The world of safety and health professionals seems to distance itself from the idea of power. Sure, “power” carries more negative than positive connotations. Power mad. Power hungry. Corrupting, corrosive power. Just view the Oscar-nominated “Michael Clayton” for Hollywood’s latest take on cold, killer corporate power.

You find no references to “power” in the indexes of recent leadership books by Tom Krause (“Leading With Safety,” John Wiley  & Sons, 2005) and Scott Geller (“Leading People-Based Safety,” Coastal Training Technologies, 2008). At next month’s national conference of the American Society of Safety Engineers, at least eight educational sessions focus on leadership. None include “power” anywhere in their titles.

Less threatening are “motivating leadership,” “relational leadership,” “sustainable leadership,” and ‘trans-cultural leadership,” all topics at the ASSE conference. Safety and health pros are also familiar with “felt leadership” and “servant leadership.”

But what baggage is there to “brain power”? Safety and health pros have plenty of brain power.

Boxed in

Over the years occupational safety and health has defined itself too narrowly. Permitted its scope of influence to be boxed in by management, regulators and employees. The result: a disconnect between the notions of “safety” and “power.” “Safety” implies caution. “Power” implies aggression. Especially to some outside the field, “safety and health” combined with “power” is an oxymoron: somehow they cannot exist together.

OSHA could be the worst example of what happens when you combine the two. What did you get? OSHA power-tripping nitpickers. Arrogant compliance cops. Bullying bureaucrats. Overly aggressive enforcers.

But the “power gap” that exists in many organizational safety programs cannot be blamed solely on the credibility damage wrought by command-and-control safety zealots. You often hear the typical mid-management blues: “I’ve got responsibility but no authority.” “We get no respect.” “We’ve got to learn management’s language.” “We’re not a profit center; we’ve got no power.”

But other safety and health pros will assert, “We can influence.” “We create cognitive dissonance.” “We can be facilitators or advisors.” “We create value.” Doesn’t it require power to fulfill these roles, to make these contributions?

Leave the past behind

It’s 2008, not 1950, when safety was about tacking up posters and handing the job to a loyal employee who lost his arm in an accident. It’s not 1975 when business was ready to lynch the OSHA chief.

We’re in the information age, it’s a service economy, and knowledge is power. Safety and health pros are knowledge workers who provide a service. Mavens who possess reams of the hard data managers love. Pros have unique technical insights; they know audit trails and findings; they compile hazard inventories. Plus, many professionals offer emotional intelligence, a feel for workforce perceptions and beliefs important at a time when management wants to engage employees and build cultures of social responsibility.

So… how are you going to put your power to use?

Powerful lessons

Author Robert Greene wrote “The 48 Laws of Power” (Penguin Books, 2000), drawing on books as diverse as “A Treasury of Jewish Folklore,” “Hollywood,” “Makers of Rome,” “The Rise and Fall of Athens,” “Persistent Truths of Machiavellianism,” “The Art of War” by Sun-tzu, “The Book of Arabic Wisdom and Guile,” and the autobiography of “Yellow Kid” Weil, a con artist. All the ”laws” apply to the workplace, and to running a safety and health program.

Greene writes that the business world is a giant, scheming, competitive “court,” and we’re trapped inside. If you choose to equate power games with evil or asocial behavior and opt out, if you decide to be a non-player who takes the moral high ground, your decisions will render you powerless and likely miserable. A better alternative, says Greene, is to master the use of power so you don’t bungle it.

Here are 20 strategies, taken from Greene’s book, for doing just that:

1 — Master your emotions. Emotions cloud reason and prevent you from perceiving a situation clearly, and preparing and responding with control.

2 — Express anger, caring and empathy with caution. Don’t blind yourself to the self-serving interests of others.

3 — Distance yourself from the moment. Think objectively about the past and future.

4 — Do your best so nothing catches you by surprise. It’s risk management. “No days unalert,” says Greene. Calculate every possible permutation and pitfall that might occur. “The further you see, the more steps ahead you plan, the more powerful you are.”

5 — Forget hurts, grudges and events that eat at you and cloud your reason. Examine your mistakes, evaluate and observe yourself. Learn from past experiences and your predecessors.

6 — Play the game using different appearances or masks. Being perfectly honest and straightforward at every turn, flaunting your moral qualities and sense of justice, will eventually lead to insult and injury to you and your career. “Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good” — Machiavelli.

7 — Take a distant approach to yourself. Make your face as malleable as an actor’s. Conceal your feelings and agenda until the time is right. Don’t allow others to define you. Don’t let others know what gets to you.

8 — Patience is your crucial shield. It doesn’t come naturally to most of us, but it protects us from emotive blunders. Plus, impatience makes you appear weak. Master the art of timing.

9 — Size up circumstances rather than seeing good or evil. Power is a game, and in games you don’t judge opponents by their intentions, but by results, outcomes and actions. Don’t be distracted by words and speeches and mission statements. Train your eye to follow results, what is done, not what’s said.

10 — Observe the rules of the game. Take nothing personally. It is a game. Plan your strategy calmly.

11 — One-half of the mastery of power comes from what you don’t do. What you don’t allow yourself to be dragged into. Judge moves, collaborating or aiding others, by what it will cost you. Cost you in terms of time, stress, energy and other opportunities passed up.

12 — Study and understand people. Study and observe everyone in your sphere. Never trust anyone completely. People are infinitely complex, contradictory and secretive. To be able to discern hidden motives is the single greatest piece of knowledge.

13 — Take the indirect route to power. Don’t be obvious. Be smart in using your knowledge, or refraining from using it. Always say less than is needed.

14 — Be a committed player. Study and reflect. Don’t be superficial, looking for a good time or the easy way out.

15 — Guard your reputation with your life. It is the cornerstone of power.

16 — Appeal to people’s self-interest. Soften up resistance by working on and selling emotions. Play to what people hold dear, and what they fear. Work on their hearts and minds.

17 — Create a new belief system for your followers. People need to believe in something. Become the focal point of a cause. Use words of promise, optimism and enthusiasm over rationality. Give followers rituals to perform. Ask for sacrifices (volunteers). Stage compelling spectacles with visuals and symbols (safety celebrations). Life and work can be so harsh and distressing.

18 — Preach the need for change, but never overreach or try to reform too much at once. People are creatures of habit. Too much innovation too fast can be traumatic and lead to revolt. Show respect for past ways.

19 — Be flexible. Don’t be fixed on your ways, but rather open-minded. “Laws that govern circumstances are abolished by new circumstances” — Napoleon.

20 — Never do for yourself what others can do for you. Conserve time and energy.

Read this list once more. Doubtless you’re already following many of these “laws,” tailored to your own personality and situation. “Safety” and “power” need not be strangers, and in successful safety and health programs they are not.