Being a Health and Safety professional can be a tough job. We often need to hit the ground running on new projects, gain respect quickly from disengaged leaders and sceptical employees, and motivate people to do things they would otherwise not do. On top of that, our profession is regularly vilified in the media for the often-outrageous decisions made in the name of Health and Safety. Former Prime Minister David Cameron even made a new year’s resolution back in 2012 on behalf of the then coalition government to “kill off the Health and Safety culture for good”.
Sometimes it feels as though we’re always on the back foot, trying to stave off the adversity to simply get our jobs done. I’ve often asked colleagues and peers, “What can we do as Health and Safety professionals to overcome this”? Being technically competent and, just as importantly, knowing the limitations of our competence is just the start. How we portray ourselves as professionals is, in my opinion, where we can start to make a real difference.
In my career of over 11 years in Health and Safety, I’ve always held a strong belief that if I apply myself with professionalism and determination, I can overcome the challenges that stem from the negative perceptions of Health and Safety. Of course, it’s never as simple as that in practice and there have been plenty of times when I’ve failed to break down certain barriers or persuade others of the importance of doing things safely. But I always handle those failures and frustrations with the same degree of professionalism as I would for each achievement and success.
So, what is it to be professional and why does it matter?
What is professionalism?
Over the past 11 years, I’ve worked with large and small companies both in the UK and internationally, across multiple sectors. I’ve worked with a diverse range of people and have always been fascinated by what professionalism means to different people, cultures, and organisations.
“Being professional” can mean so many different things. For some it could mean something as simple as wearing a suit, for others, it’s about competency and ability, whilst for others, it’s all about getting the job done.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines professionalism as ‘The competence or skill expected of a professional”.
My interpretation of this definition is that professionalism is not just about one specific skill or characteristic, it’s about a range of different attributes that a person must have to do a job effectively and efficiently. Whilst there is no recognised list of what these attributes are, there are four key attributes that I try to uphold when applying myself as a Health and Safety professional:
Let’s take some time to reflect on each of those attributes, and why I think they’re important characteristics of professionalism.
Competence is a much-debated topic, particularly when it comes to Health and Safety. Not only do the phrases “competence” and “competent person” routinely appear in Health and Safety legislation, but competence is also one of the four pillars of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health’s Code of Conduct. It’s clearly one of the fundamental characteristics of being a Health and Safety professional.
The IOSH Code of Conduct defines competence as a combination of knowledge, skills and experience and recognition of the limits of your capabilities. For us to demonstrate our competence, we’ve got to make sure we’re competent in the first place and then commit to maintaining and developing our competence as our career progresses and we encounter new challenges.
As Health and Safety professionals, we need to be qualified. Whatever qualification route we decide to take, be it NVQ, NEBOSH, NCRQ, or an MSc, these qualifications need to be kept up to date. Committing to continuing professional development helps us improve our knowledge, be the best that we can be and offer the best advice that we can.
Competency is also about the skills and experience we develop as we go along our professional journey. When new to the profession, it’s harder to demonstrate competency as we do not have years of experience, both good and bad, to back us up. As we develop we must focus on getting the job that we are working on done, do it well, reflect on it and learn from our mistakes, be reliable and manage expectations. This goes a long way with the people we work with and helps us gain respect.
We must also remember to be humble – if we’re unsure of something or a project goes beyond the limits of our competency then we shouldn’t be afraid to admit it. I’d argue that one of the best ways to demonstrate competence, and professionalism, is to admit when something is beyond us. There’s no harm in holding our hands up and saying we don’t have the right knowledge, skills or experience for a particular task.
Ethical conduct may sound like one of those phrases that fall straight out of a business journal that nobody really understands. For me, it is about establishing my own core values as a Health and Safety professional and making sure that I stick to them wherever possible. I always seek to do the right thing, behave honestly and fairly and represent our profession as best as I can.
As a member of IOSH and someone who chairs peer review panels for members hoping to achieve Chartered status, I’m a strong advocate of IOSH’s Code of Conduct. The Code is there to help us all demonstrate our value and reliability by adhering to high standards. It sets out clear behaviours and standards that enable us to conduct ourselves in an ethical way.
I’ve already mentioned competence as one of the four pillars of the code. I also keep the three remaining pillars of the Code in mind – integrity, respect and service. These are values that I try to apply at all times and as well as being pillars of the IOSH Code, they’re also great characteristics of professionalism.
Accountability and Health and Safety are often at loggerheads. Think of the number of times that Health and Safety have been used as an excuse not to do something. Think of the tabloid headlines, the radio and TV debates and the statements from politicians about Health and Safety being all about red tape and disproportionate rules. The HSE even established a Myth Busters Challenge Panel in 2012 to enable people to challenge advice or decisions made in the name of Health and Safety that they believe are disproportionate or legally inaccurate.
Quite often, decisions made in the name of Health and Safety, particularly those we read about in the tabloids or via the Myth Busters Challenge Panel, are made because Health and Safety is a convenient excuse not to do something as opposed to someone being accountable for the real reasons.
Let me give you an example. A company I once worked for asked me to decline a request from staff members who wanted to “hop around” on space hoppers in their building’s reception for an hour one morning to raise money for charity. The main reason the company didn’t want this to go ahead was that they felt it would reflect badly on their brand image, but I didn’t see it as being such a significant Health and Safety risk to warrant saying no. I applied my competence and ethical conduct and refused to be the scapegoat. Thankfully, common sense prevailed, and the space hopping was allowed and raised over £100 in the process without anyone experiencing injury or harm!
Being accountable for your actions and decisions is a fundamental characteristic of professionalism. If I know I’ve made a decision for the right reasons, then I’m more than happy to be held accountable for it or, as is sometimes the case, hold my hands up if I have made a mistake.
Emotional intelligence is the fourth core attribute that I try to uphold when applying myself as a Health and Safety professional. Emotional intelligence can be described as being able to identify and manage your own emotions as well as the emotions of others.
I view self-awareness as extremely important when dealing with others. I’m perhaps lucky that I am often able to look at a situation, trust my intuition and calmly find a solution. Of course, there are some occasions (probably plenty, actually) when I’m faced with a situation at work and I’m hit by blind panic, fear or anger. But I trust my ability to overcome such initial feelings and work towards a solution.
Understanding and managing the emotions of others is often more complex. Whenever I work with someone I always try to see things from their point of view. I try to take a step back, keep my initial opinions and thoughts to myself, and put myself in their shoes. By empathising with their situation, I can begin to understand why they hold a particular viewpoint of why they’re behaving in a particular way. This then enables me to adapt my behaviour and the way I communicate with people to try and get the right result for everyone.
Throughout my career in Health and Safety, I’ve always sought to be an “enabler”. Rather than simply saying “no, we can’t do that, it’s too risky”, my starting point is always “how can I help you do what you need to do whilst also making sure it’s done safely. Emotional intelligence allows me to be professional, gain credibility and respect and, importantly, be solutions focussed.
Why it’s important to be professional
When you become qualified and work in Health and Safety, and you join IOSH or other member bodies, you become part of a wider community. A community whose aim is to create a world of work that is safe, healthy and sustainable. This is an ambitious aim and we cannot achieve this as individuals, we need support from the wider business world to help us deliver on this.
Being professional and gaining respect and credibility from the people we work with is one of the steps towards us achieving this aim. If we all are professional and taken seriously, then these small individual gains can add up to make a remarkable improvement in Health and Safety standards.