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The modern health and safety professional's toolkit

29th March 2016

Jonathan Hughes, Capita Health and Safety Training and Litigation, explains how the modern health and safety professional needs to incorporate commercial awareness, business acumen, charisma and communication skills into their toolkit.

Over the years, the approach and attitude of health and safety professionals has shifted in the way they manage their clients and employers. Traditionally, the role was perceived by some as pointing out shortcomings and failings, quoting relevant laws being breached and offering little in the way of support or advice on how to overcome these challenges.

Fortunately, the sector has learned that a rounded package of skills are required, not just a high level of safety knowledge gained through a mix of qualifications and experience. This needs to be matched by the ability to clearly and effectively communicate this advice in a pragmatic and proportionate manner.

So what makes a competent safety professional? Some refer to SKATE – skills, knowledge, attitude, training and experience. These five key areas of competence can be developed and nurtured over the years, but to make an excellent safety professional a few other key attributes also need to be considered. These include commercial awareness, charisma, and being a good communicator. These soft-skills are crucial in modern business. By developing them, the modern health and safety professional will greatly improve their ability to influence and engage with others, have a better understanding of how their business functions, and improve their employability.

Commercial awareness

Commercial awareness is crucial in the business world. Whether you are employed as an in-house safety professional or as a consultant/trainer, understanding how a business operates is key. Many people at work simply don’t understand the basics of finance, budgeting, profit and loss, cost control, or the impact their advice and recommendations may have on the bottom line. For example, there have been businesses I advised who failed to understand the real cost of accidents, accepting it as a “price worth paying”, and “only a drop in the ocean” compared to income. By real cost, I am referring to the total sales that are needed to generate enough profit to cover the money set aside to compensate for accidents. Businesses can often underestimate this cost and find themselves struggling to hit revenue and profit targets after a successful compensation claim against them, or worse, a fine coupled with fees for intervention.

By having good commercial awareness and understanding, we can make a more compelling case to invest an appropriate amount of money in training and other improvements. I have seen investment in training result in the number of health and safety incidents being halved, which returned greater profit to the business, ensuring a happy client and a safer place of work.
Charisma and communication skills

Having charisma helps influence those you are communicating with, which aids in successfully getting a message across at the right level. The ability to build rapport and engage an audience is a key skill that a health and safety professional will benefit from when communicating how businesses can overcome shortcomings in their health and safety management.

General communication skills are also invaluable for today's health and safety professional. Communicating clearly, in different mediums and tones, aids understanding and engagement across all stakeholders.

I have encountered a number of safety professionals with excellent technical knowledge, but who struggle to articulate that knowledge to a client. Sloppy writing and error-strewn reports will not endear us to our audience.

Our key messages also risk being lost in the fog of TLAs (three letter abbreviations). Technical jargon like sifting our RIDDOR’s to find the COSHH incidents with an IOSH or IIRSM member who is a NEBOSH trained SHEQ looking at the EICR or PAT report, or checking the SWL on the FLT… Plain language is underestimated but crucial to ensuring clients and employers understand what is expected of them to comply with health and safety requirements. Merely baffling them with technicalities is a sure fire way of disengaging key stakeholders.

So, what can you do to add value to yourself? Perhaps look at updating your non-technical skills or attending a training event that focuses at some of the soft skills above.

Continuing professional development is not just confined to keeping abreast of the latest Approved Code of Practice (ACOP) or best practice. Why not make a pledge to make 2016 the year that you add to your professional toolkit and explore some additional skills, such as commercial awareness, communication skills and IT skills. This will make your job easier, will make you more valuable to your employer and clients, and strengthen your CV. Once you have learned these skills, why not pass them on to others, and share the tools in your toolkit?

This article first appeared in SHP magazine.

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