Is the Health & Safety image problem ‘fake news’?

Here at Shirley Parsons, we’ve been speaking to HSEQ professionals and the businesses that employ them every day for 15 years. In my role as Managing Director, I’m privileged to be able to see how health and safety is viewed on a macro level, from both within and outside of the profession.

Is the Health & Safety image problem ‘fake news’?

It may surprise you that much of the talk I hear and read with regards to the ‘image problem’ of health and safety actually comes from within the profession. So, are we perpetuating the perceptions that existed over 15 years ago? In a sense, yes.

Since I have been involved (since 2004) in recruiting HSEQ professionals and advising companies on their talent needs, the consistent impression has been that a) health and safety professionals have a mix of technical knowledge, commercial acumen, and strong influencing skills and b) most companies ‘get’ this which is manifested through their specifications when briefing us on a recruitment assignment. So, is there really an image problem? Or is it a self-image problem?

When it comes to perception, we need to stop looking within the profession (the talent supply) and start looking outside to the wider business community, who have the demand for talent. At Shirley Parsons we work with SMEs through to global blue-chips, and in the vast majority, they are asking for commercially astute individuals, with strong influencing skills, and technical competence. And they are being supplied with talent that matches those exact specifications. So, what’s the gap?

We talk to thousands of health and safety professionals every month and, to a greater or lesser degree, most meet what we consider to be the essentials: technical competence, people skills, and commercial acumen. We meet many health and safety professionals at all levels who are exceptionally bright and driven, people who are fantastic company and highly engaging, and with high levels of commercial awareness. The image problem from the 20th century has to a large extent gone. It has gone because the modern health and safety professional offers so much value to businesses - businesses are demanding value…and getting it.

Most businesses are switched on and see good health and safety management as an essential business enabler. Sure, there is a spectrum of wanting to simply be compliant, right through to having a mature health and safety culture – but what’s wrong with being just compliant, if taken as a serious obligation? Some very large companies that I know of are happy with just compliance – and are hugely appreciative of the health and safety professionals that help them achieve that.

Some health and safety professionals are hell-bent on changing entire cultures. That’s brilliant! But hard to achieve – just getting top level buy-in is hard….let alone the rest of the workforce. My favourite assignments are those that unlock the passion and talent of a senior health and safety director to change culture in a way that ultimately has a tremendous effect on the bottom line. Remember, the bottom line is the primary reason for being for any business. Some businesses do not want to invest in full-on culture change, that is their decision and it doesn’t mean that they do not take safety seriously. Anyway, the very best health and safety professionals are able to change culture through a silent revolution, through first class influencing skills and execution of initiatives – and when the Board see the results the buy-in magically appears.

So, I don’t think there is an image problem, or if there is one then it is certainly not significant in any way.

I do think the profession looks inwardly a bit too often though, insisting that things must change, that the profession must modernise. It already has, and has been modernising for at least 15 years! Are the debates within the profession and the occasional story from outside of it ‘fake news’? Sometimes. Are businesses insisting on change? Are they ‘down’ on the health and safety profession? No. There are more switched on and commercially orientated people in health and safety than ever before. UK PLC knows it too. It’s high time to be proud of the health and safety profession and to encourage a healthy self-image.

Stop being so hard on yourselves!

About the Author:

Gerry Pearson is Managing Director at Shirley Parsons UK, Europe & Americas. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.

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