Safety Professionals Prepare for an Uncertain Future


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In a dynamic business environment, the decisions one makes today can have a profound impact on their safety career tomorrow. Simple planning today can greatly improve the chances of a richer and more fulfilled career in safety in the future.

The job that safety professionals will be doing ten years from now probably doesn’t even exist today. This, understandably, creates a quandary for educators and employers alike. The field of safety has drifted away from its roots in enforcement in interesting, exciting and creative ways. How can students prepare for the careers of the future? By studying some disciplines that may not be part of their present core curricula.

Safety professionals are increasingly expected to work in a global workplace and it would seem logical that the individual not just be conversant, but fluent in the language of the people with whom he or she is charged with protecting. It’s tempting to pick a language based on today’s trends (say Spanish in the U.S., or Cantonese) but today’s savvy student will look at the languages spoken in emerging economies and consider mastering one or more of these languages.

Disciplines such as six sigma, lean, and Quality Operating System (QOS) lie in statistics, and a working knowledge of this branch of mathematics is an important foundation on which these methodologies are built. But beyond that, a deep understanding of statistics is always crucial to the safety professional because statistics is the language of safety. In the U.S. safety is characterized in terms of statistical calculations, which means safety professionals who don’t understand statistics are incapable of understanding what these figures tell them about their organizations’ performance.

A keen understanding of statistics can also allow safety professionals to identify areas where the organization is at greatest risk of injury, pinpoint the most dangerous jobs and the most dangerous activities, and even determine the demographics that are most at risk. With such knowledge, safety professionals can outline how substantial changes will affect the way the operation functions and considerably improve its workplace safety. If safety is an estimation of the probability of an individual being injured, then a mastery level knowledge of probability, and by association statistics, is substantial.

A crucial skill that is rarely taught in academic settings – but that is nearly universally expected by employers – is project management. Project management is actually a collection of skills that is essential to safety. One such skill is planning; solid planning is vital in safety. Project planning can help safety professionals to reduce waste and free up valuable time and resources. From scoping a project to resource leveling, safety professionals need a complete understanding of planning skills.

Another useful project management skill is budgeting. Even a safety professional who doesn’t aspire to a management position should be able to prepare and interpret a budget. Such knowledge will better equip the safety professional to better align the safety function with the strategies of Operations.

Perhaps the most important project management skill is the ability to effectively manage meetings. This seldom taught but frequently expected safety skill can make the difference between the success and failure of the function. Probably the biggest drain on the safety professional’s day is the disproportionately huge amount of time wasted in unproductive meetings. In addition to studying the traditional skills associated with effective meetings, students should learn how to determine when a meeting is actually needed.

Linear progressions can be used to predict how a company will perform (relative to worker safety) without intervention, and logarithmic progression can be used to predict how a company will perform after an intervention has been deployed. By comparing these two progressions, a safety professional can demonstrate the value of an intervention and the contribution of the safety professional. And while this might sound complicated, remember that Microsoft Excel spreadsheets can perform both progressions.

If software can complete this work, then why should students study higher mathematics? Software is only a tool, not the answer. Without understanding the underpinnings of the progression and the insights gleaned from them, the safety professional is unable to judge whether the graphing is even accurate. Furthermore, one who allows software to do his or her thinking has no business in the safety profession at all. Period.

One should never confuse organizational behavior with behavior-based safety (BBS). Organizational behavior deals with the psychology of groups within an organization. It studies how populations think and act, and is paramount for the safety professional to understand. BBS, on the other hand, is an approach to worker safety based on behavioral science research, organizational behavior, and behavioral psychology. It believes that the vast majority of injuries are caused by unsafe acts and that the safety of the workplace can be significantly improved by activities aimed at reinforcing safe behaviors and raising the awareness of unsafe acts.

The ability to accurately communicate a coherent thought is a core skill that every college graduate should possess . . . yet business is full of functional illiterates. While an engineer with the writing skills of a not-so-bright baboon might be acceptable, a similarly endowed safety professional (put simply) is not.

Journalism courses teach important skills that safety professionals use every day, like conducting an investigation, interviewing, and constructing a concise report respite with in-depth analysis. Most importantly, the journalistic method teaches investigative techniques to answer the questions “Who?”, “What?”, “Where?”, “When?”, “Why?” and “How?” of any situation, then explains how to write a memo or present the findings of an incident in a different manner to be most effective in communicating.

The fact that journalism emphasizes clear communication is very important, because far too many professionals (safety and otherwise) try to imitate lawyers and write in legal jargon in an attempt to sound more professional. Unfortunately, legalese is inappropriate for most correspondence because the primary purpose of this type of communication is to confound the issue.

Think about it: If contracts were written clearly and were free of vagaries one would not need a lawyer to interpret them. This is not jaded thinking. Legalese is designed to deliberately confuse key points. When a person agrees to be contractually obligated to fulfill a commitment, that person typically desires a bit of “wiggle room” on the criteria for successful delivery of their promises. In other words, lawyers are paid to use language that is open to interpretation and that allows people to weasel out of their commitments.

In contrast, the journalistic style of writing seeks to accurately and efficiently communicate the facts, which is the only acceptable way for a safety professional to communicate.

Of course, no one can predict the future and my crystal ball is no more accurate than anyone else is. But in a dynamic business environment, the decisions a student makes today can have a profound impact on his or her career tomorrow. Simple planning today can greatly improve the chances of a richer and more fulfilled career tomorrow.

About the Author: Phil La Duke is a safety and training expert with Rockford Greene International, a Monroe, MI-based business optimization services company, For questions or comments on this column, contact Phil at 530-208-3286 or

Phil LaDuke

Phil LaDuke

Principle and Partner at ERM
Phil LaDuke
Phil La Duke is a principle and partner in Environmental Resources Management (ERM) a leading global provider of environmental, health, safety, risk, and social consulting services. With over 140 offices in 40 countries and nearly 6,000 top professionals, ERM can help you wherever you find yourself doing business. At ERM we are committed to providing a service that is consistent, professional, and of the highest quality to create value for our clients. Over the past five years we have worked for more than 50% of the Global Fortune 500 delivering innovative solutions for business and selected government clients helping them understand and manage the sustainability challenges that the world is increasingly facing. Phil works primarily in the Performance and Assurance practice at ERM; a speaker, author, consultant, trainer, provocateur…Phil La Duke wears many hats. As an expert in safety, training, organizational development, and culture change, Phil and ERM can help you motivate your workforce, conduct safety performance assessments, help you to build robust training infrastructures, craft interventions to improve how your work place values safety, provide insights to your executive staff, and craft and execute business solutions. If you’re interested in what Phil La Duke and ERM can do for you, or if you would like to inquire about employment opportunites at ERM, contact Phil at

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