Let’s all think back to when we first started working and the role of safety at that time. Those of you in the safety profession think about your position on the job, within your company, and how outsiders viewed your work. For the rest of you who aren’t in the safety profession, what were your views on the safety professionals you dealt with within your company and on your job site?
For many safety professionals, we started with one objective in mind, and that was compliance. We were tasked with ensuring everything was in line with all regulations (OSHA, EPA, DOT, and State Regulations). It was a checklist-driven time. We would check off if the toolbox talks were being conducted and submitted; people were wearing their PPE and ensuring that the company was meeting all requirements on the jobs so that if OSHA showed up, there wouldn’t be any surprises. Now fast forward to today. We have to think of safety on the job site, at home, and while traveling to and from work. In addition to safety being on our minds 24/7, we are faced with new challenges to contend with that require more than just a compliance outlook.
One of the new challenges we face with the 24/7 safety mind is the issue of the increased awareness of mental health and substance abuse in construction. In the past, these issues were often pushed aside, saying that it’s a personal issue and not work-related. Today we know better; there isn’t a work and personal distinction anymore. What happens on the job site affects you at home and what happens at home affects you on the job site. Today’s safety professional has to recognize that. We have to assume that the worker intends to do their job safely and follow all protocols and policies. The wrench that gets thrown into it all is their mental state, and then there are times when we may have to ask the question, could substance abuse play a role.
Today’s site safety visits should continue to look for compliance issues, emphasizing relationship building. The goal is to change behaviors so that shortcuts are stopped, and all protocols and policies are followed; to have the safety professional viewed as a “guide” rather than an “officer.” The saying “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” is an excellent example of the changing landscape of the safety profession. We need workers to see that we are not there to check a box and run, that we are there to help educate them when required, to show a little compassion and give a simple hey how’s it going and some kudos for doing the right thing. In the past, the level of discussion between safety and the field staff may have been centered around negative observations. Give people credit for doing the right thing, and they may strive to continue that behavior.
If we, as safety professionals, aim to be proactive rather than reactive, we will have more time in the field to build relationships. We can manage the pop-up and unexpected risks better throughout the project through proper pre-planning and risk mitigation upfront. The site inspections become an evaluation tool to measure the protocols put in place during the planning phase. We can learn what may not work on this specific job site and adjust JHA’s and safety plans accordingly. Stand downs and on-site safety meetings turn into more of a discussion than a lecture. An additional benefit to relationship building is more open and honest communication. To complete projects safely and efficiently, we need more communication between all levels. If a piece of equipment is missing or a tool is needed, everyone needs to feel comfortable to stop that work. Safety plays a role in supporting the right to stop work, to stop shortcuts from being taken if something doesn’t arrive (i.e., don’t go in the trench if the trench box didn’t come as you expected it to. Stop work, notify of the missing equipment, and wait until the proper equipment arrives before getting in the trench).
Today’s safety professionals must be willing to continue learning. We must stay on the front edge of change and reach out for help in areas we need. It’s a small world, and there’s plenty of people willing to offer assistance. Everyone needs to recognize mental health and substance abuse in the workplace. When those are talked about frequently, it reduces any stigma with the topics and hopefully opens people up to asking for help if they feel they need it. There are more resources out there today than in the past, and most insurance companies and unions have programs in place that are covered and easily accessible. Today’s safety professional needs to be more a swiss-army knife. They still need to know about regulation and compliance, but the more they know about business, operations, human behavior, mental health, and substance abuse, the better. Today safety truly is a 24/7 mentality without the old distinctions of work and home.