Are you a practitioner or a professional?

Former editor, IOSH Magazine

Would you describe yourself as a safety and health practitioner or a safety and health professional? Perhaps you use them interchangeably but there are those who resist the term professional. I’m not sure why. 

It’s certainly not because it is a rarefied classification. There was a time when profession was reserved for more obviously learned occupations such as teaching and law. But in the past 50 years it has been extended to encompass those in business support functions including human resources and information technology, whose roles are certainly no more significant than those controlling occupational risk.

Perhaps keeping that distinction between OSH management and other disciplines is the point for many who would rather be known simply as practitioners. If they see their work as morally more important then that’s understandable. Ensuring that profits and efficiency do not come at the price of workers’ lives is vital work for society as a whole.  

Practitioner is an honourable term to be sure and serves those in the medical world well. But its shortcomings as nomenclature become apparent once you go looking for a collective container. A professional belongs to a profession but what is a practitioner part of? A practice? 

It’s also self-limiting to define yourself by distinction. OSH managers who see themselves as set apart from other organisational support roles are less likely to pursue the kind of involvement with their colleagues that generates some of the most valuable ideas. 

IOSH’s Blueprint competency framework places a hefty emphasis on the broader business skills and organisational understanding that make rounded OSH professionals/practitioners. Those are more easily developed by engagement with peers in other disciplines.

Whatever irks some OSH specialists about the label professional, it is probably a generational phenomenon.

The day is passing when it will be possible to work in the field with only a certificate saying you have spent days learning the basic principles of OSH management. 

In the next couple of decades tens of thousands of new OSH managers and consultants will be needed to replace those due to retire. After they have put in the years of vocational study needed to become competent in the eyes of an employer, it is unlikely those younger entrants will want to see themselves as anything other than professionals.


Louis Wustemann is former editor, IOSH Magazine. He was previously editor of Health and Safety at Work magazine and Environment in Business. He has written, edited and consulted on health and safety, environmental and employment matters for more than 25 years.

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  • Hello Louis,

    Permalink Submitted by Michael Emery on 6 September 2016 - 09:43 pm

    Hello Louis,
    An interesting piece, thank you. It’s probably worth reminding ourselves that before IOSH achieved Chartered status, Registered Safety Practitioners (RSPs) were what we aspired to be, although perhaps not with same ghusto we seem to crave CMIOSH status. And of course until very recently, the journal that landed on our doormats each month was the Safety & Health Practitioner.
    I must admit, I prefer practitioner “a person engaged in an art, discipline or profession” to professional “relating to or belonging to a profession.” But then, no sooner have I said it do I feel myself guilty of some rather sordid navel-gazing “self-indulgent or excessive contemplation of oneself at the expense of a wider view.”
    Perish the thought.

    • Hello Michael, thanks for the

      Permalink Submitted by Louis_Wustemann on 20 September 2016 - 03:31 pm

      Hello Michael, thanks for the comment. You are right, professionals/practitioners might be better avoiding introspection and just getting on with saving life and limb. People like me in professions allied... can ponder it though.

  • Great piece.

    Permalink Submitted by Craig Lydiate on 14 September 2016 - 01:05 pm

    Great piece.

    I have always used Professional. I can never understand why someone who has worked so hard to gain the qualifications and the experience to deliver real value to business would not call themselves (or are reluctant to call themselves) a professional. In my view if you sit at the big table and keep people safe whilst helping a business achieve its strategic aims, then you are a professional!


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