The Last Thing Safety Needs is Champions

It seems that the regulators and peak bodies are again wheeling out these silly safety champion and pledging to be safe campaigns. We’ve seen it all before and this stuff just doesn’t work. Safety needs humble, caring and empathetic humans – not safety champions and super heroes. Particularly worrying are those calling themselves “mental health champions”, I’m not sure they are the sort of person I would like to have a conversation about my mental health issues with. There are many articles on this blog about the hero myth

This is a great article by Dave Whitefield. First published here

We Need More Humans, Not More Champions

Championing the Issue or Being a Champion?

safety championThere is a difference between championing an issue, and being the champion of that issue. One puts the issue first, and the other puts the champion first. Within the context of workplace safety my concern is that having safety champions (and heroes) can do more harm than good.

Who is this Story About?

When you become a champion or hero, you become the centre of the story. The narrative and discourse becomes about you, and about what you’re doing. In safety that often shows up where the champion wants to save others from getting hurt or killed. There may even be a backstory where the person knows someone who was injured or killed, and so doesn’t want that to happen to anyone else, ever.

Now I genuinely get the intent of that, and I’m not having a go at the idea of wanting to protect and save others, or advocating disregard for others. What I’m talking about is the specific situation where we formally (and sometimes informally) promote the idea of safety champions and heroes in the workplace as a safety strategy.

My primary concern is that having champions and heroes does strange and undesirable things to power and responsibility within the workplace in that disempowers front line workers, and shifts responsibility for safety towards the champion.

The Hero Mythology

So let’s play with this idea a bit more. In stories about heroes they have some special ability or power (even if it’s just determination or being positive or being resilient, it’s still seen as special amongst the characters). In the story, the hero becomes the centre of the story as they respond to some crisis or problem, and eventually they end up being the saviour. Within general society we love hero stories. We totally buy into the hero mythology. Into the idea that one can save many. Into the idea that maybe we could be the hero one day. It gives us hope and makes us feel good. But that’s in stories. It’s not real life. It’s not set in the uneventful repetitive cycle of work rest and play. It’s all a myth.

In our regular boring day to day life there aren’t people with super “health and safety” abilities, and there aren’t people who need to be saved at work. Nobody thinks, “Gee, I wish someone would swoop in and tell me how to be safe”. What they actually want is for you to get out the way and let them do their job, and help them when and if they need it.

This isn’t to say that people and organisations don’t sometimes need safety advice or help, but remember that this is specifically about the concept of champions, and in this context there is a big difference between offering to help, and wanting to save. When safety in the workplace ends up focussing on the champion, it shifts power and responsibility away from the people most at risk. Which is of course the exact opposite of what we want and need. I wonder if that is why the saying “with great power comes great responsibility” is so true.

In practice we need people at the front line of risk to feel like they are empowered to manage risk. They need to feel like they will be listened to and engaged with. They need to feel like they know more about keeping themselves safe than any safety champion does. They need to feel like they are the smartest safety person in the room.

Even where fellow front line people become the safety champions because they are keen to share the message and be involved, it (in my option) will still have the same negative impact, even if it’s just because of the nature of the language involved. Anybody walking around the workplace or sitting in a meeting who starts a conversation with “Hi, I’m a safety champion…” is still reinforcing the process that shifts power and responsibility.

The Rise (and Fall) of the Hero

Another problem with being the hero is that all heroes eventually fail. In stories it’s baked into the narrative where they emerge in response to a great challenge, do some hero work, and then at some stage show a failing or shortcoming that exposes them as being fallible. Often the failure and redemption cycle continues because it’s more interesting. Of course, in the real world it’s actually more likely to happen because, in the real world, people don’t actually have super powers, and people are fallible.

This cycle is what makes the story interesting and the hero seem a little human, unfortunately we don’t always respond with the same level of empathy when our real world hero fails. What happens when they fail to hold the handrail, or cross against the lights, or forget to put a seat belt on while reversing. How do we respond then? Do we forgive the hero, or do we cast them out? Do they just lose their “Safety Champion” title, or do they get fired and replaced by someone else who promises even more….?

But It’s A Calling!

Now, I want to come back to something that I alluded to earlier, and that is where being a safety champion is more of a calling. We may see this where someone has directly experience loss or injury to themselves or someone they worked with. In this context, the language of champion may not even be used, but in practice it looks and feels similar because this person will often tell their story (eg. “I got into safety/ safety is important to me because of ….. and so I want to make sure that that never happens to anyone”). Even without the champion tag, this still sets the context for the hero story. The story they tell consistently announces that they want to save everyone, and that becomes the discourse.

I want to again balance my comments here by saying my objection is not with the idea of wanting to protect and help others, but with the impact of how that gets implemented. In short, I don’t think it works when it’s the safety person’s/ leader’s job to save everyone. So if safety is a calling for you then that’s totally cool, but don’t use it as your calling card in the workplace. Keep it to yourself and let it motivate you when things get tough, but don’t make it the dominant narrative for who you are and how you interact on safety in your business.

But what will we do without Champions?

Again, I’m not saying we don’t need experts or specialists in safety, I’m saying we don’t need champions or heroes because of the weird and undesirable things it does to power and responsibility.

So instead of safety champions, I think we just need to be humans. I think we should engage and connect with the goal of listening to, and learning about, each other (which means we need the soft skills to support this by the way, not more knowledge of the WHS legislation).

We should learn about what safety means to each other (because I’ve found it means lots of different things). We should learn to recognise uncertainty and concern in others, because someone who is at risk not feeling right is far more relevant and important that any champion’s opinion about what is safe. The ability to notice that in someone else, and then ask meaningful questions (which could be as simple as “How you going?” or “Does something feel off?”, will give more insights into workplace risk that any degree ever will.

There’s Always Cosplay

In the end, I think we should seek to build more trust by being more human. Workplaces with high trust and connection are more psychologically safe environments, where people are naturally more likely to express concerns and raise issues because they feel they will be listened, not because a champion to told them safety is important. We also know that psychologically safe workplaces supports a more resilient workforce, which means everyone is just that bit happier and easier to work with.

Surely that’s worth forgoing the opportunity to be a hero, and if not, I guess there’s always cosplay.

Dave Whitefield

Culture and Engagement Specialist in Safety and Risk

11 Replies to “The Last Thing Safety Needs is Champions”

  1. Hi Dave. Great read and well constructed apologetic. The other related idea that is connected to this that frustrates the hell out of me is this constant justification of unethical behaviour because of ‘passion for safety’. Since when did ethics become justified by passion? Hey, I’m going to bully you and victimize you because I’m passionate about safety! I see this most often in zero organisations who use the dynamics of zero to justify unethical dehumanising treatment of employees in the name of good.

    1. Yeah and that same person want you come and talk them them about your mental health concerns – I see they are calling it “mental health first aid” now!

      1. Yes Dave, it’s crazy how Safety doesn’t join the dots. Requires a little bit of emotional intelligence to work out that no one with a mental health issue ever approaches a hero or champion. Similarly a geek or nerd! Why does Safety think such language is even slightly helpful.

      2. “Mental health first aid” – now there is a scary thought. The only “mental health first aid” I can think of is trauma counselling, and even that is done by trained professionals. Mental health is such a complex issue, even by law (at least here) you are not allowed to provide counselling without years of training. I can only imagine (maybe I can NOT even imagine) the amount of damage that can be done by a “champion” trying to “transfer” his opinions on mental health onto someone who is mentally frail, either due to a mental health issue, or because of an incident (like trauma). The word “champion” does not trigger thoughts about being able to just listen and “meet”, which is probably what the person in need is most likely to need at the moment.

    2. Thanks Rob. Always appreciate the feedback. To your additional observations, I’ve been having some interesting conversations recently about organisations changing the language away from “safety” and towards”people” as a way of changing the way they reacts to “unsafe” events (people???). So changing to “People are our number one priority”, which hopefully means they can be disappointed and still compassionate… Maybe… Hopefully…

  2. Interesting article. I have always felt uncomfortable with this safety champion approach. If you want to win a premiership you need a good team where members are well trained and know their job not a a bunch of champions. In my experience when the safety champion moves on to another workplace the safety drops off rapidly particularly if there are no systems in place.

    1. 25 years ago I was the company safety champion – then one day I showed my fallibility and had a minor accident in the work vehicle – I was never able to live that down

  3. Great writing Dave! I wanted to get an idea from the workforce on what a safety champion looked like to them. The overwhelming response had to do with spandex and capes. Very little to do with caring and conversations!

  4. I am new to your site and read with interest some of the modern thoughts on Health & Safety I have worked in various roles in my career and spent a lot of time working in the North Sea, and also worked as a safety consultant in various sectors including construction NHS Pharmaceuticals and Petro Chem. My career started in 1970 working as a coded welder for a large fabrication company. One thing i remember vividly from those days was i always felt safe as i was a fledging there was no amount of mentors on hand to guide me. I equally remember instructions and guidance was always verbal the days of paper mountains had not arrived.

    My question is do all these Method Statements permits to work and risk assessments actually achieve what we intend them to do, and equally in my experience of vetting contractors and their documentation, I have found that producing generic documents is almost accepted. Comments please

    1. Hi David, your question raises the issue of just how disconnected paperwork is with enacting work. I don’t think they achieve much at all. It’s more driven by the myth that documenting a risk assessment creates legal accountability. As for generic risk assessments, they should be outlawed. All the industry has really achieved in the last 20 years is entrench the this myth that there is some connection between paperwork and risk as undertaken.

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