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What Is the Role of a Safety Officer in the Workplace?

Oct 04, 2021
Safety officer in the workplace standing in front of trucks and waving

The safety and health officer has an essential role in the workplace: Support continuous improvement.

But there are many different types of roles that ascribe to this description, as anyone interested in becoming a safety officer quickly learns.

If you’re new to the occupational safety and health (OSH) profession and wondering if the role of safety officer might be a good fit, here is an overview of what they do and how they develop the skills they need to be effective.

What Is an Occupational Safety Officer?

While the safety profession has many different terms to describe its various roles, a “safety officer” is often an entry-level professional who helps maintain a safe work environment.

Our preferred safety officer job description is part of the Singapore Accord, a global call-to-action signed by our leaders and others around the world that aims to develop a shared understanding of terminology within our industry:

“[A safety officer will] support a safe work environment by maintaining OSH administrative processes, conducting basic OSH training and effectively using a range of OSH tools and processes to implement OSH programs and drive compliance.”

But some other organizations use different terms to describe this same essential job. You may also see the following titles, preceded by “safety and health,” “EHS” or “OHS:”

  • Specialist
  • Advisor
  • Coordinator
  • Technician
  • Professional

No matter the specific wording you see in a job description, it’s important to understand that a safety officer isn’t:

  • A “safety cop,” a pejorative industry term for a safety professional who merely enforces safety rules and ignores the why and the relationships that are key to effectiveness.
  • A security or public safety officer, like you might find on the campus of a college or medical facility.

What Is the Role of a Safety Officer in the Workplace?

While the role of a safety officer will differ based on a company’s industry, organizational size and structure, and unique safety needs, there are general role requirements that apply to most safety officers.

John McBride, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, director of national recruiting at safety recruitment firm Consentium Search, breaks it down into four key areas:

  • Training employees on company programs
  • Comprehensive hazard and risk identification and assessments
  • Audits
  • Inspections

Along with these core areas, a safety officer also communicates hazards and risks to prevent injury, creates and implements mitigation tools and programs, and conducts investigations to determine the true causes leading up to any incidents or near incidents.

While it may be tempting to think of a safety officer’s role as regulatory compliance, the reality is that many organizations’ own policies go far beyond what is required by law, McBride says, and that’s a good thing. Therefore, it is essential that all safety professionals help develop and sustain workplace cultures that are driven by values — not regulatory consequences.

The Singapore Accord characterizes the five different levels of cultural maturity when it comes to safety. At the pathological level, organizations do not care about safety. At the highest level, generative, an organization “cares about safety and fully understands interactions between social and technical aspects of work and is mature enough to be mindfully rule-guided.”

Where an organization falls on this spectrum will determine the type of work required by a safety officer, so look for an organization that goes beyond compliance and understands the social and technical aspects of the work.

What Kind of Skills Does a Safety Officer Need?

Today’s modern safety professionals, the ones that would never be mistaken for “safety cops,” are armed with soft skills that help them communicate effectively with workers.

“For an entry-level position, yes, you should have an understanding of OSHA regulations, but what companies are really looking for is interpersonal skills. It’s one thing to have the knowledge, it’s another to be able to use it,” McBride says.

That means talking about safety with people who aren’t safety professionals, translating technical terms and requirements, and inspiring others to take action. Safety officers should be well versed in: 

  • Communication
  • Business fundamentals
  • Influencing and leadership
  • Conflict resolution

What Do Safety Officer Candidates Need to Know?

Because organizations that hire safety officers belong to so many different industries and come with so many variables, it’s important when looking (and especially interviewing) for a safety officer job to learn as many details as you can about organizational structure, culture and expectations.

McBride recommends asking these six questions as you narrow your job search:

  1. What is the general attitude of employees toward OSH?
  2. How would you describe your style of management?
  3. How much independent action will I have in this role?
  4. Will I actively be participating in the continuous improvement of the OSH program
  5. Can you describe a normal day or week in this role?
  6. What are the expectations of success 6 months and 12 months into this role?

How Do You Become a Safety Officer?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to building a safety career. While there are plenty of people who find success without a four-year degree, most organizations are currently looking for entry-level employees with a bachelor’s, McBride says of his experience recruiting for these roles. The most common degrees are in environmental or occupational health and science or an engineering or science-related field.

The other thing many safety employers are seeking in an entry-level candidate is an internship, ideally within the company’s industry, he adds.

What Are the Benefits of Becoming a Safety Officer?

One of the primary benefits of becoming a safety officer is job security: Safety is a great profession if you want a career with long-term prospects, McBride says.

According to the most recent Safety Industry Salary Survey, the median base salary for full-time professionals, which includes a range of experience levels, is $97,000.

In addition, more than half of safety professionals are quickly approaching retirement age, making room for new professionals to enter the field and seasoned professionals to advance.

Lastly, many companies are concerned with brand management, and keeping their workers safe is part of being a good corporate citizen. Being eco-conscious and making measurable efforts toward sustainability is becoming more important, McBride says.

“With the growing concerns of climate change and human impact, companies are looking to their OSH people to help lead their sustainability efforts.”

This confluence of factors means that becoming a safety officer is not only a good bet for stable employment, but you will also have an opportunity to make a real impact on your organization, your co-workers and the world around you.

A Clear Path to Essential Business and Leadership Skills

Not all leaders are the same, or even start out with the goal of becoming leaders. The path to discovering your style and strengths as a safety professional can be challenging without the right resources. We can help.

Learn more

Brent Charlton
Safety officer is about worst job title in safety.  Think about what an "officer" means in our lives -- policing, enforcing, writing tickets.  Not a helper or trusted advisor.  Officers are always looking for what's wrong rather than supporting what's right.  As for that Singapore accord and it's dedication to the brutalist fantasy of zero, that whole mess needs to be thrown into the trash bin of history.


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