Should Safety People be ‘Liked’?
I was doing some coaching on building, construction and mining sites this week and I asked some of the people how they thought the safety guy (they were all male) was going. Some replied that they liked the safety officer and some replied that the safety officer was a ‘pain’ and not liked, nor respected. Not many commented about the responsibilities of the safety officer, most were concerned about the relationship (or lack of relationship) the officer had with them.
Those who liked the safety officer said that it was because the officer was: amenable, a good communicator, flexible, friendly, open to criticism, could take a joke and were self aware. Those who didn’t like their safety officer stated that it was because they were: authoritarian, unreasonable, petty, poor communicators, bullying and arrogant. When the good safety guy came on site, people said they found them approachable and tended to confess mistakes and forgetfulness. They would know that the safety guy was understanding and human. Those who didn’t like the safety guy said people would hide, complain and tell the safety officer what they wanted to hear in the hope they would go away. Many said they just did the paperwork to get rid of them. Many said they disliked nagging and the constant fixation on PPE. It got me thinking, is it important that safety people be liked?
It is a delicate balance, the safety person is caught in a bind, they are responsible under the Act for health and safety at work but if they deliver safety support in a way that disconnects them from the workforce, they are shunned. Shunning is a social,political and psychological process in organisations where people are made ‘outsiders-within’. The safety-person-as-thug is excluded from the everyday rites and rituals of organisational belonging that people ‘on the tools’ experience. Without rapport, respect, engagement and connection, not much learning will take place. People will do what they are told while the police are around, but there is no ownership of safety until the micro-manager steps back into the picture. Micro-management is not only labour intensive it is unsustainable. There can be no development of learning or safety ownership under a micro-management model.
Unfortunately, some safety officers revel in the ‘watchdog’ status, they see themselves not so much as watchdogs but ‘attack dogs’. This is not only the problem of the authoritarian safety officer but the problem for the regulator and unions too. The attack dog model of safety management delights in ‘catching people out’ and doesn’t understand the educative role of safety support. Such a model of safety management doesn’t really require effective communication or motivation skills, it believes the way to change culture is through the KUTA (kick up the arse) principle. KUTA is always good for other people, it’s not how we learn ourselves. KUTA is quick to jumping in, making assumptions and slow in establishing understanding. KUTA doesn’t extract, exchange or engage, it ‘injects’ and leaves. KUTA doesn’t know how to create accountability but takes on all the responsibility, when they leave site, all the thinking and safety ownership leaves with them. People don’t like receiving KUTA and so reject it, marginalize it and don’t communicate with it. For the ineffective safety officer KUTA is the answer to everything, it is the first and last step in enforcement.
One of the best tools available for safety officers in undertaking their role is Standards Australia HB 327: The handbook on Communicating and Consulting about Risk. The image on the cover says it all, two people in conversation, sharing thinking about hazards and risk.
There can be no communication and consultation through KUTA, so there must be some connection and engagement if safety officers are to provide support, understanding and learning. The only effective way to develop safety ownership is through a nurturing approach to engagement. The nurturing approach doesn’t ‘stand over’ people but, ‘comes along side’, it communicates and motivates. The best training in safety for safety officers is training in perception, communication and motivation skills. In this sense it pays to be friendly and respectful, in order to be an effective safety officer. It is hard to connect and nurture safety ownership if one is shunned.