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Speaking truth to power | Safety professionals

“They tell us to do these things, but they don’t want to know how we get them done.”

Others in the focus group nodded in agreement. Myself, I was taken a bit aback by the statement. I was facilitating the focus group with the intention of learning about the organization and how it manages safety. We had been speaking with many of the line employees who expressed varying degrees of frustration with different aspects of the work environment, management, the union, etc.

These frustrations were typically specific to a given task, tool or area. For example, concerns about lack of training, not getting the appropriate gear for a task, or areas that were particularly dangerous or troublesome. But this statement struck me as a particularly profound summation of the picture that was developing – a gap between the decision-makers and those enacting the decisions.

The managers in the organization above do not wish to put workers in harms way. Instead, a combination of factors, such as flawed mental models about how work is performed and what Diane Vaughan calls “structural secrecy” (i.e., the structures and bureaucracies in organizations that inhibit flows of information), create blindspots at the top of the organization.

Managers make locally rational decisions and workers, with all their amazing creative potential, find ways to enact those decisions in a way that satisfies the managers. This does not mean that the workers do exactly the work exactly how the managers wanted it done. The work just gets done. The managers’ beliefs appear to be proven correct and the cycle continues.

In this way, the issue is not so much about managers being immoral or dumb, but about managers being separate from the realities of the work environment and the effects their decisions make on the complex balancing act of getting work done. Essentially, it’s about a lack of good information getting to the decision-makers. The gap between the decision-makers and those enacting decisions creates an environment where it is easy to make mistakes.

Lately, I’ve been reflecting a lot on what the role of the safety professional is within the Safety Differently space. In an environment where we see local adaptations as a potential source of safety, where people are a solution, what is the role of safety professionals such as myself? There has been much discussion about this topic on this site as well as in other places but even within the Safety Differently space there is a lot of controversy on this topic (just look at the comments section on some of the previous posts on this topic as evidence of this).

The traditional model of the safety professional, the model in which most of my education, training and experience was situated, is as the technical expert. This involves knowledge of hazards, risks, engineering principles, regulations, standards, etc. The focus of this model is to create a safety professional that is equipped to have the answers to all of the organization’s safety questions.

Although I see the need for such knowledge in an organization, my concern with this model has increasingly been that industry is too varied to make such a model effective. After all, the technical knowledge needed for safety in one environment may be dramatically different (but not always obviously so) than another environment. This model seems to require that we have a level of specialization in the safety profession that would rival or surpass the medical profession, or else would create a safety generalist with such a general level of technical expertise as to be close to useless.

After all, the technical expert safety professional is often in the uncomfortable position to be advising workers on how to do tasks that the safety professional has never performed.

We still do need technical expertise for safety in our organizations, but I’m not convinced that the safety professional should be the ultimate source of that expertise.

On reflecting on the experience in the focus group and the statement of the employee, it seems to me that one role the safety professional is uniquely situated to play is as a connector between management and the front-line worker. Safety professionals often are positioned in ways that allow them access to most or all levels within the organization. They interact within front line workers and management (although the specific levels of management do vary quite a bit). They have the ability to develop relationships with people at each of these levels.

This puts the safety professional in the unique position to be able to tell the story of work to upper management. In this way I see safety professionals like organizational journalists. The classic conception of the goal of the journalist is to speak truth to power. In the same way, the safety professional speaks the truth of the realities of normal work to those with the most power, i.e., management.

The goal is that by presenting these realities to management, by providing managers with better information, that management will be able to make better decisions. The fact of the matter is that, despite what the workers in the focus group believe, the managers in that organization do want to know about the realities workers face. The problem is that they (a) believe that they already know, and (b) do not have sufficient processes in place within the organization that would present information that contradicts that belief. Perhaps we need to orient the safety profession more toward changing this fact.

This model of the safety professional as the connector, communicator and facilitator of information flow has important implications for what safety professionals should be focusing on in organizations.

First, the orientation of the safety professional is no longer merely toward technical concerns, but toward facilitating the successful completion of work.

The safety professional realizes that she/he is not the expert on that work and therefore focuses on being the vehicle for information flows from the sharp end toward the blunt end. This requires a new set of practices designed to identify the realities and complexities of normal work and to communicate those realities to the blunt end in a way that facilitates collaboration, curiosity and, ultimately, action.

The second implication of this model is in relation to the competency needs for safety professionals. Rather than creating safety professionals that have all the answers (an impossible task), perhaps we should be focusing on creating safety professionals that know which questions to ask. This new model requires a professional who can identify and facilitate collaboration and dialogue. It requires the ability to empathize with people at various levels of the organization, so that data is presented in ways that create knowledge and understanding.

These are skills that currently are not taught in any major safety degree programs that I’m aware of and are not listed as required attributes for the many of the safety professional job openings I’ve seen. Yet if we want safety professionals that can fill the gap between decision-makers and front line workers, that can speak truth to power, perhaps we need to be valuing and teaching these skills more often.

Perhaps we need to look more for people who are adept at bringing together diverse opinions, rather than merely looking for those who know the regulations. Maybe we need professionals with the ability to ask great questions, rather than those who are really good at providing answers.

This post was originally published on Safety Differently.

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