you let me have your email address I’ll happily send you a copy of the original article.



Hi Michael

I too am looking for the original article, I can’t believe it was 1999!

safety lady
safety lady

Great article, but shame most people will not have SHPs from 1999, so the original references are effectively unavailable.

I am a notorious hoarder, but even I have discarded pre-2006 SHPs for space reasons. The original articles were worth reading in full – I can remember them (how sad is that!). One of the best in SHP for years – as proved by this one. Any chance they can be uncovered and offered for those interested?


May I have the original articles written by Buttolph?