Are the stereotypes about health and safety professionals being challenged by a younger and more culturally adaptable generation?
What do the words ‘health and safety manager’ evoke in the public imagination? Possibly a hard hat, certainly a clipboard, probably a disapproving expression. An enforcer from an armed forces or trade union background, he is likely to be a white, middle-aged male working in construction or high-hazard sectors.
Of course, this is just a caricature: OSH has increasingly attracted an ethnically diverse, younger generation, and is characterised by a variety of methodologies.
Within the profession itself, that caricature is just that: a one-dimensional abstraction that bears little relation to a profession that has had at least average achievements on gender balance, has attracted an ethnically diverse younger generation, and is characterised by a variety of communication styles and methodologies. Jessy Gomes, a member of the IOSH Council, agrees. ‘Health and safety is quite inclusive – there is a lot of variety in the profession, and a lot of people with different backgrounds.’
But the caricature persists because many of the assumptions behind it have persisted. These include corporate structures where ‘health and safety’ is viewed as separate to the main business drivers, plus a tendency to conflate safety management with the industries in which it is most visible: construction and the high-hazard sectors. Then there is a two-decade long love affair with auditing and accreditation – to quality and environmental standards as well as health and safety – that build an edifice around compliance, evidence-gathering and the specialists it needs.
'We are in the profession of solving problems, and it’s been scientifically proven that a diverse workforce is better at solving problems'
But now, as some of the practices fall away, so does the support for the cardboard cut-out, leaving room for new and updated perceptions of ‘health and safety managers’. The shift in the economy away from manufacturing and production and towards services, retail and digital has changed the nature of the workplace risks, reducing reliance on regulation-led safety and creating more room for bespoke interventions. The sense of ‘safety’ as a separate discipline is being eroded, with ‘wellbeing’ and the wellness agenda instrumental in connecting occupational health and safety to wider business priorities.
‘Health and safety teams are working more with other departments, such as human resources, or operations, and reporting lines have changed as well,’ says Liz Skelton, director of health and safety at the Guinness Partnership, an English housing association with 66,000 homes in its £3.7bn portfolio. ‘We’ve moved from being the police to a more consultative function.’
At the same time, the profession is becoming more diverse. In part, that parallels similar shifts underway in other professions, but also reflects its increased visibility and appeal to a wider range of entrants. Adam Wilkinson, director of quality, health, safety and environment at CBRE Global Workplace Solutions, says: ‘We are in the profession of solving problems, and it’s been scientifically proven that a diverse workforce is better at solving problems.’
In Hong Kong, Bonnie Yau, executive director at the Occupational Safety and Health Council (OSHC), a statutory body promoting workplace health and safety, says that it the values younger OSH practitioners with different backgrounds. ‘They are recruited as our consultants for bringing in fresh perspectives and different ways of thinking; practitioners with different background offer different suggestions or opinions in view of their past experience in particular industry,’ Bonnie says. To ensure that the OSHC gains maximum benefit, it would assign new recruits to different duties to ‘unleash their creativity and innovation by job rotation and exposure to different projects’.
A history lesson
In the UK, Sunit Atwal, a member of the Future Leaders Steering Group and regional health and safety manager for London at Unite Students, describes how the student property company pursued a policy of hiring regional health and safety leads from different professional backgrounds, such as construction, oil and gas.
That means they pool knowledge, such as specific expertise on CoSHH or CDM, but also the cultural thinking styles of the different sectors. ‘It’s been interesting – especially during Covid – to come up with different solutions. We’ve all been able to come together and have a group critical thinking session. We have come up with enriching solutions that have been pre-stress-tested.’
Stephen Coppin says that career progress in safety has traditionally depended on the mastery of knowledge, then giving detailed advice and ensuring it was followed. ‘Applying the legislation is complicated – the law is not written in a layperson’s terms,’ says Stephen, associate technical director at construction consultancy Arcadis. A second dimension is that safety professionals often had a sense of personal ‘mission’, perhaps drawn from witnessing an accident or seeing safety managed poorly in a previous career, and embarking on their second career with a convert’s zeal. ‘They felt responsibility to do something about it, and had “lessons learned” to offer.’
However, the sense that health and safety was handed down on tablets of stone, then interpreted by a specialist cadre, could leave others feeling alienated. These attitudes haven’t yet been swept away, according to Jay Vekaria, head of health, safety and environment (HSE) for EMEA at Visa Global. ‘A yes/no approach to health and safety tends to cause pain and knock-on impacts on other stakeholders or departments.’
‘You’re wearing three hats – as an adviser, influencer, and auditor. The younger generation find it easier to flip hats’
In the past, as Stephen notes, the evolution of safety careers also meant bolting on additional specialisms – quality management, environmental management, fire safety and security management – and the qualifications and accreditations that go with them. But that attitude no longer exists among younger professionals, says Sam Greensitt, head of health and safety at Redrow Homes: ‘For the younger generation, it’s about being able to influence people, not certificates. When you’re looking to influence how people interact with complex situations, you must be people-oriented.’
Jay describes the issue in similar terms. ‘You’re wearing three hats – as an adviser, influencer, and auditor. That means you need commercial awareness and understanding of the operating model and soft skills. The younger generation find it easier to “flip hats”.’
The younger cohort have also been educated in an era where the internet has democratised access to information, so find it natural to take a different approach. At Unite Students, Sunit says that instead of advising colleagues that certain activities would breach policy or regulation, she offers a ‘yes/if approach’ – saying ‘Yes, you can do this, if you put controls in place.’ It’s an example of what have traditionally been known as ‘soft skills’, or influencing, engaging and empathising. Sunit would prefer to rebrand them ‘power skills’, reflecting that these are the qualities that can drive a career forward.
In Singapore, the 10-year career of Alvin Gan has taken him from shipyards to university labs to a medical device manufacturer, while also spanning this cultural shift. ‘In shipbuilding, there was one approach: you told people how to do it! But in research, there was a need for two-way communication, for safety professionals to be solution crafters. People used to be hesitant to share their problems with me, as they didn’t want me to police them, but after a while they realised that I would take their point of view into account, and that they could come to me for solutions.’
The one-time sense that safety was a discrete specialism, external to main business reporting lines, also meant that safety careers followed a ladder at an angle to the main structure. ‘In the ship yard industry, I found that safety was constrained as a supporting role,’ says Alvin. But within more fluid corporate structures, where safety is more closely intertwined in operations, that’s changing. ‘The work context has changed,’ Liz says. ‘People go more sideways, and there isn’t a career ladder, it’s more of a climbing frame. It’s a wider contextual shift, but people are maybe moving sideways into roles as opposed to upwards, and moving between disciplines.’
As one of eight regional health and safety managers at Unite Students, Sunit reports to the regional head of operations, with a dotted line to the national director of health and safety. ‘We all report into the heads of operations, so we have to be operationally minded,’ she says. Her contemporaries’ careers also bear this out: Jay, for instance, has an MSc in risk management but arrived at his current safety management position after stints in an operational and procurement roles.
Why equality, diversity and inclusion are important
- Easier recruitment and retention
- Increased adaptability
- Greater innovation
- Avoidance of ‘groupthink’
- Improves bottom line: 85% of CEOs say an inclusion strategy has helped financially
Speaking to the younger cohort, one theme that emerges is the value it places in cultural adaptability: among younger OSH professionals, many have leveraged skills and experience in strikingly different areas. Whether it’s fitness and dance (Jessy); producing a book on food and nutrition (Adam), or studying formulation science (Sunit), the younger generation are case studies in cross-fertilising different skills.
For example, Sam worked a gap year in sports analytics and coaching, and has maintained an interest in the field. ‘Now that I’m more senior in health and safety, there’s more use of data, analysis and statistics, so I’m starting to use that element of the toolbox more, for instance presenting data to senior people.’
The younger cohort values cultural adaptability and diversity. Jessy says that diverse teams are better at coming up with solutions, or reframing the problem in the first place, and that businesses should embrace diversity in all its forms. ‘It’s not about me being a black woman, or a woman, or a mother, but inclusivity at all levels. Beyond demography and ethnicity, diversity of thought is crucial. For instance, I’m not from the UK, I have a background in health and fitness – I have a perspective that makes me a different leader.’
Jessy is French, and as she shows, one obvious way to develop and demonstrate adaptability and cultural flexibility is to literally cross borders. Sam worked in Belgium building data centres for UK contractors ISG. ‘Faced with a language and standards barrier, you don’t need to convey the finer details of the Health and Safety at Work Act, you just engage on a human and grassroots level.’ Adam makes a similar point. ‘Moving country shows a broader skill-set, resilience and good communication skills.’
And that traffic can go in both directions: Jay’s role means he has oversight of Visa’s operations in 36 countries, exposing him to multiple regulatory frameworks and safety cultures. ‘Traditionally, the UK has been seen as a leader in health and safety, particularly in terms of regulation, but I’ve learned so much about safety and culture in other countries,’ he says, mentioning ‘lessons learned’ from Sweden and Italy. He also extends the concept of cultural diversity to learning from other professions, such as adopting agile project management techniques from IT development.
Safety professionals in the wider Gulf region are also working within nationally and ethnically diverse teams. Pakistan national Furqan Ali Haider is the operations HSE manager at Al Jaber Energy Services, an Abu Dhabi energy contractor. He has worked in the Gulf since 2006, when he mostly encountered Western expats in OSH management roles.
‘Slowly that has changed,’ he says. ‘The Gulf countries have adopted localisation policies in OSH and other professions, and [site-based] safety has diversified as the labour force has diversified; there are workers from the Indian subcontinent, African countries, China and South Korea, and now Russia and Israel are also entering the UAE market.’
Working alongside a multinational suite of contractors, he describes a shift in the skills profile of his safety colleagues and in wider project teams. ‘Everyone needs to get the message, so we translate more and use graphic information. You need people who are good communicators. Every culture and ethnicity has a way of perceiving hazards and risks – it depends on their legal and technical backgrounds – so you need to be culturally adaptable and aware.’
Making diversity real
There is little doubt that health and safety is now more diverse than half a generation ago. ‘When I first got involved with IOSH [in around 2006], I was one of two women on the regional committee compared with six men,’ recalls Liz. ‘Now that’s changed.’ Generally speaking, a people-oriented profession has opened the door and given a warm welcome to people from diverse backgrounds. That’s not to say, however, that BAME or LGBTQ professionals, or those with a disability or health condition will necessarily find it easy to progress, or experience equal treatment at work.
Jessy, who is currently embarking on a PhD at the Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management University College London, says that while safety is quite inclusive, there is a tendency to think that discussing the problem is a viable substitute for taking action. ‘We shouldn’t be talking about the latest pledge or PR exercise, but proper systems and concrete action.’
One area where discrimination can manifest itself is in invitations to be ‘visible’, whether within corporations or on industry-wide conference and webinar platforms. Jessy says that IOSH has given her opportunities to meet leaders and mentors and engage with the global profession, but that profile-forming invitations were harder to come by. Her solution is a series of 20- to 30-minute podcast interviews with invited guests, to be launched at the end of the year and promoted via social media.
‘It’s difficult to break through to certain tables, so I’m building my own table, and inviting people to come and sit at it. I’m opening it up to everyone and there will always be a spare chair.’ Top of the agenda for the podcasts will be modernising construction and health and safety, and challenging its established narratives. ‘I’m inviting people to join me to give a jolt to the industry; it’s about changing the culture and having new conversations.’
Championing equality, diversity and inclusion
- Reviewing processes
- Changing the way we recruit
- Raising global profile
- Extensive learning
- Considering membership profile
- Looking at how we ‘sell’ the profession
- More inclusive approach to Board member recruitment
- EDI training for Board of Trustees and Council
Outside the UK, Alvin says that women in health and safety roles are a rarer sight in Singapore than in the US, where he has also worked, but that the healthcare sector and technology firms in Singapore – such as Google and Facebook – are providing more routes to safety careers for women. In Hong Kong, Bonnie says more women are being attracted to the profession, reflecting an increase in demand for safety expertise driven by government, industry and the public. ‘It is fairly common to see them in construction sites and industries which were more male-dominant,’ she says.
In the UAE, Ali Haider notes that some large employers, such as the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, have adopted gender equality hiring policies, and says he sees many women in health
and safety roles.
‘Now I see many women in health and safety roles. In oil and gas facilities in remote locations it might be rarer. But even there the development of secure, permanent accommodation is making it possible.’
Zig-zag to the future
The past six months have certainly focused attention on diversity issues, with the awareness of how Covid has affected different communities differently, and the Black Lives Matter movement clearly communicating that a decade’s worth of debate on diversity issues has failed to create equality of opportunity or even equitable workplace experiences.
Claire McCartney, senior policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development says that the agenda has been re-energised. ‘The backdrop of Black Lives Matter and protests has brought the issues to life for organisations. They will be more focused on what they can do now, and on changing the way they’re working after the pandemic.’
The younger professionals’ cultural adaptability leaves them confident of navigating future changes. These could include a greater stress on occupational health issues, Sunit suggests. ‘COVID is an invisible risk, it’s hard to quantify and control, so one legacy will be more attention on occupational health, PPE and risk communication.’
Adam notes that Covid started as a health and safety issue, but rapidly became a business-critical issue – in other words, the trajectory of the pandemic reflects safety’s own journey, and could also accelerate safety along a path to the heart of organisational decision-making. ‘The data privacy team became involved, the HR team and the management of staff absence, then there are the commercial aspects – for instance, people should be on site but there are local lockdowns. And it’s all very well being a PPE expert, but that’s not much good if you can’t get hold of it; you need to work with procurement.’
Another result could be a shift in perceptions of what ‘psychological safety’ is, and how employers should deliver it, a point made by Sam. ‘A “safe” atmosphere is also a psychologically safe as well as physically safe. If we’re all doing more [and being more productive] working from home because we’re not coming to work in a busy, noisy, expensive environment, people will demand more from their workplace.’
Claire says that the pandemic will increase the longer-term focus on people management and holistic wellbeing within businesses, where health and safety professionals will play a part. ‘Hopefully organisations will have a better understanding of individuals’ personal circumstances now, such as caring responsibilities, or health vulnerabilities,’ she says. ‘In some cases, it might be the first conversations they’ve had around these issues. So organisations need to think about how they can support people to balance these responsibilities.’
The younger cohort of safety professionals are breaking away from the traditional career track that took mature new entrants from one safety qualification to the next, but often failed to lead as far as the boardroom. Instead, the new generation are zig-zagging across different business specialisms, picking up new ideas and mindsets on the way. As the next decade unfolds, their adaptability is likely to see them zig-zagging to positions of influence faster than was previously thought possible.