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Life as a Global Safety and Health Professional: 10 Tips to Help You Succeed

Jun 12, 2024
Safety professional woman using headphones and a tablet computer on a plane

The safety profession allows you to improve worker safety and health across the world — if you know how to land and excel in one of these coveted global positions.

Shawn E. Simmons, Ph.D., now an upstream CSRD project manager for Exxon Mobil, shared her experiences working internationally as a safety, security, health and environmental manager for Mobil Equatorial Guinea Inc. with our Blacks in Safety Excellence (BISE) Common Interest Group and Nigeria Chapter.

After her first assignment in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2007, Simmons worked across Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa. Based on her own experience and advice from other expats, she offers several tips for safety professionals looking to make the move overseas.

1. Start With PIE

Safety professionals looking to land an international position should keep the PIE concept (based on the book by Harvey Coleman) in mind by focusing on: 

  • Performance excellence in your current role
  • Image and/or interpersonal skills to look and act the part of an expat
  • Exposure to decision-makers

She believes this philosophy helped her win her first international role after just seven years with ExxonMobil. Typically, those roles were offered to more seasoned professionals, she says.

 2. Look for Opportunities to Set Yourself Apart

In her industry, Simmons saw the field was heavy with professionals who carried essential occupational safety credentials, but light on those with higher-level or niche environmental credentials, so she pursued a doctorate in environmental toxicology to differentiate herself from other petroleum engineers.

“In most countries, an expat is somebody who is brought in from another country because that particular country doesn’t have that individual’s expertise,” she says. “You can’t just be another dime-a-dozen engineer. You need something unique that they cannot get elsewhere.”

Right now, leaders in her industry are looking for safety professionals with emergency response, fire protection and process safety credentials, she says.

3. Know Where You Will and Won’t Go

Before you are even offered a position, it’s helpful to know which locations simply won’t work, because “you can only say no once,” Simmons advises. Consider hard-to-staff locations where infrastructure, education or healthcare may be limited, but be realistic about what you and your family require to thrive.

4. Do Research Beyond Google

When Simmons was offered the Lagos position, she was married with two young children and had to consider how a move to Nigeria would impact everyone. She did deeper research into day-to-day life there, understood her company’s policies and benefits, reviewed local regulations, took virtual tours, talked with expats who were living or had recently lived there and requested a pre-move business trip.

So, when a family friend called in a panic telling her to refuse the position after watching the movie “Blood Diamond” (which is not even set in Nigeria), she had solid information to support her choice and wasn’t influenced by the media or other people’s misconceptions.

5. Refrain From Trying to “Fix” Everything on Day One

When you arrive on assignment, start by listening with a collaborative spirit, Simmons says. Show up with a “here to help” attitude and not a “here to fix” stance. Arriving in a foreign place as an American and immediately dictating how things should be done can start you off on the wrong foot with your new colleagues, she adds. 

6. Learn Your New Environment

From learning local geography to understanding the nuances of the regulatory structure, it’s important to take the time to get to know your new home. It will enrich your own experience and make your work easier and more effective. 

“Know who the decision-makers are, what the rules are and, where there aren’t rules, bring along the basic international standards,” she says, adding that services and agencies have good summaries of key laws as they relate to your industry. 

Learning the language or at least informal words and phrases will help ingratiate you with your coworkers as well.

7. Cultivate Genuine Relationships Before You Need Them

When working with local regulators, get their perspectives, concerns and issues before asking them for what you need. 

“Because I cultivated those relationships . . . when I needed to, I could sit down and say, ‘Now that I understand what you need, here’s where we are. How can we come into the middle where the regulation is satisfied and I’m addressing your concerns and the concerns of the community, but I’m also doing things that provide value to the business?’” she says. 

8. Don’t Forget Your Team’s Growth

Understand your team’s knowledge level and capacity when you arrive so you can create a development plan to improve their skills without overloading them.

“Lend your expertise but don’t forget why you’re an expat: You’re there to transfer knowledge, to provide expertise and to help people bridge a gap,” she says. Eventually, you will leave and you want them to be in a much better place when you do.

9. Remember Your Why

You have started a new job in a new country with a different culture and maybe even a different language.

“Everything you do as an expat, you’re going to earn it,” Simmons says. “There will be times when you’re thinking I want to go home; I don’t want to be here anymore; it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.” So lean on your why, the benefits, the unique experience and even the technical skills you can bring to the workplace that help keep workers and the surrounding community safe.

10. Stay in Touch With Home Management 

When your position is part of a larger organization, sometimes you might suffer from “out of sight, out of mind,” Simmons says. Don’t forget to make and foster those connections back home because performance assessments, pay increases and promotions may come from the home office. Make sure you stay aligned with management’s expectations as they evolve.

In the end, remember you are a visitor, so be a good guest in someone else’s homeland. The kind of genuine connections you make with the people you work with overseas can serve you the rest of your life, Simmons says.




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