At Safety 2020, the annual conference of the American Society of Safety Professionals, delivered virtually amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Camille Oakes, President and CEO of Better Safety, highlighted five essential business skills safety professionals need to cultivate to increase their effectiveness.
Citing the ASSP’s characterization of a safety professional’s role as providing advice, support, and analysis to help employers establish risk controls and management processes that promote sustainable businesses practices, Oakes noted that in order to succeed, safety professionals must understand the work of the companies they serve and be able to identify what constitutes a sustainable business practice within that organizational context.
So much of what a safety professional does requires building a business case, Oakes emphasized. Why implement this program? Why replace this equipment? Why spend this money? In order to gain buy-in for their initiatives, safety professionals must communicate the value of what they do in terms that speak to the business’s overall goals, challenges, and objectives.
Oakes identified five business skills that can help safety professionals to accomplish their goals:
- Operational know-how. Safety professionals need to understand their organizations and the way work is done, from the key players involved to the process details that are intimately intertwined with safety. Key operational questions safety professional should be able to answer include:
- What non-safety metrics is your operations team held accountable for?
- How is the business doing on those metrics, both currently and over the longer term?
- What is the business’s growth plan?
- What metrics or outcomes are operations leaders’ raises and bonuses tied to?
- What factors influence operations leaders’ day-to-day business decisions?
- What is the budget this year, and how has performance compared with budget?
- What keeps operations leaders up at night? What challenges do they worry about?
- Data collection and analysis. Business leaders rely on data to make all kinds of decisions, from pricing to market development to corporate strategy. To be effective, safety professionals must be able to identify safety strengths, recognize gaps, and make predictions to inform decisions—all of which require data. Before designing a data collection system, Oakes emphasized, it’s critical to identify the specific data points it will track, how the data will be used, and why those indicators are significant.
- Strategic planning. Safety professionals must be able to identify goals that fit into the overall corporate strategy, taking into account factors including the company’s vision, its current status, strategic objectives, challenges, tasks, and timelines. A safety initiative that is at odds with the company’s current major objectives is unlikely to succeed or gain buy-in, whereas one that aligns with or supports an objective is more likely to gain support.
- Project management. Safety professionals must work to ensure that safety projects and initiatives, from starting a safety committee to rolling out a new training program, are viewed as successful. Unsuccessful projects have the potential to harm a safety professional’s credibility and influence within the organization and undermine the likelihood of gaining buy-in for future initiatives. Project success depends on a constellation of factors, including budget and cost issues, quality, scope, and time. Before beginning a project, Oakes advised, safety professionals should be able to communicate the answers to the following questions:
- What immediate benefit will the project produce?
- What are the long-term measurable results, outcomes, and metrics?
- What will the project do? What won’t it do?
- What issue will be corrected or what additional functionality will be added?
- Which of the following will the project impact positively: quality, time, money, or effort?
- How will improvement be measured?
- Business financials. Safety professionals must develop and articulate a business case for protecting the company’s internal and external assets, employees, stakeholders, and the community. In order to do so effectively, it is critical to understand the financial situation of the business and target requests accordingly. For example, a safety initiative requiring a large investment up front is unlikely to be approved if the organization simply does not have the cash on hand, regardless of its long-term benefits. Oakes also advised safety professionals to frame their information in terms that business leaders are likely to care about. For example, while pointing to workers’ compensation costs as a reason to improve safety is a step in the right direction, it’s more powerful—and more likely to secure buy-in—to point out the proportion of the organization’s sales that simply paid for injury-related costs rather than being available for other strategic priorities.
Improving business skills requires safety professionals to possess a desire to improve and a willingness to admit knowledge gaps and ask questions. By identifying and partnering with subject matter experts to help fill these knowledge gaps, safety professionals can increase their ability to effectively drive change and improve safety outcomes within their organizations.