What should you look for in a health and safety professional?

15 Jul 2019 By David Towlson

HR professionals need to understand the requirements of a critical role before they hire, says David Towlson

The traditional health and safety role has changed beyond all recognition over the years. The old stereotype of the safety manager with clipboard in hand inspecting the workplace and pointing out transgressions is a world away from the expectations businesses have of today's health and safety professionals. 

For a start, the role’s remit is often expanded to include other areas. As environmental awareness, sustainability and corporate social responsibility have risen up boards' agendas, so they have taken on more and more areas of compliance – their transferrable risk management skills making them ideal candidates to train further to take on these responsibilities.

For recruiting organisations, qualifications such as those offered by NEBOSH can provide assurances that your new hire is competent to do the job. Indeed, research earlier this year showed that 87 per cent of HSE vacancies asked for a NEBOSH qualification. 

In addition, the “soft skills” of communication, influencing and negotiation can make the difference between an effective health and safety professional and an inspirational, transformative one – and therefore the difference between good health and safety performance and excellent performance. Identifying and nurturing these skills in potential recruits, as well as your existing health and safety team, can reap rewards.  

Negotiate and influence

Health and safety professionals occupy a challenging space within the organisation. On the one hand, they are constantly looking upwards. To be effective in their roles, they must have the ear (and trust) of the board, so they can secure not only the resources they need to deliver health and safety, but also the visible, enthusiastic leadership the best-performing organisations benefit from. 

To fulfil this aspect of their roles, they must be able to speak the language of the board, frame arguments in a financial context where necessary, and demonstrate their awareness of the competing interests and pressures senior managers within any organisation must balance. It is not enough to draw on their knowledge and skills to make the case for investment (of time and money) in health and safety, though this is essential. They must also understand other business functions – their priorities and needs – if they are to make their case persuasively. 

In an organisation with a mature health and safety culture, the senior management team may have a good understanding of their duties and require little persuasion to step up. But in organisations where there is more work to do, safety professionals must be confident enough to make their case.

On the other hand, health and safety professionals need to be able to communicate effectively with the workforce. Even in organisations where accident rates are low and there is a culture of compliance with safety rules, they need to be able to overcome the cynicism that is often attached to health and safety. After all, it is not always the case that safety training is met with enthusiasm. 

Safety professionals must have the skills to identify the most appropriate method of communication for the particular subject or message – embracing everything from corporate social media platforms to the more traditional face-to-face briefings. They need to be able to think creatively about how to deliver health and safety campaigns. 

HR professionals should seek evidence of such creative thinking during the selection process – along with demonstrable measures of success, such as declining incident rates, increased near-miss reporting, or positive feedback about health and safety in employee surveys, for example. 

At a time when wellbeing and mental health are priorities on the corporate agenda there is an even greater need for health and safety professionals to be effective and sensitive communicators and influencers. 

As a subject, health and safety is incredibly broad. The hard and soft skills of a safety professional must be equally broad to really make a difference to company performance.

David Towlson is head of product development at NEBOSH

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