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Are Safety Leaders Up to the Challenge?

While the very nature of work is evolving, keeping employees safe on the job remains the unchanging goal of all safety leaders.

You might think that if you asked 1,500 EHS professionals a question, you’d get 1,500 different answers, but as it turns out that’s not quite accurate. For instance, when EHS Today conducted the 2019 National Safety Survey, one of the questions we asked was, “What is the biggest challenge facing the industry today?”

Far and away, the most common answer to that question was…
… well, let me offer a few examples, and see if you can guess:
• “New employees entering the workforce without a sound understanding of risks related to job and work processes.”
• “Older workers set in their ways on how to do their jobs.”
• “Employees who think safety is the responsibility of one person and not everyone.”
• “Developing and delivering effective and engaging training for a generation of employees with very short attention spans. Micro-burst training seems to be the new norm and I’m not convinced it’s adequate.”
• “Young people are not studying industrial hygiene any more. It’s a dying field.”
• “Getting everybody to buy into the safety culture and put it foremost in their everyday activities.”
• “Everyone is so wrapped up in the next hot topic that the basics are forgotten about, or at least not getting the attention they deserve.”
• “Finding quality employees who are willing and able to work.”
• “Hiring like crazy. Need to train everyone properly.”
• “Getting buy-in to the safety program from senior leaders.”

Certainly, there was a lot of variety in how that “biggest challenge” question was answered, but basically everybody is pointing to the same thing: “employee engagement.” Whether it’s due to young people coming into the industry, older workers who think they know it all, or senior management who consider “safety” as just a cost rather than an avenue to increased profitability, EHS professionals seem uncannily consistent in the way most of them believe that establishing and maintaining a culture of safety at their organizations is their top challenge.

Safety leaders, who make up the majority of our audience, tend to be seasoned professionals. In our survey, we found that nearly two-thirds have more than 10 years of experience, and more than one-third of all respondents have at least 20 years of experience. So while safety leaders may not have seen everything, they have seen a lot. 

And one thing they’ve seen a lot of—perhaps too much of—is the transition of the economy away from manufacturing and construction jobs towards service sector jobs, making it harder to attract young people to replace an aging workforce, putting more of a burden on safety leaders to train workers who may be here today, gone tomorrow, but who nevertheless have to be kept safe on the job while not threatening the safety of their co-workers. 

As one survey respondent put it, “Engagement and involvement from the younger safety professionals seem to be lacking. In the next 10 years there will be a lot of safety professionals retiring. Will the next generation of safety professionals be ready?”

Another respondent remarked, “As economics force more people to seek part-time employment, the challenge is to help employees shift their focus from their paycheck to their work satisfaction, personal worksite health and safety, and a commitment to learn new skills.”

That’s really what it comes down to, isn’t it?—finding the best ways to engage with workers so that they themselves feel engaged enough in their roles (and in some cases, in their own lives) so that safety becomes a second nature to them. 

And that’s why, while you’ll find that EHS Today covers a wide range of topics—PPE, drug testing, OSHA compliance, workplace violence, the latest safety technology, emergency management, training techniques, ergonomics—the dominant theme of everything we do is to help safety professionals develop and sustain a safety culture at their organizations. It’s a challenging job you all have, but no job is more important.

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