What Makes an Effective Safety Professional? - Part 3

Safety Pros

This article is the third in a series that details the qualities necessary to be an effective safety professional that began with, "What Makes an Effective Safety Professional - Part 1" and continued with "What Makes an Effective Safety Professional - Part 2". As detailed in the introductory article, the author focuses on three essential points:

    1. Technical Proficiency
    2. Teamwork
    3. Character
This article will focus on the second of the three qualities.


Teamwork lies at the heart of any enterprise. There is very little that can be achieved by an individual acting alone, irrespective of their talent or ability. This is true of all types of human activity, and the safety profession is no different. It is as difficult to become an effective safety professional without the cooperation of others, as it is to be an effective footballer at a malfunctioning club. Teamwork has proven to be one of the most effective means ever devised of achieving goals and objectives. We humans are extremely well equipped psychologically to work within groups in order to take advantage of this. Our evolutionary forebears, who suppressed their own individual self-interests in favour of their group, reaped the reward of others doing the same for them, giving them a considerable competitive advantage when it came to survival in difficult times. But cooperation and teamwork is not unique to humans. So what makes us so good at it?

It was not until we unlocked the psychological means to both yoke individuals efforts and skills (cooperation), and preserve advances made within a group (culture), that our species began to make unparalleled leaps forward. The evolution of these traits gave us a formidable tool, a ratchet, which then led on to our most impressive cognitive achievements. For example, the first word or symbol was not simply a connection between an object and its description; it was an agreement between people as to what it meant. Subsequently, linguistic and mathematical symbols led to social institutions and then on to complex technologies.

Humans, though, also cooperate differently than all other social creatures. Something that is readily apparent to those of us who have the opportunity to observe groups of domesticated animals on a regular basis is that all the animals in a group do pretty much the same thing. Apparently this is also the case among our closest primate relatives (Tomasello). But humans are very different. Our ancestors inhabited a social environment where individual humans specialised in one area or activity which might then be exchanged for goods or services that others specialised in.

This raises an interesting question; do humans, therefore, differ from each other in innate abilities and dispositions that make us suited to different ways of prospering in society, or do we acquire these qualities following a lengthy interaction within an evolved cultural system or meme (Nature or Nurture)? There is a tendency to think that these traits are simply learned, but studies of identical twins separated at birth have clearly demonstrated the power of genetics to influence all aspects of our lives. Right down to what we watch on television, what type of books we like to read and whether or not we like to attend religious services.

However, Michael Tomasello (The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition) believes that "The introduction of Darwinian ways of thinking… should have rendered this debate (Nature or Nurture) obsolete". Furthermore, he hypothesises that the reason it has not been rendered obsolete is that the natural way to answer the question "what causes trait X" is to choose one of the alternatives above. This is because our ability to reason is largely dependent on the language we use to reason with. For example, babies cannot reason much because they do not have language. Reasoning requires language because complicated ideas require words. It follows logically, therefore, that the words we use will then impact on our reasoning (linguistic determinism). So, if the word ‘cause’ did not exist in the English language we would have to ask "how did trait X come about", which would lead us to think differently about the process (indeed, it might also lead us to think differently about how accidents come about as well).

Tomasello favours the view that traits are not ‘caused’ they come about following complex interactions between genes and an environment. However, the question remains; could this mean that we have evolved temperaments and abilities which, when we interact with a social environment, make us more effective at, or predispose us to, different roles within society? Well, farmers have operated under this assumption for centuries. We breed animals specifically in order to produce particular behaviours, intellectual abilities and temperaments. For example, as well as breeding sheep to produce large offspring, multiple offspring, and hardiness, we also select sheep that have a proclivity to be good mothers, don’t stray, and are docile. And these traits are hereditary. Farmers have also found that Sheep Dogs are naturally good at complex tasks like herding (even inexperienced humans struggle at this): Golden Retrievers are prone to bring things back: And Dobermans seem to want to guard stuff.

Similarly human culture may have naturally selected people who have a predisposition to guard it, pray for it, make things for it or protect those who live in it. Mark Pagel in his wonderful book ‘Wired For Culture’ states that one of the most remarkable discoveries he came across while studying complex systems, was that order, or more precisely a lack of entropy, can seem to appear out of randomness when individuals follow a small number of local rules. He also theorises that if people use the simple strategy of win stay lose shift, then, over time, they will become highly sorted and everyone will end up doing something they are good at.

In his 1981 book ‘Management Teams: Why They Succeed or Fail’, Maredith Belbin identified nine specialist group roles which, if present in the right combination, could create the perfect team. It was based on almost a decade of research that was conducted in association with three other scholars: Bill Hartston, mathematician and international chess master; Jeanne Fisher, an anthropologist who had studied Kenyan tribes; and Roger Mottram, an occupational psychologist. They studied business games at Henley Business School in the UK and then observed, categorised and recorded the contribution of the team members. They originally supposed that high-intellect teams would succeed where lower intellect teams would not. However, the outcome of this research was that certain teams, predicted to be excellent based on intellect, failed to fulfil their potential. Whereas, teams characterised by the compatibility of their roles were more likely to be winners. More information about these team roles can be found at http://www.belbin.com/

However, while Belbin draws on examples from real organisations, it is worth bearing in mind that the development of the model is based on specially selected subjects in the artificial environment of the business school exercise. Nevertheless, I decided to examine the traits from the LinkedIn thread (Describe in one word... An effective safety professional is ________________ ?) under Belbin’s nine team role characteristics, to see if there is a typical role that safety professionals might naturally fulfil within an organisation.

Belbin’s Team Roles

Effective safety professional - Teamwork Image 1

Effective safety professional - Teamwork Image 2

The results of this exercise proved very interesting. It would seem, based on my interpretation of the LinkedIn posts, that safety professionals do not need to fulfill any one particular role. This, I must admit, surprised me. I expected the majority of effective safety professionals to be to be Monitor/Evaluators. Perhaps that is due to a bias in my experience or due to a subconscious recognition of myself in the role. However, oddly enough, I seem to see myself in all the positive characteristics and in none of the allowable weaknesses…. The vagaries of the human mind!!

In any case, it would also appear from my, albeit subjective, analysis of the responses that safety professionals are least likely to be creative, imaginative or given to the generation of ideas that solve problems (Plants). Perhaps that role might be the preserve of production line management, or perhaps it could be due to the fact that the Plant’s weaknesses, ignoring incedentals and not communicating well, are simply not conducive to being an effective safety professional.

It came as no great surprise to me, though, that the Resource Investigator did not feature very high on the list. In fact I was only surprised that it was not at the bottom of the pile. Because the Resource Investigator, to me at least, sounds very like the worst kind of safety professional that I ever came across; what an extremely effective safety professional of my acquaintance, Phil La Duke, calls the safety cheerleader. Almost all of the safety cheerleaders that I came across were incredibly positive, well-meaning individuals who firmly believed that the farmer and the cowman should be friends. They saw their role as caring for everybody and trying to find a fair and happy compromise whenever there was tension between workers and management. And there was always tension between workers and management. Management were continuously seeking to increase production and reduce costs while workers were resolutely seeking to lighten their workload, improve their conditions and get extra pay. Often there wasn’t a happy compromise to be found. One side made the rules and the other side had to follow them. Either management said it has to be done this way or workers said we’re not doing that.

Their desire to avoid conflict meant that safety cheerleaders were only ever effective at getting worn machinery replaced or introducing a paperwork trail which could be used in the event of an insurance claim. Their understanding of risk, safety and production was, for the most part, minuscule. Management never had to justify a risk to them because they had convinced themselves that management were doing everything they possibly could to improve safety in the workplace. Safety was, therefore, simply a case of workers being careful. There was no question in their minds of calculations being made involving risk, reward and loss where a workers safety was concerned.

It has been my experience that effective safety professionals, on the other hand, are constantly involved in conflict. They hold people to account as well as recognising good work. They make management understand that if they choose to accept a particular risk there is a liklihood that one of their employees will get badly hurt. But they do not shrink from the implications of that reality either. They are prepared to go down into the trenches and wade through the hypocrisy. The company wants you to take THIS risk because the cost of removing it far outweighs the benefits. However, the company does not want you to take THAT risk because the consequences to yourself and the company of the risk materialising are unacceptable. And they make sure workers understand that the dichotomy is not immoral or illogical. Sure, management cares about their employees, most managers are human beings after all, but they have to make as much money as they possibly can as well.

Ironically though, people who don’t compromise, and are driven by idealism, can be just as innefective as the safety cheerleader. Which is why it surprised me to find the Shaper at the top of the list. The caracteristics of the Shaper, in my view, seem very similar to a lot of the very ineffective safety professionals that I encountered, who saw themselves as moral crusaders, self-righteously struggling with inadequate resources to keep ignorant, obstinate and reckless workers from harming themselves, while uncaring, arrogant and deceitful managers hindered and obstructed them every step along the way. There was no point in engaging in meaningful dialogue with these people. The only logical course of action to take was to simply humour them. These crusaders seemed to think that they were the only ones who could see the world as it really was. And, though they seemed to be aware that their own background shaped their views and ideas (they frequently used anecdotes to justify themselves), they somehow felt that other peoples background only helped to explain their biases or covert motivations.

Moral crusaders also tended to be very pompous and persnickety, treated risk takers with disdain and seemed to think that the end justified the means. I suppose when you believe right is on your side all that matters is the destination not the route by which you arrive. They also tended to believe that all acidents could be prevented; it was simply a function of good management and worker compliance. I suppose it is difficult to launch a moral crusade that could be scuppered by randomness (or one of Taleb’s black swans).

In fact, they displayed little or no understanding of risk, something that must be confronted by every company operating in a competitive commercial environment. Risk, of course, is a function of mathematical probability, which means that sooner or later the risk will realise its potential to cause harm. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be a risk. Indeed, it has been my experience that in the real world it is sometimes thought necessary to run very high risks over a short duration due to unforeseen or unforeseeable circumstances. Effective safety professionals help manage these unwanted events. Moral crusaders on the other hand, either hide of their own volition, are kept in the dark by production line supervisors or are simply ignored.

Having said all that, I suppose I should also say that the moral crusaders I encountered were not bad people. Most cared deeply about their job and the people who faced danger in the course of their work. They tended to be idealists. And most of us were idealists at some point in our lives.

Of course, we then grew up. We realised that there is more than one moral framework; that we live and work in grey areas; that certainty is unlikely; and that all risk cannot, indeed should not, be removed from human endeavour. Idealists can be wonderful people but I have always found it very difficult to work with them. They don’t want to hear opposing views and they don’t compromise. This makes it impossible to find common ground… which is why I prefer pragmatists myself.

Perhaps there are other elements of the effective safety professionals character, though, which can explain why the same traits that make one safety professional effective, can make another impossible to work with. I will look more closely at individual character in a forthcoming article.

Liam Moran

Written by Liam Moran

Liam has worked on construction sites in the US, UK and Ireland, and spent over 17 years working as a skilled butcher for a meat processor while continuing to run his family’s farm. Following the closure of the processing plant, Liam returned to college where he obtained a First Class Honours Degree in Construction Management, and went on to work as a Site Engineer for a construction company. Liam became interested in Health and Safety when he wrote a thesis, The Effect of Group Dynamics on Safety Culture, for his Honours Degree qualification and subsequently went on to gain a post graduate qualification on the topic from Trinity College Dublin.

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