On the road to becoming a safety coordinator; environment, health, and safety (EHS) technician; etc., you probably focused on developing the compliance expertise needed for the role. Without those skills, the job is virtually impossible. As you’ll quickly find out during your first few months, though, you’re not just doing a job; you’re leading others.
Leadership skills—also known as soft or interpersonal skills—are the tools you use to apply your knowledge in the field. Focus on developing the following skills, and you’ll find yourself naturally building your company’s safety culture and achieving your personal career goals.
Skill 1: Authenticity
When you start a new job, you want a lot of things. You want to be liked. You want to be respected. And you want to be successful in your mission to improve health and safety in your organization.
Oddly enough, those wants can undermine your authenticity, leading you to flip-flop between overconfidence and insecurity. To combat this and maintain your authenticity, just be yourself—or a more professional version of yourself.
Being yourself doesn’t mean everyone will love you, but it does mean you won’t waste time trying to adopt some other leader’s personality; people will see through that.
Authenticity allows you to grow from a place of acknowledging your actual strengths and weaknesses. You may be judged by some no matter what you do, so being yourself makes it easier to reevaluate and press on with your mission and stay true to your values.
Skill 2: Knowing When to Say ‘I Don’t Know’
If you’re reluctant to admit you lack some nugget of safety information, you wouldn’t be the first. But it would actually be much stranger if you knew everything. Why? Because no one knows everything about safety, not even the most seasoned professionals. You can be an expert and have gaps in your knowledge at the same time.
When you say “I don’t know,” you demonstrate humility. You then have an opportunity to say “But I’ll find out for you.” It’s perhaps one of the best ways to model good safety behavior at work.
Imagine this: A colleague says, “Is this conveyor locked out?”
Would you rather the person’s partner says “I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you” or “Probably. Maybe? I’m sure it’s fine.” The safe answer is painfully obvious.
It’s far better to demonstrate a constant willingness to learn than to pretend you have the answers and have to correct yourself later.
Skill 3: Listening
Do you listen to respond, or do you listen to hear? The distinction makes all the difference in your ability to work and lead in safety.
When you start a new role as a safety coordinator, you will need to actively absorb information about company goals, processes, hazards, and safety plans. You’ll also need to hear—really hear—what workers are saying.
Workers may have concerns regarding too little or too many safety precautions. Remember, no one knows your colleagues’ jobs like they do. Even if they don’t have formal safety management experience, they have practical experience following orders and doing the work.
Listening well doesn’t necessarily mean you agree. (Oftentimes, you’ll have to listen to complaints about how you do things with a level head and thick skin.) It does mean that you understand where others are coming from well enough to articulate it and, if necessary, do something about it.
Skill 4: Presenting and Speaking
Your presentation and speaking skills are a huge part of your ability to communicate the safety message. If you sound unsure, then employees will question your knowledge. If you sound bored, then they’ll be bored, too. If you are so nervous that nobody can hear you in the back of the room, then none of that critical information will reach the audience.
Unless you’re a born performer, there’s a good chance you’ll need to actively practice your small group speaking skills. Thankfully, you’ll have ample opportunity to do just that. Sign up for a group like Toastmasters to practice formal presentations, and take advantage of informal opportunities to practice, like addressing small stand-up meetings or prejob safety briefings.
Plus, you can also use some tricks in the meantime. Gamifying worker training sessions is a great way to take the spotlight off you and make safety talks more interactive. If you need to present safety data to your superiors, try keeping it short and sweet and opening up a dialogue for the remainder of your meeting.
Skill 5: Integrity
In safety, you must exercise integrity every day. Integrity allows you to remain neutral with respect to workers and management—and hold fast to what’s safest for the workforce.
Having integrity requires a moral compass and the grit required to stick to it. You can measure your integrity by asking yourself a few questions:
- Do I treat others consistently regardless of rank, personality, race, position, etc.?
- Do I let others unfairly influence my words or actions?
- Do my words match my actions?
- Do I take responsibility for my actions?
Complex interpersonal issues can test your integrity, but mundane, boring routines can tempt you to cut corners, as well. Integrity is linked tightly to consistency of character.
You can actively develop integrity by building on your strengths. For example, if you audit job sites impartially, regardless of who’s in charge and their track record, recognize and maintain that consistency. Then, expand this approach outward to other areas where you’re less sure of yourself.
Lead Your Way to a Great Safety Culture
It’ll take time and effort to develop your leadership skills. The good news is that authenticity, humility, and integrity will return your investment with dividends.
Stay focused on doing what’s safest for your workforce, and you’ll be on your way to building a safety culture that everyone at your organization can be proud of.
He is a past New Mexico American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) SPY Award winner and a past president of the San Francisco Chapter of ASSE. He is a certified safety professional (CSP) and a certified utility safety professional (CUSP) and holds an MS in Occupational Safety Management and Industrial Safety from CMSU.
You can read more of David’s safety management insights on the Safesite blog.