Like many safety professionals, I entered the field as a second calling and, to a certain degree, as a matter of chance. I was simply the right person in the right place at the right time.

When you find yourself in that position for a while, completing the tasks that are needed to keep your organization afloat, it will soon give you the impression that you know what a safety manager does. But change the company or the industry, and you suddenly feel that even though some basic principles hold, everything is different and you are again on a steep learning curve. Throw in some legislative changes and the picture gets even more complicated.

Obviously, a certain degree of education will help you reduce this learning gap. But differences will still remain, which makes the job fairly hard to describe in precise and immutable terms.

There are many titles that are implicitly or explicitly assimilated within the safety manager’s role. In this article, we will refer to the safety manager as the employee who is tasked with overseeing and developing an organization’s health and safety management system and generally has a team of safety professionals who are tasked with the execution of some or all of the roles described in the safety manager’s job description. As such, many tasks that are described as being the role of the safety manager are generally delegated to their team.

(Learn about The 6 Key Elements of an Effective Safety Program.)

Two Approaches to Safety Management

With this in mind, we’ll try to give a general description of the role of a safety manager. Even a “general” description is plagued by the fact that organizations approach this endeavor from at least two different perspectives:

  • From the traditional perspective, where safety is a stand-alone compliance discipline
  • From a systems thinking perspective, where safety is fairly similar in approaches to other disciplines, with which it relates and overlaps

Needless to say, these two positions can be seen as the endpoints of a single continuum, with a variety of shades at every point in between.

We should note that despite their differences, these approaches are convergent in scope. Both have the ultimate goal of protecting the health and safety of the organization’s employees, contractors, other stakeholders, and the public at large.

We have to also understand that there are two components to the role:

  • The prescriptive role, as envisioned by the organization’s management and described in the job description
  • The role as seen and developed by the incumbent, which will extend beyond the job description

It is likely that the role is described under one approach by management, but exercised differently by the safety manager.

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

The Traditionalist Approach

This approach is compliance-based, rooted in the need to satisfy the legal requirements. It ensures that the company has done its due diligence and has its bases covered from a legal point of view.

It is fairly prescriptive and policy-based and has changed little in recent years. In their role, the safety manager does not function in isolation but makes extensive use of safety specific tools, without crossing into or borrowing from other disciplines. The safety manager is strictly a safety specialist.

This approach has an enhanced focus on work experience and the educational and certification requirements are strictly in the safety field. The certification requirements can range from entry-level NSCO (Canada), CHST, STS, STSC (US) to CRSP (Canada) or CSP (US). A certificate or diploma in occupational health and safety is sometimes required.

(Find out more in Safety Certifications 101.)

Under this approach, some of the main roles of a safety manager are:

  • Monitoring current and potential health and safety risks and hazards in the workplace, participating in corporate-level hazard assessments, and developing and approving controls for identified hazards
  • Keeping up to date with legislative and industry developments and keeping the health and safety program up to date
  • Monitoring and addressing compliance with all health and safety legislation
  • Creating, circulating, and enforcing a hazard assessment process, accident investigation procedures, as well as other health and safety policies, practices, and procedures
  • Leading or participating in the investigation of workplace accidents and non-compliance
  • Recommending and approving corrective actions after incidents or as a result of identified non-compliance
  • Tracking incident metrics and identifying trends
  • Ensuring the competition of various health and safety reports for internal and external clients
  • Providing advice and direction to employees and management on how to minimize or ultimately avoid risks and hazards in the workplace
  • Offering general health and safety advice to all employees
  • Providing first aid to injured employees and managing emergency response when an employee's injury severity exceeds first aid
  • Monitoring and managing worker compensation claims, focusing on early return to work
  • Managing prescribed emergency procedures, such as fire drills and scope specific emergency tests
  • Identifying appropriate health and safety training for different hierarchical levels and ensuring all employees have adequate training for the job at hand
  • Delivering health and safety training and presentations, including new hire orientations
  • Organizing safety meetings
  • Ensuring safety inspections and audits are completed at the prescribed intervals and that corrective actions are taken to correct identified deficiencies
  • Identifying criteria for contractor selection and monitoring contractor compliance and management
  • Approving and arranging for the purchase of safety equipment

The Systems Thinking Approach

The systems thinking approach does not discard the traditionalist approach, since the need for compliance remains the same. The traditional activities of a safety manager are still important and need to be performed.

What changes is that the role of the safety manager is not only much more flexible but also extends beyond the safety discipline. The safety manager is a more rounded professional, collaborating with and crossing into HR, learning and development, operations, supply chain, corporate governance, and executive management.

From this perspective, the safety manager is more akin to a Swiss Army knife - a diagnostic and troubleshooting professional.

In terms of certification and education, a safety manager under this approach might or might not have the same training, and generally has tertiary education in a technical field or in business.

Building Connections

A systems thinking manager is above all a communicator and a connector. They function as a catalyst between related functions and departments, recognizing that integration and cooperation with other departments will result in better safety outcomes.

While in a traditional approach the safety manager has all the power when it relates to safety, under systems thinking the safety manager is subject to the paradox of power - they become powerful by giving the power away, involving and investing others with power. The safety manager is not the holder of safety, but the mediator of departments that have a stake in safety (in other words, all of them!)

Because of this, the safety manager has to speak the language of several departments, the language of senior management, and the language of the field level employee. They need to convey the "what's in it for me?" for all of these groups.

(See Help Me Help You: 10 Ways to Get Employees to File Incident and Near Miss Reports for related reading)

Driving Culture

Not surprisingly, given the linchpin position described above, another important role of the safety manager is to be a culture driver.

Safety is deeply intertwined with all departments and the safety manager will generally ensure that the organizational culture, the one encompassing all departments, it is one that is conducive to safety. After all, safety professionals want to maintain safety at the center of all activity, not create our own separate culture.

(Find out Why Creating a Safety Culture Is Better Than Relying on Compliance)

Corporate Strategizing

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is often described through the 3 P's (People - Planet - Profit) or the 3 E's (Employees - Environment - Earnings).

CSR is transitioning from a nice-to-have trait to a criterion for doing business. With that shift, the safety manager position becomes more important, as one of the custodians of the people and sometimes the planet (when the safety function is amalgamated with the environmental function). From this position, the safety manager has a strategic role, the health and safety strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats making their way in the corporate SWOT analysis. From there, it is only a small leap to integrate health and safety risks in the corporate risk matrix and register, placing safety on par and at the same table with other departments when the strategy is developed.

From a strategic point of view, a safety manager will see that in a world flattened by technology the biggest differentiator and competitive advantage of an organization is the quality of its employees. And the quality of the employee can be enhanced through (safety) training and competency, placing the safety manager in an organizational learning and development (OLAD) role.

This position makes it possible for the safety manager to move away from measuring safety performance according to lagging indicators and instead work toward transforming the company into a learning organization. This adds one more role to the safety manager, namely, setting strategic goals. Ed Locke of the University of Maryland observed that “Goal setting theory has been rated #1 in importance among 73 management theories by organizational behavior scholars,” placing again the safety manager on a firm strategic role.

Providing Perspective and Managing Change

Senge et al, in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, noted that “It is easier to learn about creating your future if you know where you have come from.”

From this perspective the safety manager takes a very peculiar role: the company (safety) historian. Learning about the past removes the rose-tinted glasses about how things used to be. This provides the perspective needed to prepare the organization for change.

The safety manager is involved in managing changes, such as implementing OLAD, a new or improved health and safety management system, going digital with safety, developing contractor management programs, and so on.

This role is extended further when organizations include health and safety responsibilities in the employee performance management. Here the safety manager contributes through setting adequate expectations for each role, training and coaching the employee in regard to these responsibilities, then providing the manager conducting the performance review with pertinent and unbiased information regarding how well the employee has fulfilled these expectations.

Leadership

While we already gave the safety manager so many hats to wear, I think there is one more role the safety manager has to take upon - that of a formal and informal leader.

A safety manager should be able to connect with people, communicate a strong and relatable vision, find a common purpose to motivate people to go where the safety manager and the company leadership want the organization to go.

(Learn about Safety Leadership and Empowerment)

The Role of the Safety Manager Is Never Fixed

To conclude, we can say that the safety manager role varies from company to company, based on their needs, available personnel, financial resources, and the expectations of the role.

As a rule, most often it encompasses the compliance requirements listed under the traditional approaches. From there, it can be enhanced with some or all of the roles listed under the systems thinking approach.

It is likely there are many other roles that have not been listed and that the roles of the safety manager will continue to evolve. And that kind of adaptability is exactly what we would expect from any leader.