Faces of EHS

Faces of EHS: Patrick Karol Outlines Importance of Soft Skills in Safety

Too often, the day-to-day demands that environment, health, and safety (EHS) professionals contend with can impact their ability to be most effective. In this installment of Faces of EHS, safety consultant Patrick Karol discusses how, after getting thrust into a safety role at an early job, being an effective safety professional required more than just the technical know-how.
Patrick Karol Headshot

How did you get your start in the EHS field?

I never had any intentions or career aspirations to pursue a safety career. It chose me one cool, fall evening at about dusk. I was a frontline supervisor when a tragic accident occurred. That evening, safety went from something I tolerated for so many years to something that was very personal to me. One year later, I joined the newly established corporate safety department at Delta Air Lines. That began my professional safety career.

What is the biggest EHS compliance challenge at your organization, and how have you managed it?

As a consultant, I don’t face the everyday compliance challenges that organizations face. My challenge can be summed up in two questions: “How do I make my client the hero?” and “How can I have the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time?” The challenge boils down to the identification of my clients’ needs and the problem they are trying to solve, then determining how I can help them solve the problem and provide value-added service.

What do you like the most about your career in EHS?

I love the fact that I am impacting the lives of frontline workers—first, knowing that more employees are going home safe as a result of my actions; second, having the opportunity to coach junior safety professionals and operations supervisors; and third, the community of safety professionals is one of caring and sharing. Through my involvement with the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) and as the ASSP Pennsylvania Area Director, I have met many great safety professionals who have become colleagues and friends.

What is the most difficult or frustrating part of your job?

I hear it from leaders and managers today: “How do I get my employees to do what I want them to do?” Leaders and managers want to build a strong safety culture, yet they fail to invest in the one person who has the greatest impact: the supervisor. As a result, supervisors fall back on what they know, which is usually disciplinary action. The negative connotations of safety are reinforced, making it difficult to achieve anything above a minimum standard. It’s not an uncommon situation. It’s frustrating because it is difficult to change this perception once it is established.

What do you see as the main emerging trends, both positive and negative, affecting the future of the EHS profession?

There are several that come to mind. I have several clients who are seeking or at least have an interest in achieving International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 45001 Safety Management System certification. It will soon replace ISO 18001, and interest will continue to grow. Opioid and marijuana use is growing and poses a difficult challenge. Technology is advancing at a breathtaking pace. How to leverage that technology for safety’s benefit and how it impacts employee safety are virtually a daily job. One example is the safety implications and benefits related to the growing use of drones. Interest in total employee health and well-being is growing. Security issues are beginning to fall under the purview of safety.

What’s your favorite job-related story you like to tell others?

I enjoy telling the story of my first safety responsibility. I was working as an hourly employee when I was promoted to supervisor. All supervisors had one extracurricular responsibility. Most responsibilities were related to operational efficiencies. On my first day as a supervisor, I was getting off the employee bus when my boss hollered at me from across a crowded roadway, “Hey, Karol, you are the new safety coordinator!” I remember thinking, “I’ve never heard of a safety coordinator. Is that my extracurricular responsibility? What does a safety coordinator do? If I ignore him, maybe he will forget.” He didn’t forget. I learned later that it was the safety coordinator’s responsibility to run the monthly safety meeting. That was the first time in my life that I can remember being so far outside my comfort zone. I learned many lessons from that experience, including the importance of public speaking skills, the difference between leading and lagging metrics, and that not all leading metrics are created equal (I determined my success by how many I could get to attend the meeting). Most of all, I learned that I knew more about safety than I realized. It just took some focused thought.

What advice do you have for people just entering the profession?

If you want to have an impact, don’t forget about or neglect to develop the soft skills you need to influence change. Often, professionals enter the field with strong technical skills. They know hazards associated with chemicals, how to calculate threshold limit values (TLVs), and how to interpret noise levels, and they may even know the difference between abduction and adduction, but they often lack the skills to influence people. You need both technical and soft skills to have an impact. The technical skills establish our credibility and open doors to conversations about safety. The soft skills, including communication, speaking, and relationship building, are needed to influence both leadership and frontline employees.

Patrick Karol, CSP SMS CIT, is the founder of Karol Safety Consulting, LLC, an independent safety consultancy. He helps organizations inspire their employees to build a strong safety culture by making safety personal. Karol speaks and provides safety leadership workshops for operations supervisors/managers and safety professionals. In his talks and workshops, he shares his experience and lessons learned from his career as a frontline supervisor and safety professional. Karol’s theme of “making safety personal” resonates throughout all of his talks and workshops. He is also the author of the recently published book Selling Safety: Lessons From a Former Front Line Supervisor.

Karol’s experience includes over 20 years in the corporate safety departments of two Fortune 200 companies and the federal government. His duties involved advising senior leaders on strategies to reduce risk. Karol’s professional safety career began as a Junior Safety Analyst with Delta Air Lines, where he worked for 13 years as a generalist in safety and health. After Delta, he worked with the Transportation Security Administration as a Regional Safety Manager and Assistant Project Manager, being responsible for conducting airport inspections. He joined the Safety and Risk Control department at Aramark in Philadelphia, where he worked for the next 7 years. After leaving Aramark, Karol became Senior Director of Safety for EEC Environmental, based in Orange, California. Three years ago, he founded Karol Safety Consulting, LLC. In addition to being a safety consultant specializing in strategic safety planning and motivational speaking, he provides safety leadership workshops for operations leaders and safety professionals.

Would you like to be profiled in a future Faces of EHS and share your experiences, challenges, etc.? Or, do you know anyone else in EHS you think has an interesting story to tell? Write us at jscace@blr.com and cdouyard@blr.com and include your name and contact information; be sure to put “Faces of EHS” in the subject line.

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