A number of human resources (HR) leaders I’ve worked with in my consulting role have faced the same struggle confronting undervalued and stereotyped safety professionals. Old-school personnel departments handled hiring and firing, kept personnel files, and so on. HR folks have struggled to change the perception of their work from strictly “transactional” to “transformational,” to use today’s jargon.

HR pros have been aided and abetted lately by the growing realization in business that most difficult issues are, in fact, people issues, and HR is uniquely positioned to be a strategic business partner, or problem-solver, here. Some organizations still have not given up the traditional perception of HR as the transactional record-keeper whose work could easily be outsourced. But many companies, especially some of the very best, have indeed changed how their HR department is viewed and utilized. HR is accorded its proper place at the table, along with operations, sales, legal and finance, as an equally indispensable partner in managing the business.

In the HR field there has been support for this proper ascension in the ranks from several corners. I mention as an object lesson for safety folks the stellar work of Dave Ulrich at the University of Michigan. Ulrich has written several books and published articles in prominent places like Harvard Business Review, strongly making the case that HR is a critically important strategic business partner. I don’t think it’s a stretch to make a parallel case for safety.

Safety’s strategic plan

Part of HR’s rise in the corporate hierarchy is due to getting in tune with the overall strategy of the business. I have helped several HR departments craft strategic plans that align with corporate plans. What would a safety strategic plan look like?

How is the role of safety identified in the vision/mission/values statements of your company? Is it mentioned prominently enough as a core commitment, a central element of your culture? If not, how do you make it more explicit and prominent? If it’s not mentioned at all, how do you get it there?

What is the ten-year safety strategy? How will your role, and the work you and your folks do, look a decade or so out? Have you and your team grappled with these questions? What are the nearer-term safety initiatives that align with and support that ten-year strategy?

Critically, how will that ten-year safety strategy support and enhance the overall strategy of the business? If, for example, it is part of the overall strategic plan for your business to grow through acquisition, what is the plan for integrating new members of the team into the safety culture of your organization? What if new plants are acquired or built overseas? How will you manage safety oversight, especially if those operations outsource to smaller contractors? How do you ensure safety in a global supply chain? If new equipment and new technology are brought into your business, what are the safety implications? How should that equipment be designed for safe operation? How must operators, maintenance folks, and others be trained to operate, service and repair the equipment safely?

For example, in the airline industry, the advent and widespread application of the automated, computerized cockpit has probably reduced incidents, but it has by no means eliminated error and error-related incidents. Indeed, automation of the cockpit has shifted the pattern and types of errors seen. A keystroke error may now be a major concern, as pilots program the flight coordinates into the computer that will in turn do much of the work of flying the plane.

What if there has been a lot of turnover in your business? Is that likely to continue in the future? What is the plan for training new employees — who may be unfamiliar with your industry as well as your company — in safe operations? What is the plan for coaching supervisors and others in how to train and watch out for new recruits? How do you get those critical safety plans into the strategic mix? Does your company have several contractors on site? How does your function ensure that they are properly trained and suited in terms of safe operation?

Think long-term

Of course, safety professionals have to be ready and able to deal with emergencies and be oriented to action in the short term. But to secure your seat at the big table, you must develop strategic safety plans in support of the overall business strategic plan and sell and promote those plans to organization leaders. You need to have (and to volunteer) good answers to the question, “When I am not putting out fires, what is my job?”

In short, you earn a valued place at the table not by complaining that your good works are not recognized, that the organization doesn’t appreciate you, and that they’d be really sorry if you were gone. Wishing for more recognition is an empty, unproductive exercise. You get your place at the table by adding visible value to the organization — by having a good story to tell, and then telling it well.