I’ve got a few questions for you:
  • How do you as a safety and health professional hold fast to your integrity and values if your employer will not fix risks that could get somebody killed?
  • Do you represent “management first”?
  • Do you feel pressured to be “politically correct” (in terms of corporate politics) about safety issues?
Here’s why I’m asking, and I hope you reply because these questions are at the heart of workplace safety jobs:

A few weeks ago I raised the question of why — generally speaking — companies are reluctant to open up to the press about safety issues. Public companies will talk regularly to analysts and the financial press about the ups and downs of their profit performance. CEOs and COOs give lengthy interviews to reporters about strategic plans and problem solving. Books and documentaries describe business successes and failures.

But safety issues are a private matter. Much can be learned and many can benefit from discussions of workplace safety success stories and failures. But talking to reporters about failures is not an option. Even talking about successes often risks exposing the skeleton in the closet: that success only came after a serious incident or fatality or OSHA fine. Companies don’t want to go there.

Several readers responded with some of the most honest comments I have heard from safety and health professionals.

“We often go with the management flow to keep our jobs,” said one. “We have all been there.”

I don’t know about “all,” which is why I ask the question. Some pros will quit their jobs if management is simply too resistant to safety and health investments and improvements. Others, for various personal reasons, will feel they can’t afford to go that route.

Safety is not politically correct

The key for this safety pro is: “We should maintain our integrity and be true to ourselves.”

The same could be said could be for a company accountant, research scientist, sales person, supervisor or executive. All you need to do is read the daily newspapers for stories of how some companies pressure employees to bury bad news — research findings, product quality problems, security breakdowns, community pollution, bogus accounting methods.

And let’s face, rare is the whistle-blower. It is often a hellacious experience.

Here’s how another safety pro put it:

“As a safety professional, we represent management first. That entails always being politically correct. Safety itself is not politically correct, so that places the safety professional in a precarious position.

“How can you be honest and truthful when the truth may hurt?

“Or more accurately, the truth could be embarrassing. Management takes you to task and workers challenge you.

“Countless times we are told not to show videos that are too gross because someone might be offended. Not to indicate our numbers are anything but positive. Not to discuss all the back injuries we have had or someone might get the idea to file a workers’ comp claim; etc.

“Compound this with the fact that as safety professionals, we see so many things that make us want to scream "what were you thinking?!" Some of those things are actions taken by workers and others are those by management. It's frustrating. Safety professionals sometimes vent, but they do it privately.

You may never get recognition

“All I can say is always be true to your values and hold fast to your integrity. If you make the difference to one person, keep one person from being seriously injured or from being a fatality, then you have succeeded beyond measure.

“Also know that you may never know of the difference you make, and recognition for your efforts will probably never happen. Safety is about others and doing what's right. Hold the vision of "Nobody gets hurt."

It seems incompatible to me that a safety pro will “represent management first,” suppress truths that could be embarrassing, and yet “do what’s right.”

How do you deal with “safety’s precarious position”?