What Is It That You Do Here?

In this article, Phil discusses a quandary that we have all had in this profession at one time or another, and in fact probably always will have! Personally, I still struggle with explaining what I do as there are so many perceptions and misconceptions about our role (See SJ’s poster below), probably created by us!!!

We publish Phil’s other provocative articles HERE.


You will also appreciate this “ODE TO THE SAFETY PROFESSIONAL”

See – they do have a sense of humour! Thanks to SJ from Riskology

What Is It That You Do Here?


By Phil La Duke

If there is anything that I have learned blogging and writing about—and working in—safety for so many years its that there isn’t any universal opinion about what precisely it means to be a safety professional. This identity-crisis creates, and will continue to increasingly create, problems for safety professionals and the Safety function as a whole. When I have called for change a thousand virtual voices have tried to shut me down. Recently it occurred to me that we as a population of professionals aren’t on the same page when it comes to what it is that we do for a living.

Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker

A clear and accurate understanding of one’s role and purpose is key, not only to our success, but also to our survival. In 1900, there were hundreds of manufacturers of ice in the U.S.; today only a handful survives. Why? because the companies that survived saw themselves in the keeping things cold business while those that failed saw themselves as being in the business of manufacturing and distributing ice. As the world changed around them and the business climate evolved their resolute devotion to an antiquated vision of their role drove them to extinction. Will a similar fate await safety professionals? Before you answer, remember, there was a time that the idea that there would come a day where ice would be obsolete was ridiculous in the extreme.

The Business of Saving Lives

For some safety professionals the answer to the question, “what do you do for a living?” is simple: “I save lives”. I won’t bash people for believing that they save lives, but I can’t agree with them. Imagine you’re setting a company. You think, “hmmm I need a sales guy, and an accountant, a couple of guys to do the work and …oh yeah, someone to save lives.” I just don’t see it. And let’s not lose our perspective, after all, we aren’t fireman, or doctors, or military personnel who truly do intercede to save a life. Telling people to be careful is a far cry from saving a life, and those who don’t know the difference diminish the profession.


I am still a bit surprised at the number of safety professionals who believe that their job is to enforce compliance. This belief is strengthened by organizations that place the responsibility for security within the safety function (and vice versa). But positioning the safety professional as responsible for compliance without providing him or her with the authority and power to discipline someone for noncompliance is a recipe for failure. I don’t know many safety professionals who admit to relishing this role, but I know plenty who act as if they do.

Record Keeper

The safety professional is expected to keep the legal records and prepare the reports that the government requires us to make. There is little dispute that this role will continue (if not grow) to be a big and important part of our jobs, but is this how we want to define ourselves? For me, even though the it is our duty record-keeping is not what I do, nor will it ever define “what I do”.

Keeping People Safe

Some safety professionals hold to the lofty ideal that their jobs are about “keeping people safe”. That’s hard to dismiss or belittle. Unfortunately, it positions the safety professional as at odds with Operations and can create a safety versus productive dichotomy. While it is true that most companies will not knowingly put people at risk to save a few dollars, it is equally true that companies are seldom willing to go out of business or into bankruptcy to lower the risk of injuries. Safety at all costs is impractical, illogical, and unrealistic.

All You Need Is Cash

Is it crass to suggest that the august profession of Safety is in the business of increasing productivity, lowering operating costs, eliminating wastes and making the organization more profitable? When did making money and working safely become mutually exclusive. If we see ourselves as primarily concerned with saving lives, keeping people safe, or policing the workplace we miss the opportunity to make the big contributions that not only will make the workplace safer but will benefit ourselves in the form of larger salaries, more secure positions, and greater respect for what we do.

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 phil.laduke@erm.com

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