Regulation brings obstacles, opportunities

Safety profession must learn from the barriers, experiences of similar professions

The safety profession in Canada is evolving from practitioner to professional to a regulated profession status. There are major obstacles and opportunities for this career and profession path. The problem with professions and professionals in a particular sector is that it can influence the public perception and confidence in this vocation. How can the safety occupation evolve, grow and progress to the status of profession and avoid the problems of other professions and ensure that the public has confidence in this domain?

The present state of the safety profession is that anyone with any level of education, knowledge or skills can “hang up a shingle” to practice safety. They call themselves safety professionals. This would not be able to be done in medicine, law or many health-care disciplines.

The safety profession has over 200 safety designations/certifications that are self-selected by individuals rather than having one recognized and defined professional competency requirement. The Canadian experience is the same as in the United States for safety practitioners.

There is a move for safety to become regulated with each of the 13 provinces or territories requiring its own college and association, just as all other regulated professions. In the United States, the same challenge is in the numerous territories and 50 states across the country. Therefore, there has been a significant challenge for the safety profession to organize in North America.

Different perspectives

Professions in general become regulated under the requirement that ensures the protection of the public. It is the responsibility of the profession to self-regulate rather than rely on government regulations and requirements. This provides a balanced approach with the profession policing, setting standards and being held accountable. When an industry or profession does not adhere to standards or inappropriate or illegal activities occur, then regulatory checks are put in place.

There are daily media reports on professions and the activities of their professionals — medical, engineering, legal, law enforcement, educator, financial and health care — that negatively impact the profession as a whole. When the profession does not respond appropriately, then regulatory and government agencies increase their scrutiny and the court of public opinion brings the discussion into the media and social media.

The public discussions swirl around assumptions, values and accountability of individuals within a profession and their accountability to society and their license to operate, which is entrusted within the profession. If the profession cannot manage, regulate and hold accountable the individual professionals, then they lose the right to self-regulate and the profession oversight transfers to others such as government regulators or enforcement agencies. This includes law enforcement and oversight bodies such as stock exchanges or organizations that have a vested interest in the ethical, moral and professional standards and accountability to the public.

Context and future focus

For me, it is a matter of principle that my interaction with clients and colleagues is at the highest professional level. Without a self-regulatory body, individuals rely on their perception, understanding, biases and personal experiences to set self-standards as a professional. My challenge is that many safety practitioners measure their number of years of experience as their proof of expertise. However, the definition of competence requires at least three levels, namely knowledge, skills and experience.

According to JC Spender of the Cranfield School of Management in the United Kingdom, “…a profession is a group sufficiently disciplined, communicative, and reflexive to know itself as a community of considered practice. To reach this degree of self-perception and understanding requires serious hard work, serious commitment to the profession, serious pushing at the limits to professional practice, and serious consideration of its impact on others.”

After considerable personal reflection regarding the safety profession as a whole, it became clear to me that we will require a solid and universally accepted understanding of the requirements and the expectations of the profession, which we currently do not have. Discussions have been occurring for over a decade and include extensive self-assessment. More importantly, the safety profession is working to clearly articulate the competencies and requirements expected of the profession. This is evident in the questions around the value of the profession, its value to business in its success and sustainability and most importantly how the activities of the profession protect the public.

A fellow colleague John Holden, who is a past president of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, representing over 46,000 safety members stated, “By 'being the best' we can help ensure health and safety continues its progression towards becoming a regulated profession, if that is, indeed, where we want to go. But how many of you can truly, hand on heart, say that you are being the best professional you can be? There's always room for improvement.”

This is one example of the many conversations on the profession, and the need for continuous personal improvement of the professional.

This theme of being the best, regulating the profession, continuous improvement and advancing the profession is important. In Canada, it is estimated that 100,000 individuals are involved in some type of workplace health and safety. Only five per cent are associated with a member association or professional certifying body. Many belong to provincial trade associations that promote self-imposed certifications particular to their industry. Although they are classifying themselves as a safety professional, any transgression or unethical individual behaviour is not bound by any organization that oversees and holds them accountable to a standard within the entire profession.

It will be important for individuals to take a leadership role to advance the profession to the next level. This includes being actively involved, participating, supporting, questioning and being part of the change. The workplace statistics for injuries, fatalities and work-related diseases support the need for change and, more importantly, protecting the public, which includes all workplaces across the country. It is about safety supporting people as being a valuable asset for society and creating value in business and workplaces that ensures economic success and our long-term sustainability as a society.

This journey and period of self-reflection and self-actualization is around safety, the profession, creating value for society. The realization of multiple value opportunities is tied to the daily work of safety, the safety profession and the significant daily impact on individuals and their quality of everyday life. The safety profession must learn from other similar professions as to their barriers, opportunities and past experiences as a profession. Where a profession has missed the mark or an individual’s behaviour or ill-conceived decisions failed to meet the strict requirements of public safety, then there needs to be an accountability and an oversight organization.

This is the time for each of us as individuals to work together in safety to realize that workplace safety and the protection of employees is an enshrined right and more importantly the right thing to do.

Peter Sturm is a senior safety, health and risk management executive with Sturm Consulting. He works with companies to assist them in strategically managing their safety and health risks. This includes integrating their safety and health management systems into their business strategies and sustainability initiatives. He can be reached at [email protected] or 647.526.7233. For more information, visit