Health & Safety Outlook 2011: The ‘soft’ side of OHS

Health & Safety Outlook 2011: The ‘soft’ side of OHS
Health and safety professionals better polish up their “soft skills” if they want to remain effective in promoting health and safety in the workplace, as the trend seems to be favouring a well-rounded, multi-skilled safety professional.

“That’s one of the biggest things that I see as a trend going forward, not just in the next year, but as we go into the future within the safety profession,” says Eldeen Pozniak, director at Pozniak Safety Associates, Inc., a management consulting firm based in Saskatoon. [Watch: CSSE president Peter Sturm talks about some OHS trends for 2011]

Acknowledging that a strong technical background is still necessary, Pozniak notes safety professionals need to complement those skills with some of the soft skills that will allow them to effectively promote their safety agenda within the organization.

This trend is also increasingly reflected in professional development conferences, as course materials show a good balance of providing both technical and soft skills development as well as leading edge tools, says Pozniak, who is also a former president and an active leader within the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering (CSSE).

“When we look at some of the new courses that have come out, it’s about leadership; it’s about applied risk communication; it’s about project management. It’s really expanding the traditional on-site safety person who inspects and corrects, and moving them to much more of a well-rounded professional.”

The trend towards more business knowledge for safety professionals seems to be driven by the fact that safety professionals have been moving up in the corporate ladder, Pozniak says. As health and safety advocates increasingly assume more leadership management roles, their knowledge and skills need to expand as well.

“We’re definitely getting into upper and mid-management positions, and we’re finding that that’s where we have the influence on the organization as a whole.  So I think, as we are moving within the organization and growing as a profession, we need to have a lot of those skills,” she says.

Perhaps a catalyst to this changing skills set for safety professionals is the fact that organizations are increasingly recognizing the business value of looking after the safety and health of their employees. [Watch: Ergonomics are also going through big changes in the workplace.]

With numerous studies showing the bottom-line benefits of an injury-free workplace, companies are now more proactively trying to understand and recognize the importance of occupational health and safety to the overall productivity and viability of the business, says Ron Durdle, vice-chair of the Board of Canadian Registered Safety Professionals.

“Still today, here we are heading into 2011, technology changes are unbelievable as we advance almost on a daily basis, but people are still the number one asset for any company,” Durdle says.

Durdle reminds safety professionals to continue to advance their knowledge of the profession, especially as new technologies and methods are developed and introduced.

Changing roles
Pozniak and Durdle note that not only are the skills set for safety professionals evolving, but also their role in the organization. The increasing trend on corporate social responsibility and sustainability are presenting new opportunities for safety professionals to expand their roles to other complementary functions.

The green initiatives under the corporate social responsibility banner tend to be a responsibility that’s being pushed to the health and safety person, particularly for organizations that don’t have the resources to hire additional staff.

This is where continuing professional development comes in handy. “To stay in focus of what happens in the regulatory end of things for the environment . . . so just try to get a grasp on that for whatever industry you’re in,” Durdle advises.

As more companies jump on the corporate social responsibility bandwagon in the new year and beyond, Durdle urges organizations to get their safety managers involved at the beginning of any new green initiatives that they will undertake.

“If a company is going to be proactive and is sincere, you have to have your safety professional in the preliminary planning stages of reconfiguration or bringing in new equipment,” Durdle says. Otherwise, if something is missed and presents a health and safety risk, the cost to redo will be high and change will be disruptive.

Safety professionals can also be an active resource to contribute to the company’s efforts on corporate social responsibility. This, again, speaks to the importance of expanding one’s skills and knowledge beyond the technical aspects of health, safety and environment, Pozniak says.

Organizations will be looking to some expertise in the area, and corporate social responsibility can become part of the safety professional’s portfolio.

“Sometimes the corporate social responsibility, just like safety and security and environment and everything else, goes to the safety guy . . . which is a great expansion of our professional portfolios.”

More importantly, however, safety professionals have to become team players to know “a little bit about everything else that the business does, so that we can almost become salesmen,” says Pozniak. This would enable the safety professional to find ways to fit the safety agenda into the bigger corporate direction, she adds.

One area of OHS that has gained much attention over the last few years is in ergonomics. Musculoskeletal disorders have been one of the most common types of injuries in the workplace across Canada, and government bodies and companies are taking notice, says Don Patten, president of the Association of Canadian Ergonomists and an ergonomics specialist with the Workplace Safety and Prevention Services.

The high cost of MSD-related compensation claims and the negative impact on overall productivity are pushing governments and businesses to get ergonomic professionals more involved in prevention planning.

“In the past, the (ergonomics) profession as a whole has really just been reacting to a lot of these issues. There’s been so many injuries occurring and so many problems that companies are having that a lot of ergonomists are really just trying to do assessments to get these injuries under control,” Patten says.

In recent years, however, government has started to recognize the ergonomist’s expertise. “They are certainly getting ergonomists in the different provinces involved in some of the decision making around dealing with these issues.”

It’s a trend that Patten believes will continue to 2011 and beyond, and will allow the ergonomics professionals to enhance their skills to more than the physical aspect of the field. Some of these new knowledge include organizational ergonomics, which looks at policies and processes and how things are organized, and cognitive ergonomics, which deal with mental processes like perception, memory and reasoning that all affect people’s decision-making at work.

“A lot of these types of things outside of the physical ergonomics we find is getting more important everyday, because I think people are realizing that it’s not just physically how we lift the box but how we make decisions and how things are designed that actually even subconsciously force us to make those decisions for example,” Patten says.