The Blues of Safety Professionals
In the digital age, safety professionals share knowledge through blogs, social media, and podcasts. In his paper, Jean-Christophe Le Coze discusses the evolution of safety professionals' presence and the challenges the profession has faced, through a study of recently published critical books. The discontent expressed in these books aligns with wider transformations in work, organizations, and societies. Le Coze suggests six analytical angles for studying these books, focusing on opinions about the safety profession, the influence of research on professionals, insights into their practices and problems, practical propositions they develop, connections to wider contexts, and identifying hidden dimensions.
The methodology of the study involves the analysis of books written by safety professionals, primarily from the mid-2010s; the aim is to provide illustrative insights rather than an exhaustive list. These books differ from academic texts, as they are created by professionals for professionals, constituting part of the growing "safety market". The selection of books for the study shows a range of positions, from critical to neutral, representing diverse perspectives on the safety profession. The study aims to identify common themes or "blues" shared by authors expressing discontent.
The study employs a thematic-driven approach to address various interests and analytical angles. Interviews with three authors contribute additional insights. The ultimate goal is to understand the rationale within these books—a pragmatic, practical, and critically thoughtful logic emerging from safety professionals' firsthand experiences and interpretations of challenges. The analysis goes into the practical and empirical problems identified by these professionals, their interpretations, solutions, and contextual factors. Common categories or themes are identified by comparing the books, offering a qualitative classification method to manage their idiosyncrasies.
What are the sentiments and opinions of safety professionals about their own profession? The authors of the analyzed books, each with at least 15 years of experience in safety, share a critical perspective on the state of their profession. The 'blues' of safety professionals are characterized by a perceived gap between the current state of the profession and its potential for impact and recognition.
In "Safety sucks!", Sam Goodman criticizes the stagnation of the safety profession. He describes safety professionals as undervalued, underpaid, blamed for accidents, and forced to adhere to flawed safety management systems.
Phil La Duke, in "I know my shoes are untied – Mind your own business", introduces a divide within the profession. He criticizes safety professionals who focus on trivial matters rather than preventing fatalities at work.
Jason Maldonado, in "A practical guide to this safety profession," suggests a division in the safety community and calls for self-reflection. He emphasizes that much of what safety professionals do makes no discernible difference.
Scott Gesinger, in "The fearless world of professional safety in the 21st century," advocates for a shift in safety thinking. He criticizes the outdated training available and calls for new insights and propositions.
Carsten Busch, in "Safety myth 101", notes a lack of up-to-date professional knowledge among safety professionals. He highlights a reluctance to question established practices, hindering effectiveness.
Craig Marriott, in "Challenging the safety quo", speaks of a 'mid-life crisis' in safety, urging an open debate within the profession to overcome challenges.
Fundamental flaws in the basic ingredients of safety practices and mindsets lead to what Le Coze terms the 'blues' of safety professionals:
- Critique of Heinrich's pyramid as simplistic, with some authors proposing alternatives.
- Criticism of the widely accepted but flawed concept of 'root cause' analysis.
- Recognition of the need for a more nuanced understanding of causality in accident investigations.
- Disapproval of the oversimplified approach that aims for 'zero harm' without acknowledging the inherent uncertainties and uncontrollable factors.
- Critique of slogans like 'safety first,' emphasizing the impracticality of placing safety above all else.
- Rejection of behavior-based safety (BBS) approaches, advocating for a focus on modifying jobs and work environments rather than observing and controlling behaviors.
- Critique of the simplistic view of human error, emphasizing the need for a more comprehensive understanding of contexts and cognitive processes.
- Advocacy for safety professionals to work side-by-side with employees to gain credibility and insight into daily practices.
- Criticism of a bureaucratic approach to safety management, emphasizing the importance of soft skills.
- Recognition of the limitations of checklists and rule-based approaches.
- Need for a focus on personal interactions, care, and trust in addition to paperwork and compliance.
- Critique of safety indicators like Lost Time Injury (LTI), highlighting their arbitrary nature and limitations.
- Recognition of the inadequacy of summary data as a decision-making tool in isolation.
- Emphasis on the need for a more strategic analysis of safety indicators in the broader context of organizational dynamics.
These flawed assumptions collectively form a mindset that is legalistic, bureaucratic, and simplistic. They contribute to detrimental patterns in safety practices, undermining the accomplishments and status of safety professionals.
The authors suggest a more pragmatic, organic, and sophisticated approach, emphasizing the need for a balanced perspective within the boundaries of legal and pragmatic considerations, bureaucratic and organic approaches to organizations, and simple yet sophisticated viewpoints.
Changes in work, organizations, businesses, states, and societies, driven by global factors such as globalization, digitalization, externalization, and self-regulation – together with a growing safety market -, have contributed to the evolution of safety practices and the associated discontent.
Le Coze poses two questions for further research:
- Representativeness: how accurately do these authors depict the profession, how do safety professional associations respond to the 'blues,' and is the situation comparable across different industries and organizational sizes?
- Performativity: are safety professionals willing to follow the suggested paths, are prospects of changing rejected practices realistic, and what are the practicalities and difficulties associated with implementing a revised vision of safety practices?
The study concludes by emphasizing the need for a multilevel and broad approach to safety, involving various actors, organizations, and institutions to align with the ideals of an alternative mindset. Le Coze finishes with the question: Can the 'blues of safety professionals' become something of the past through continued exploration and efforts to shift from critical assessments to practical changes in safety practices?
Le Coze, J.C. (2023), Understanding the "blues of safety professionals", In: International Journal of Occupational Safety and Ergonomics, 2023 Dec 28: pp. 1-29, doi: 10.1080/10803548.2023.2298561.