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Are You an Office-Bound Safety Professional? It's Time to Step Away from the Desk

By Henry Skjerven
Published: September 23, 2019
Key Takeaways

A lot has changed in the world of safety in recent years. One thing hasn't: you still have to spend time on the job site.

Caption: Desk Jockey Source: Liderina / iStock

In recent years, I've gone out of my way to speak to safety professionals. There is a disturbing note to those conversations – a sea of change in progress.

We are now senior safety advisors and consultants at the executive level. We no longer have to travel, get out on the shop floor or the work site, conduct inspections or audits, go to safety committee meetings, or just wave the safety flag.

For some of us, face-time requires an appointment or a video conference.


Wow. Talk about being tied to the office.

I also ask my fellow safety pros about attending at serious incidents, major losses, and fatalities. The response? "Well, if it's a significant incident or fatality, then I would probably have to be at the event site."

Double wow.

(Learn more in Are You a Safety Manager or a Safety Leader?)

Since they spend so little time in the field, I have asked many of these safety pros how they demonstrate their personal commitment, accountability, and responsibility for the health and safety of their worker groups. The most prevalent answer these days is that executives and senior management are the ones who are responsible and accountable. The safety pros? They're just professional advisors.

Oh boy. Try telling that to the judge when you're in court alongside your senior executives.

You're Not Tethered to Your Office

Yes, there are some industries where the work is all done in offices. But, let's be clear here. All that work carried out by all those workers, it's not all done in your office!

In my advanced years, I'm no longer able to climb and crawl all over work sites, but I can still get out there. You can still be on site, see what's going on, and above all, be seen.

We do important work in the office. But we can't do all our work there.


And yes, you might be the on-high safety guru for a multinational corporation. Fine. You stay in your office and do your thing. But out of the thousands of safety professionals in the world, how many of us have a position like that? One percent - if that.

Even if you were that guru, wouldn't it still make sense to make some time to get out there and see what's going on, to lead, and to preach for safe work?

(See Congratulations, You Got the Safety Job! Now What? for related reading.)

Why You Need to Get Out of the Office

Still need convincing? Here are ten reasons you should get out of the office and take a more hands-on approach to your work.

1. Get the Lay of the Land

You can't learn about the physical conditions on a work site or in a work space without physically being there.

Can you or a hygienist sample over an e-link? Can you get readings of room temperature, humidity, smells, lumens, and contaminants over the phone or on a screen? Not yet you can’t.

2. You Took an Oath

Safety professionals take an oath when they join their accreditation organization. As part of that oath, they agree to uphold the ethics of their profession and to act only in an ethical manner.

Sure, you can be ethically correct while chained to a desk – as long as you're not trying to "advise" on how work is to be done. This is especially true when you have never even seen the job site or, heaven forbid, got your hands on the tools or tried doing the job yourself.

How would you do a human factors evaluations or a functional capacity evaluation from an office?

Go stand in the rain, in the mud, and tell someone they can do that job, or that lift, or that repetitive activity. Don't tell a worker in the blood tunnel of a chicken slaughter plant how to apply ergonomic principles unless you have been there yourself.

(Learn about Field Level Hazard Assessments 101.)

3. It's Good for You

Blow the dust off yourself on a regular basis and get some fresh air. Get some exercise out and about on the job site, the shop floor, or the manufacturing line.

It's good for your health and you'll get to be seen and talk to people face to face while you do it.

4. Become Familiar with the Tools of the Trade

Reading about the tools your workers use is one thing. Seeing, handling, and even using them is another.

I once reviewed a fatality report drafted by a safety professional who was so office-bound they had absolutely no knowledge of how a certain pneumatic hand tool worked. They didn't know or understand that it had different applications on a building site and that the different features required different modifications to the trigger. They certainly didn't understand that you could not use the tool, modified for one job, for another. Until they seized the tool during the investigation, they had never even touched one.

5. Real Conversations

You can have conversations over the phone or over video conferencing. That's better than nothing, but it shouldn't be your only way of communicating.

Take a drive or ride along with a train engineer, a trucker in a combine, or a pilot. See what they see. Feel what they feel. You'll start understanding firsthand what it means to be fatigued. You'll learn what it feels like to be in their operating environment.

Above all, talk to them about their jobs, and the risks and hazards as they see them. Write down what you learn – data is king in any successful business.

(Learn more in Face-to-Face Safety: The Right Way to Build a Safety Culture.)

6. Hazard Identification and Risk Evaluation

Carry a seismic cable reel on your back and up a steep cut line. Plant trees for a ten hour shift on mountainsides where the billy goats stand sideways. Pull loaded crab traps up by hand from a couple hundred feet of ocean in heavy swells. Climb an antenna or power array tower.

Those activities will provide some personal, real-time, full scope data and information about how the work gets done in the real world and what kind of risks are involved.

7. Data Gathering

The information you get from workers is far more valuable than any you'll get from a conversation in a board room.

Follow the 80-20 rule. You can learn a lot more with a lot less effort by just asking the people who really know about the work being carried out.

8. Demonstrate Leadership

Stepping out is an act of leadership that demonstrates a commitment to safety and safety culture. If you're out on the work site, you'll have the best opportunity to do this.

In 5S parlance, everyone is a janitor. But no one can see you pick up a piece of trash, cleaning up, or helping to organize a tool bench if you're stuck in your office.

If you want to be respected as a safety professional, you need to lead by example and from the front. Do the safety work with the workers, the line supervisors, and the lead hands.

(Learn more about 5S and Safety Culture: Do We Need a Sixth S?)

9. You Get to Use All Your Senses

As a safety professional, we know you've got a big brain. You graduated from all kinds of schools and completed all sorts of programs. But you haven't progressed to the point where you can stop using your senses.

And not just the five they taught you about in kindergarten – I'm talking about your intuition and gut feelings, too.

All your book learning is valuable. But the only way to apply all that knowledge is to be physically part of the work world.

10. Keep a Clear Conscience

There is tremendous inner peace that comes from knowing that you've done your best – you've seen to it personally, been there and done that, got the t-shirt. You can't get that feeling from an office chair.

To get it, you need to be out there as often as you can. That means when things are going well, not just when the defecation hits the oscillation.

Last Words

You never have to leave the office, never have to talk to a worker or supervisor, never get your hands dirty. You can just delegate and hire someone else to do most of the work. You can stop learning, growing, and leading as soon as you get your professional accreditation.

Oh wait, that's right, you can't.

Being in this business requires you to maintain standards for your accreditation. That means you need to learn, lead, and grow. And you need to document and prove it or you won't hold on to that accreditation for long.

If you ask me, the real safety professionals are the ones who go where the work is done and take an active role in learning, teaching, and helping. They're one of the team.

If you're tied to your office chair, it's time to cut the ropes and get off your rear end.

How often do you need to get out of the office? Every single day. Somehow, some way, some portion of every day should be spent in the face-to-face, hands-on environment the workers are in.

Yeah, it'll make you uncomfortable. Maybe it'll give you the jitters. You might even get nervous. Lean into those feelings. They're all motivators for learning.

So, get out there. Because you can't lead from the front if you're behind a closed door.


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Written by Henry Skjerven

Mr. Skjerven has consulted professionally for over 27 years, with extensive Canadian experience, literally from coast to coast but with a home base in Western Canada. His experience ranges from marketing, adult education, and heavy transportation (rail) to municipal public works, fleet and transportation, oil and gas construction in the tar sands, emergency response (Fire and Ambulance), Public Works, Parks and Recreation, Security, as well as human resources and software systems, including enterprise style projects.

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