What Is It That You Do Here?

by Phil LaDuke on May 19, 2014

in Phil LaDuke

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
  • Les Henley

    I have long held the (Christian) view that my role is to help employers ‘love their employees’ by providing safe place, plant, process, and people; and to help employees ‘love their employer’ by cooperating and working safely. But I don’t ever believe I will save a life. I’m not in a position to intervene if someone ‘out there’ does something unthinkable.
    To this end my primary focus is to help change the way people think about their work.
    I believe their are two primary reasons for injuries
    – a worker doesn’t expect to get hurt. But they do get hurt because they have failed to idenitfy a risk or they underestimated the scale of the risk
    – a worker (or their supervisor) expects that certain injuries will happen due to the nature of the work. Lo and behold such injuries do happen.
    So I work at helping people to think differently about the risks, and encourage them to think that injuries should not be expected.
    One example is that, as I work in the disability services industry, I have recently achieved a change in expectations that “disability support workers will experience assault and injury from clients with aggressive behaviours”. With this expectation there was no attempt or effort to prevent such injuries.
    With relatively little effort but a consistent approach to identifying, assessing and controlling the risk we have seen a significant reduction in such injuries over the past several months – and the ‘mood’ has changed because we’ve shown we don’t have to expect it. This has led to other significant issues being raised that, previously’ would not have been discussed.
    An example from a previous role was that diesel mechanics expected to “suffer minor injuries such as lacerations due to tools slipping while they were exerting pressure”. With a little effort they can identify alternate tools, leverage angles, sharp edges and ‘strike’ points and then modify how they do their work, or place ‘cushions’ on the strike points to reduce such injuries.
    Secondly, I consistently refuse to act as policeman. I am not frightened of being a ‘whistleblower’ to indentify where unacceptable practices are occuring and making supervisors and managers aware of their responsibility to prevent such practices. And if I don’t get satisfaction I’m not frightened of elevating it up the foodchain. But I am not in a position to be responsible to enforce anything.
    Thirdly, I set up record keeping processes so that front line supervisors can maintain their own records and yet provide access to others who need the information for other purposes. I only keep records that are specific to my role.
    I take responsibility for what I can influence and not for what I can’t. I have certain authorities to directly influence some things. And I have significant experience such that I am seen as an ‘expert’ and so I indirectly influence how people think about and approach safety where they work.

  • Richard Hamilton

    If our job is to keep people safe then it is the easiest job in the world. Advise the owners to close their business, pay everyone off and shut the gates. No one can be injured by that business. We have achieved the goal of Zero Harm for that organisation.

    Of course that is taking the zero harm or safety is the number one priority to it’s illogical conclusion. My job as a safety professional is to make the business more profitable. I do that by lowering costs of injuries and stoppages, mimimising insurance premiums and minimising the risk of expensive defenses for breaches of legislation. I don’t usually talk about compliance because that is a given. That is the foundation on which any safety system is built.

    An injury is not a safety issue, it is most likely a symptom of another problem such as poor work flow design, lack of consistent decision making by managers etc. Control the problem and not only will you minimize the risk of injury but you will rid yourself of a bottleneck that ended up causing the injury. Remove that bottleneck and as well as reducing the risk of an accident or injury, you will also have the result of increasing productivity.

    This is a very brief and simple view on what I see my role as a safety person is. Businesses exist to make money or maximise profits. Safety, productivity and quality are not mutually exclusive, they are all part of the systematic approach to maintaining a successful business. Get one wrong or out of balance and you suffer loss. Our role is to help get the balance right.

  • Rod Taylor

    Good one Phil I agree with basically everything said.

    I may have misunderstood the last paragraph though as what is our role?
    I think that I assist management to provide the processes that the workers can use to keep themselves alive, safe etc.

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