Safety as a Helping Profession

by Dr Rob Long on September 24, 2015

in Robert Long,Safety Leadership

Safety as a Helping Profession

I do sometimes wonder how or why some people get into the Safety Profession? Although thankfully in the minority, why do some safety people have such disdain for the “workers” (I dislike that dehumanizing label – see ) or think they have to burden them with convoluted systems and rub their hands together with glee when they catch them doing something wrong??? One of my partners in crime puts it down to a particular form of anatomical inadequacy but I wont go there now!

Anyway, I’ve been asked to republish by Dr Rob Long (see all of his recent articles HERE), it was first published at Xmas time 4 years ago and ends with a little true story at the end which restored my faith – ENJOY!!!!

safety helperWhen one thinks of a career in safety what is the focus? Where should I get training? What does that training teach? How does that training orient me for a career in safety? How we answer and act on these questions will probably determine what we think safety is.

For some people it is clear that the profession of safety is that of surrogate policemen. For them, a safety diploma or degree should be located in the Faculty of Criminal Science. For some the climate of police work, forensics and criminality captures best what they think safety is about. Tied into this perspective on safety is the idea that the safety profession is a legal undertaking. Safety training for some should be undertaken in the Faculty of Law. For some safety is all about the maintenance of legislation, regulation and legal compliance. The mentality that dominates such a mindset is bent of ‘catching people out’, punishment and the consequences of conviction.

In most cases the training associated with safety is tied to Faculties of Health Science. We should be able to understand the reasons for this, in many ways the real orientation of safety is as a helping profession, but somehow it doesn’t seem to sink in. Run though any safety conference program recently and you would be forgiven for thinking that the safety profession is anchored in the wrong faculty. Many don’t seem to link safety with the likes of nursing, teaching or community work. Rather, it seems that many people in the safety profession behave like ‘custodians’ of the Work, Health and Safety Act rather than carers of people. Sometimes the safety sector seems over populated with frustrated policeman and lawyers.

Sometimes it seems that safety should be anchored to Faculties of Administration. For some the work of safety is about the cataloguing, data entry and administration of systems and bureaucracy. No need to even own a pair of steel caps, as long as the paperwork is right, the job is done.

I had my way, I would put safety training in the Faculty of Education and I would make the mandated text, The Skilled Helper by Gerard Egan. Maybe, safety might even be better placed in a cross faculty with Counselling/Theology and the mandated text should be Thomas Merton The Care of the Soul.

It seems that many parts of the safety profession are consumed and frustrated with the behaviour of immature people. Unfortunately, blaming and labelling people ‘idiots’ or ‘dumb’ doesn’t help change much. Yet the foundation of all helping professions is establishing relationships, building communication, listening, developing empathy, educating, facilitating learning and influencing change. The principles that make the foundation of good school teaching and nursing are probably much more suitable as a foundation for safety professionals than the foundations of a law degree. Safety is essentially a person-centred and humanizing profession.

I was on a worksite the other day and the safety superintendent had just returned back to work from a heart attack. The site is heavy industrial gas and is a catalogue of high risk activity. If anything goes pear shaped on this site it will be front page of the papers the next day. If this site goes down, 2.5 million people will be without gas. As I walked the site and noted all the hazards and risks with staff I was captivated by the most amazing scene. There amongst the tangle of pipes and gauges was a small swallow’s nest. Rather than knock the nest down, the superintendent had grabbed an old helmet and cabled tied it above the nest as protection. I thought this captured so well the intent of the safety profession, that is: if I can care for a sparrow, I can certainly care for you.

So, in the peak before Christmas when our minds are so consumed with the final rush. When the distractions and pressures increase to meet unreal deadlines, the message is simple for all safety professionals. Care for each other.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.
  • Wynand

    Hi Rod and Rob, I just love how this debate developed. I notice some points – Rod mentioned in his initial post that “we try to change the perception” thereby indicating that part of the safety professional’s job is to fix the perceptions. I do believe safety laws are ggo and required, and somebody must look after legal compliance. But it is definitely a double role, since the reason for adhering to the law should not be fear of punishment, but because the rules make sense. I believe we should look for the sense in the rules, and highlight that. In the end, however, the main focus should always be to care for fellow workers, and sometimes it may well mean that we have to fulfil the policeman role. Sometimes the rule or law even provides the mechanism to care for another person. I believe the danger starts when compliance is the only, or even main, reason, and I must say not one of the posts told me to rate compliance above caring.

  • Les Henley

    Hi Rod,
    I believe the very reason we have legislation is because workplaces looked much differently before – more death, more maimimg, more serious lost time injuries; Not to mention child labour and children dying in chimney stacks and mangled in machinery.
    Unfortunately laws (as standards for living together in harmony) are required precisely BECAUSE humans are selfish and will exploit others for their own ends. The very core of capitalism is to gain maximum benefit from minimum cost. There was a time of slavery when human life was considered cheap and expendable – so long as it was someone else’s life. We still see a similar approach to the cost of life in third world and developing enconomies. The poor will put their lives on the line to earn a pittance and so they are exploitable.
    Workplace safety laws, at least nominally, are established to say ‘human life is more valuable’ and so they establish MINIMUM standards for the most exploitative employers to meet. Though they are still only as effective as the level of policing in some places.
    I am pleased to say that I have worked for several employers over the years (current one included) that say “Hey, we don’t just want to meet the minimum. We want to be best practice in protecting our employees”.
    And in my current role, I’m educating workers in the disability sector to value their own health, safety and quality of life at least as highly as the clients with disabilities they seek to serve.
    I’ve written elsewhere on this blog site that many of our workers have a short term view of placing themsleves at risk to save a single disabled person from injury – not realising that in placing themself at risk they may (and do) seriously injure themselves so that they are not able to serve ANY of their clients.
    Laws don’t change these mindsets, but educaiton and discussion about the effects of their actions do.

  • Rod Taylor

    Hello Rob,

    I like your question on you hope that legislation isn’t the driving force of safety. I often wonder if there wasn’t legislation would a vast majority of workplaces be significantly different. I know it isn’t my driver but I also know going back about 15 years ago I wouldn’t have got a start in safety if it wasn’t legislatively required. I also know that I have been able to use legislation to initiate change as well. It is all about approach and I reckon that comes down to the individual and how they communicate which goes across all professions and not just ours



  • Hi Rod, I do understand, maybe its more about the style of policing than the idea of supporting others. It’s a bit like the difference between the Police Force and community policing, same people, different approach. BTW the police have dropped the language of ‘force’, even they know how priming works. We certainly do have the legislation sitting there, but I would hope that was not our driver for safety. It’s like the difference between ‘carefronting’ and ‘confronting’, it’s all about intent.

  • Rod Taylor

    Hello Les,

    Thanks for the reply. The point I suppose I was trying to make is that it is never black or white in what type of safety person you are there are plenty of greys. Just because you are required to be the safety police or the safety administrator doesn’t mean that you don’t have the passion and care about people. I don’t take the comparison to nazis personnaly but I don’t think that it displays a logical thought either. People taking deliberate actions to hurt etc others because they were told to is not valid when referencing a safety person being required to police rules or keep records because that is a part of their job. Everyone should police safety so I don’t have a problem with being that if the situation warrants it as I do it because I do care about people.

    Plenty of other articles make the point that just because you don’t believe in zero harm doesn’t mean that you want people to get hurt and I think the same principle should apply here. I get a bit tired of hearing what a bad job I do because I don’t fully agree with a philosphy or approach.

    We should take our profession seriously and adapt when we need to and use whatever strategies work at the time.



  • Rod Taylor

    Rob good article and I do understand the concepts.

    I think it is remiss however to not acknowledge that the vast majority of us do what we are paid to do just like any other profession. If our employer wants us to administer paperwork, enforce legislation and site rules and other duties we either have the choice to do what we are asked or find another job. We don’t all have the freedom to choose what we want to do and how we want to do it. We generally try to change the perception of safety in our organisations but this is not always as successful as we would like. I think a well rounded safety professional has to have all the skills and attributes that you mentioned in the article but if we don’t do what we are paid to we won’t get the chance to enhance the profession as we will no longer be employed

    • Les Henley

      Hi Rod,
      Whilst I understand what you are saying, and I’m sensitive to your situation, you are using the same argument that keeps getting workers injured, maimed and killed – I’m doing what I’m paid to do and if I don’t I’ll be out of work. (I thought hard before adding that your argument is very similar to the one that German soldiers used to justify their involvement in the holocaust. No I’m not implying that you are a nazi, just drawing a comparison for justification of actions that may not be justifiable).
      The place for us, as ‘Safety Professionals’, to start the process of influencing is at the selection interview. If an employer sees WHS differently to us, and yet wants us to work for them, we need to establish a process for working out what the job will look like in action.
      A strong argument against the legislative compliance/policeman approach is that ‘no law ever prevented a person from speeding and killing themself or someone else’. Prescription and policing just don’t work because there will never be enough of us in any organisation, just like there will never be enough policemen on the roads.
      And if an employer refuses to see that, and insists that you act as a policeman, they’ve got the wrong end of the stick anyway. Because enforcing safety standards should be a frontline supervisor/manager function.
      What’s the point of you policing if the supervisors and managers don’t/won’t; and worse – if they actively undermine your role? Just as with ‘speed camera’s, where drivers slow down then accelerate away, – the worker who ‘toes the safety line’ when you’re around may well get killed as soon as you turn your back.
      Les Henley

  • Jauhar

    One should always be an optimist to see & mould things in a constructive way. When there is an atmosphere of respect, love & care all around the most difficult & toughest goals are reachable with less effort. Health & Safety of living beings is only possible and can be ensured when this is handled with love n care & in a very relaxed manner with logic & dedication, by relising all of their social responsibilities/ duties. Not a single religion on the God earth supports hate or barbarism, but un-fortunately in todays materialistic world we just for very pity material gains get completely blind and selfish. Lets pray, Allah Almighty not only bless all of us with the strength of care n love for all living beings but to give us the patience to forgive and tolerate mistakes of others ! (Allah Humma Ameen).

  • Ricardo Chapman

    Well said,I can agree with the author on these issues.I have been on may construction sites, and am amazed how laborers get treated by Safety Officers.We are all human beings and respect is earned , before it can be given.

  • Wonderful article! I too see safety as being about education and caring, not just compliance with regulations. And it is in education and caring that I believe we can see the greatest impact on safety in the workplace, not by just making sure we follow the myriad of rules and regulations.

  • Thanks Les, glad someone gets it.

  • George Robotham

    Certainly agree that some safety people are over fixated on compliance with legislation, of the 13 fatalities I have been associated with none had lack of compliance with legislation as a major influencer.Discussion on a Canadian OHS forum led to the conclusion that you would be lucky to prevent 20% of personal damage occurrences if all you did was comply with legislation.
    Safety is a caring profession, the good OHS people know this and act accordingly.Sometimes their dedication to the cause brings coping problems for them
    Some approaches to safety are so complex they are bound to fail when dealing with human nature

  • Les Henley

    Great piece Rob.
    I concur with your thouights entirely.
    When meeting people for the first time and they ask me what I do I answer ‘I teach employers to love their employees and I teach employees to love themselves, their workmates and their supervisors’.
    And from a personal perspective I see my role as primarily one of pastoral care and education.
    All the best during this time when we celebrate the birth of the one who teaches us to love one another.

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