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Starting a Job as a Safety Professional: 5 Things to Know

Jan 10, 2022
Safety professional man with glasses starting a job

So you got the job as a safety professional. Congratulations!

Whether it’s your first job, you found yourself in the profession unexpectedly or you’ve been a safety professional for some time, starting your new position on the right path will make the transition better for you and everyone on your team. You’ll encounter situations that require technical skills, interpersonal finesse and systems-oriented thinking. What’s the best way to prepare?

As a longtime safety professional and chief safety officer of HSI, as well as host of The Accidental Safety Pro podcast, Jill James has a lot of experience working with safety practitioners and helping guide them through the issues they face during the course of their career. She has some advice on how to get started in a new job by focusing on some key areas, including communication, mentorship and managing expectations.

1. Hone Your Communication Skills

Communication skills are always important, but even more so when communication is fragmented across multiple channels in a remote or hybrid work environment. Here are a few tips that will make your communication more effective — no matter where you work.

  • When communicating with leaders, start by sharing what you need. “Safety and health professionals tend to want to share a body of evidence like you’re building a case,” James says. But while case-building is important, it’s more effective to begin an email or conversation with what you need to accomplish, followed by supporting information. “Be very concise and precise right out of the gate and fill in those details later,” she says.
  • Make eye contact in person or by looking into your camera. If working virtually, be sure your camera is on. “There’s power in eye contact, reading body language and seeing how someone is reacting to what you’re talking about,” James says. It’s also harder for people to dismiss you when they can see you, she adds.
  • When communicating with your team, do more listening than talking. No one has more insight into a job than the people who do it every day. Hearing what workers have to say will help you effectively manage risk. In your new role, start by asking a lot of questions.

2. Find a Few Mentors

James highly recommends finding mentors as you start a new job. In fact, she says those relationships are so valuable that it’s worth connecting with mentors internally and externally.  

  • Internal mentors should be outside the safety and health profession, James says. It’s important to find someone who can teach you more about the business itself, how objectives and employees are measured, and what the bigger picture looks like. Connections outside your team can also help you avoid siloing your safety operations.
  • External mentors operate outside your organization but within the same professional practice. These are safety and health professionals you can ask for advice without involving the people in your day-to-day job. In addition to benefitting from their outside perspective, you can feel free to discuss sensitive topics like pay or logistical issues like getting a stalled initiative across the line. Look for external mentors in the member communities of safety organizations, on LinkedIn or through your existing network. “Reach out to someone and ask if they’d be willing to have a conversation or if they are currently interested in mentorship,” she says.

Mentorship could mean a conversation over coffee or a long-term, more formal arrangement. Above all, don’t be afraid to ask, James says.

3. Manage Expectations and Seek Support

“Our work can be all-consuming, with a lot of moving parts,” James says. “If you’re new to an organization or if you’re understaffed, get real with yourself on what is reasonable for you to get done in a given week, quarter or year.”

That is, of course, easier said than done. But you can follow a simple process to get yourself going.

  • Start by doing a brain dump. Take all the projects, responsibilities, goals, initiatives and anything else you want to get accomplished at your job and compile it into a list. Put it on paper so you can see it in front of you, James says.
  • Triage the list, being realistic about the time you need to complete items on the list. Prioritize the items, protecting the most important.

Once you’ve had a chance to reflect, bring your supervisor in on the process and ask for feedback. “Say, ‘Here’s what I want to accomplish in this amount of time. Do you agree with this, or do you think any of these things needs a higher or lower priority based on what you know about the business?’” Then ask for accountability and support.

“So often in safety and health, we might be the only one or one of a handful of people that really know what we do. We can’t always expect supervisors to fully understand our work,” James says. “It is part of your job to help them learn how to best support you and help you.”

4. Focus on Relationships, Not Enforcement

Every professional practice has at least one negative, stereotypical persona, and in safety and health it’s the “safety cop.” This term is used to describe someone who prioritizes the enforcement of safety rules rather than leading, motivating and educating others, James says.

That can frustrate the people you work with, James says, and it also doesn’t advance worker safety and health. When making recommendations, she believes you must be able to function within “business shades of gray.”

“You don’t want to come off as that person who is inflexible,” she says. “The reality is you may not get everything you want, but you have to enable decision-makers to make the best decisions based on risk and exposure.”

And with workers, you don’t want to come off as punitive. If you notice that people start acting differently when you’re around, that’s a red flag, James says. Especially in the first few days of a new position, it’s critical to focus on building personal connections rather than giving orders.

“If they fear the safety cop, then you ruin the chance to build a trusting relationship, so they truly understand the hazards of their work and want to perform tasks safely,” James says.

5. Set Boundaries and Be Clear About Them

While you don’t want to be a “safety cop,” you also don’t want to be too flexible as you advocate for safety and health at the organizational level. Make the wrong compromises and you could undermine your team’s efforts, putting others and your career at risk.

“Know when to stand your ground with leadership,” James says. “Where is your line in the sand? What are you going to tolerate and not tolerate in this particular working environment?”

Understanding what is and isn’t acceptable keeps you accountable to yourself. Communicating those boundaries helps keep your organization accountable.

“Start to have conversations early. Don’t wait until something has happened,” she says. That helps set expectations of what others can expect from you if and when a line is ever crossed.

Remember, every new position is a learning experience — and hopefully a rewarding one. Safety and health are essential for the success of your team and your organization. To be an effective safety professional, you must commit to respecting others, your environment and yourself.  


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