Safety and Risk Professionalisation

This issue appears to have reared its ugly head again so I think timely to republish this article written by Dr Rob Long over 2 years ago – unbelievable how nothing has changed!

Following on from the popular and somewhat divisive article “Arrogant Safety Professionals Take Note” Dr Robert Long Takes a look at the problems associated with Professionalisation of the Safety and Risk Function particularly where the accepted characteristics of Professionals do not align well with the intention of human service. 

For a light-hearted look at the subject I recommend:

Ode To The Safety Professional
A light-hearted look at the characteristics of a good OHS Professional

Safety and Risk Professionalisation

The recognition, form, and nature of the professions is one of the deepest issues facing organisations today. The institutionalisation of principles of professionalism, credentialism and accreditation pose a serious threat to any delivery of services which seek to be humanizing and educative.

Let me make it clear at the outset that my questioning does not take to task the notion of professionalism. Leaders should be professional, in the sense that they should be good at their job. They should exhibit skill and dedication and the willingness to learn and all those other characteristics which professionals are supposed to possess. What I am questioning is professionalisation, the process of acquiring professional power. Could it be that in an effort to be professional and by mechanisms of institutionalising professional characteristics that the charisma of the profession suffers?

It is not structures that pose a problem for organisations but structuralism, not organising but organisationalism, not management but managerialism. So it’s not being professional that is the issue but rather the ideology of the profession that is the problem. It is when these things take on a life of their own that they become damaging, robbing people of freedom and responsibility. In the human services where one would have thought that dehumanising forces would be most resisted the very process of professionalisation creates systems which insititutionalise structures of abuse.

The real problem is that these ‘isms’ assume their own power and autonomy, subjecting organsiations to hidden principles which dehumanise people through a variety of hidden mechanisms. The way in which these hidden mechanisms provide opportunities for dehumanising dispositions to flourish must be examined. Is it possible that our desire to act professionally has elevated the drive for efficiency and resulted in an alienating force that miseducates employees and creates a gap between management and the managed? Has our thinking become so institutionalised that we have no vision of an organisation that contradicts the will to dominate through institutionalism? Is it possible for organisations to exist in a structured way without enabling these powers to rule, overpower and manipulate?

Size is the most immediate factor that dictates the structuring of activities. As the population in a program increases, organisations face the management problems of control and coordination, keeping track of participants and marshalling people. The medical profession has recently had to come to grips with a similar problem. Not only have the rank and file of doctors gone on strike in recent years but more and more people are consulting a wider field of helpers and alternate practitioners who in the past had been shut out by the profession. It has been interesting recently to watch billionaires adopt like traditional trade union tactics in their efforts to protest against trade unions and the labour movement. Indeed, a contradiction in the name of wealth and greed.

So, lets have a look at the fundamental principles of professionalisation and being to understand what’s behind a recent Dave Collin’s post: ‘Arrogant Safety Professionals Take Note’.

Principles of Professionalisation

The commonly accepted characteristics of professionalisation are as follows:

1 . An identifiable knowledge base which, when mastered, provides the professional with competence to be divided in labour from the amateur.

2. A degree of specialist competence in the performance of certain work processes utilising the knowledge base.

3. A high degree of autonomy in planning and execution of the work, including the assessment of its effectiveness and even of its value. This work is full time.

4. A monopoly over the right to perform the work processes and therefore to produce a product (e.g. case management). Monopoly of a professional kind, like monopoly of a capitalist kind, yields social, political and economic power.

5. Credentials that help rank or authorise the division of labour. The credential is tied to some training process ‘ degree, diploma or ordination for some ‘hidden’ criteria’.

6. A specialised training and education program usually intellectually oriented is the basis for what is termed expertise, though some skills are learned on the job.

7. A high degree of responsibility because of control over certain essential tasks (e.g. auditing, risk bureaucracy etc).

8. An emphasis on service (essential service) with a high degree of altruism and dedication. A profession should emphasise the service more than the financial reward.

9. A certain level of distancing from the client in order to maintain the mystery and extra-ordinary nature of the professional’s position. Usually the professionals associate with each other rather than with others with whom they have little in common. The impersonal demeanour of the profession also helps maintain the level of trust that has been given by the client (how many people address professionals by their Christian name?).

10. A specialised language (jargon) is accumulated and reinforced by peers and by training.

11. Professional privilege (status) entails professional obligations. These obligations are insured by a code of conduct that protects the client from personal idiosyncrasies on the part of the professional. This privilege operates within occupational norms that both free and restrict the professional in a variety of ways.

It is also my contention that many of these characteristics do not align well with the intention of human service. Moreover, I would argue that the existence of the professionalised class is miseducative in that it hinders corporate and relational growth. Its submission to power relationships works against itself, ambivalently creating stress, anxiety, breakdown and disorientation for individual professionals.

There is a growing awareness in the community generally of how the professions have gained supreme ascendancy over our social aspirations and behaviour by tightly organising and institutionalising themselves. We have become virtually the passive clientele: dependent, cajoled and harrassed. We witness this in the behaviour of regulators and high priests of legislative knowledge. The professionalisation of this new class of people creates its own cultural ‘shibboleths’ further creating exclusion and access to the specialist knowledge and language of the ‘secret society’. When this is realised and the entrenched pattern is confronted, the client withdraws, either to enjoy the security of this submission or to transfer to another interest.

There is however a third alternative: we can opt for change and work towards It.

Professionalisation the professions

Professionalisation is a mechanism by which identity is handed out to the client and the professional, i.e. identity is established on others’ expectations. Perhaps the worst aspect of this process is the elitism attributed to the professional.

For the helping community, true equality can only exist where there is no discrimination of this nature. In relation to knowledge we see that it is not only what one has learned but where the knowledge was acquired that has become important. So, its not just that I hold a Masters in OH but where did you get it. Non-formal education is generally regarded by the professions as inferior. The training institution is obliged to perpetuate itself and resists radical challenge or change, resulting in a sorting out process or grooming of students who fit nicely into the system and who are stimulated to conformity by rapid acceptance and promotion. The result is the creation of a culture of ‘concurrence seeking behaviour’ which resists critical analysis and perpetuates its own culture. Those who question the secret society are labelled and marginalised as ‘mavericks’ who don’t conform or ‘truly’ understand the ‘real’ nature of the profession. I met a regulator recently who labelled me: ‘the trouble maker”.

In a sense then the professionalisation process enforces conformity and conservatism. However, even for those who conform to the cultural norms of the profession there is what I would call organisational ambivalence or punitive backlash built into the system so that the professional operates in an environment of conflict.

The superior nature of the profession and the impersonal demeanour make it unprofessional for ‘safety and risk professionals’ to receive expertise or knowledge from amateurs. Indeed, such risks in trust may blow away images in which people find security.

Further see:

Jackson, J.A. Professions and Professionalization London: Cambridge University Press, 1970. Illich, Ivan et al., Disabling Professions London: Marion Boyars, 1977. Gyarmati K. Gabriel, The Doctrine of the Professions: Basis of a Power Structure, International Social Science, Vol. 27,1975. Lauer, Robert H., Organizational Punishment: Punitive Relations in a Voluntary Association, Human Relations, Vol. 26, No 2. pl 89H.


Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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