A well-respected and devoted environmental health and safety professional, with CIH and CSP credentials, recently took on an EHS job at a cozy college campus after globetrotting for several decades for one of the giant pharmaceutical corporations.

Right now he’s busy absorbing his new cultural surroundings — learning how to leverage the interests of students, faculty, staff, the community, and life in the civil service.

He sees his top priorities as accountability, both financial and personal; competency issues top to bottom, with misplaced people and qualifications; and communication, communication and more communication, blasting through “the smoke and mirrors,” as he says.

“No worries, mate,” he wrote to a colleague. “The Golden Rule: arrive on time, leave on time, what you do in between is up to you.”

How much independence?

Is it really? Just how much freedom and flexibility do EHS professionals have to pursue their priorities and execute their responsibilities within the confines of their company’s culture?

Some more than others, that’s for sure. Timing, personalities and circumstances are some of the variables that can determine roles, status and power.

Unless you’re walking into a new job in the wake of a disaster or some other sort of calamity which might afford you lots of leeway, the organizational culture — “the way things are done around here” — will in many cases define your job’s scope and authority. At least initially. Through powerful allies, guerilla tactics, asking forgiveness instead of permission, and stamina and perseverance you perhaps can subvert job descriptions and become a force to be reckoned with.

But many an EHS pro has jumped to another job or series of jobs because they don’t fit their culture’s stereotype for “the way things are done” in the EHS department. Organizational consultants like to call this “alignment,” or simply being on the same page.

A tip-off for how an organization will treat its safety and health department can be found by observing how the company views its employees. As Tim Rutledge, a Toronto-based human resources expert, asks, “Are employees assets, costs, commodities or customers?”

Is there a “fit”?

Rutledge gave an excellent, thought-stirring talk at this year’s National Safety Congress & Expo on the topic, “Playing Defense: Employee Engagement and Retention.” I’ve taken a number of ideas and strategies Tim aimed at organizational cultures and key performers in general to get at this idea: “Do you fit your culture?” For more on Tim Rutledge, visitwww.gettingengaged.ca;tim@gettingengaged.ca.

Let’s examine five fairly common roles EHS pros play in organizations, and the cultural hammer and tongs that form those characteristics. Of course these job functions are not mutually exclusive; you will find hybrids everywhere. Just as company cultures cannot easily be pigeonholed.

Cop on the beat

You handle safety and health on a day-to-day basis like you’re on police patrol. This is the old OSHA model of enforce and ask questions later. You value obedience and compliance. You’ll get passivity, some resistance, but your employees won’t likely contribute much — buried as they are beneath command and control rules and red tape.

Cultural catalyst:This stereotype is thankfully fading, but still common in pessimism-based cultures where employees are seen as “accidents waiting to happen,” and commodities that can be readily replaced.

Tightly-formatted programming

Some pros might be what could be called a “safety programmer.” Think of a professional TV or radio programmer. You’re big on (injury) ratings and (safety) records. By-the-numbers results. And as a programmer, you plug and play a month or a year’s worth of safety meetings and activities using a tight format. There’s little room for improvisation, creativity, or contributions by your safety talent among the workforce.

Cultural catalyst:Safety programmers might be doing their thing because their culture values short-term results. Management has low expectations for safety, and again a negative outlook: “Whew, nothing bad happened today.” So safety and health gets scarce resources, enough for pre-screened, flavor-of-the-month programming.

React and response

If you’re primarily a firefighter, rescuer of floundering safety programs, or an emergency responder reacting to one crisis after another, you have no time to discover and nurture employee safety talent.

Cultural catalyst:Many organizations force safety and health pros into these reactive roles. Too much work, too few resources. According toISHN’s 2008 White Paper “State of the EHS Nation” survey, 58 percent of pros have seen their workload increase in the past 12 months. Only 14 percent of pros in plants with more than 2,500 employees said resource support for EHS increased during that time.

All in the family

If you adopt the “parenting” model of safety and health managing, this, too, is likely to squelch potential safety contributions among your “kids.” Parent-type managers “need you (employees) to need me (the manager),” said Tim Rutledge during his presentation. So they feel like they have to do everything, be everywhere, be responsible for everything, and delegate reluctantly.

As in a family, the parent/manager is the arbitrary decision-maker and wants to preserve his or her role as the infallible hero and problem-solver.

Cultural catalyst:“There’s a new core value on the loose” in corporate America, “and it goes by the name of ‘Fun’,” according to an article in the September 17, 2007, issue ofThe Weekly Standard(www.weeklystandard.com). Fun (costume parties, nap rooms, team-building using bongos, etc.) and the family model go hand in hand. The article’s author calls it “the condescending infantilization of workplaces” where employees are spoken to “as though we’re children.”

The integrated packager

Fortunately, more and more EHS pros today see themselves as, to borrow from other disciplines, architects, developers, interpreters, analysts, counselors and facilitator-moderators. Yes, the scope is far-ranging. And yes, it can be tiring and stressful. In the 2008 White Paper survey, 46 percent of pros report logging longer hours in 2007, and 57 percent feel more stressed.

These generalists draw up a blueprint for the EHS program or system, lay the foundation — or build on what’s already been started — and then “subcontract” out and coordinate much of the day-to-day work to talented volunteers, teams and “safety champions.” These EHS pros, exhibiting many of the characteristics of true leadership, are quick to give credit to others, listen, ask questions, and operate through networks of individual allies and teamwork.

This management leadership style has been a growing trend for years. InISHN’s recent White Paper survey forecasting priorities for pros in 2008, 49 percent pointed to giving more authority to line employees.

Cultural catalyst:In order for EHS pros to operate this way, the culture tends to look upon employees as customers, not costs or commodities. There is little micro-management, lots of voluntary contributors. OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program model, with its emphasis on employee participation, is emblematic of this kind of culture.

Your assignment

We close with a few words Tim Rutledge sent us in a recent email, especially appropriate if your culture is not where you want it to be. “To get moving on creating a culture of safety, managers should identify which employees exemplify the behaviors that they want everybody to use — the role models.

“Include specific performance objectives that speak to safety-conscious behavior. Reinforce the use of these behaviors positively. Reward them and withhold rewards if they’re not being followed.

“It’s really a question of establishing safety as a value and designing recognition and reward systems that support the value, and that don’t recognize or reward their absence. Some people will resist, but over time they’ll realize that their colleagues are drifting away from them because they’re putting other people at risk by not practicing the safety behaviors that everybody else is using.” —Dave Johnson, Editor