What is a Safety Expert?

I was recently reading a blog that will remain nameless. Although it seemed almost aggressive in nature, the more I read and the more I thought about it, the guy did have a valid point. What is a safety expert and how do you become a safety expert? As I read the post, it started to drive home some of the issues and questions I have with the “safety profession.” With all of the proclaimed subject matter from experts with “the alphabet soup” listed after their names, it makes you wonder. What is a safety expert and what makes them believe they are a safety expert?

Let me digress slightly, what makes someone an expert? If someone holds a designation of medical doctor, are they an expert? If someone holds a degree in engineering, are they an expert? If I hold a safety designation awarded by recognized body, am I a safety expert? Merriam-Webster.com describes expert as; “having or showing special skill or knowledge because of what you have been taught or what you have experienced” or “a person who has special skill or knowledge relating to a particular subject.” So, in reading this, is the M.D. an expert in medicine? In general terms, yes he would be an expert in general medicine or understanding of the body, its systems, disease processes and various methods on how to fix the body when problems arise. As you may have noticed, I used the term “general.” If you require heart surgery or orthopedic surgical repair, will you go to a general practitioner? I would hope not, as he is not an expert in the area of specialized surgical repair.

Now let me try and explain how this relates to the safety profession. I have always been a “boots on the ground” safety professional. Many times, I have witnessed a Safety Manager/Advisor/Specialist create a new policy and will basically say; “Do this because I am a safety expert, and this is our new rule.” Sometimes this rule/policy/procedure will make sense for most situations, there are other times where I sit back and think, really? It appears many times there is a disconnect between the policy and what actually occurs or needs to happen at the job site. However, the “expert” created the rule!

Now back to the professional designations. I believe the safety profession has made huge strides in creating recognition for training and experience but once again, there are flaws. Some of the organizations will award you a professional HSE credential if you have a Bachelor’s degree and some safety related experience, take a test and boom, you are a credentialed safety expert. There are others who allow a participant to walk in off the street, listen to an instructor for a few weeks or study at their pace, pass a few exams and there you have another safety expert.

Unfortunately, as with many other professions, a college education opens doors to greater things. A college degree does provide you with some definite perks, the ability to prove you can learn/retain knowledge and that you can finish a project or basically show commitment. Outside of specific professional degrees, such as medicine and engineering, there is not much else I can see a degree actually proves, especially in relation to safety. Luckily for those of us who chose to work our way up, there are designations/credentials we can now earn to help in proving our professional credibility.

My biggest concern and one I have witnessed many times is there is a new safety manager who recently graduated college and maybe worked somewhere in a safety capacity is now the new “expert” for your organization. In reality, he has never truly been in the trenches with the troops and never really obtained a good grasp on what safety, in this particular workplace, looks like. I have 15 years of HSE experience in the oil and gas industry and will soon have completed a college degree in Business, have recognized safety credentials and a few other resume perks. Will this make me a credible safety expert in the manufacturing, construction, biomedical, nuclear, food safety or any other industry because I have the previously mentioned items attached to my name? Could I walk into one of these organizations as a Safety Manager and within a week (or for that matter a year) and have a good grasp on what safety looks like in that organization? I believe I have a general understanding of safety concepts, rules, mitigations, policy, etc. that comes with my previous experience and credentialing process. But am I the right guy to be leading that organization’s safety program and making the crucial safety decisions? Maybe or maybe not! Unfortunately, this is the problem you will find in some organizations as the HR gatekeepers really don’t understand what is required to fill that position, they just see a college degree, credentials, safety experience and you are in.

I am in no way attempting to point the finger at any of the credentialing organizations and say, hey what are you thinking and finding fault. That is not at all my intention, as I believe they have made huge strides in positively promoting and bringing validity to our profession. Here is the point I am trying to make: we need to step back and look at the direction we are headed and take a hard look if this is truly the best route for our profession. I guess we need to wait and see if we are creating a gap that might come back to bite us all in the butt.

How do we fix this? How about creating a system where experience is given greater or equal parity as academic knowledge. Why should someone with a Bachelor’s Degree in History or any non-related subject be given extra “privilege” to someone that has actually worked in the HSE field for 10 years? You could even create an equivalency of work to academia, 2-3 years of full-time HSE experience is equivalent to 1 year of non-related college education? Someone with ten years of full-time HSE experience would be equivalent to a bachelor’s degree in any subject other than HSE or IH and would allow them to sit several of the “major” credentialing exams. Another thought, introduce a U.S. based system similar to NEBOSH whereas the lower or Certificate level is equivalent to 2-years of college study and the upper or Diploma level is equivalent to a Bachelor’s Degree. NEBOSH (IGC) requires you to pass two intensive exams (2-hours each, hand written, no multiple choice) and a practical exercise which covers each individual sections of the curriculum. The other good thing, anyone can take these exams but I will say, industry experience is extremely beneficial. I have recently completed my International General Certificate in Occupational Health and Safety (NEBOSH IGC) and it was not easy. I can only imagine what the intensity of the Diploma will be if I decide to follow through with it.

Disclaimer: This is only my personal opinion and I understand that some of you may strongly disagree. That is fine as the article was intended to create thought, emotion and controversy. This article is in no way meant to directly reflect on my current employer or any organization(s) I may be engaged as I have been working in this profession for quite a while and my thoughts and opinions have not come directly from my current relationships.