What Does it Take to be a Safety Professional?

By Susan Tolbert, M.S.

The professional safety field has changed and evolved over the years.  Traditionally, managing the safety program requirements for their company was an added responsibility for the human resources or maintenance manager. They focused specifically on workplace safety compliance and included tasks such as conducting inspections, writing programs, training employees, facilitating safety committees and compliance reporting.  There was no college requirement, and most of these responsibilities were learned on the job.

learn more about osh degreesToday, there are many more responsibilities and requirements needed for someone to manage a safety program.  More companies are hiring professionals to manage just their safety program.   A successful safety professional is usually required to hold a college degree and professional safety certifications, is asked to take on more responsibilities, and to be highly competent in their field of knowledge and expertise.  Safety professionals are now expected to have a wide range of technical and interpersonal skills, the ability to build teams and motivate employees, communicate professionally, facilitate and conduct training programs, complete accident and incident investigations, comply with regulatory record keeping requirements and ensure environmental compliance.  Often they must also participate in and assist in managing wellness programs; monitor insurance and risk management programs,  workers compensation and return to work programs;  and they are often asked to assist in loss prevention, emergency planning and response, develop business continuity planning, security, workplace violence management, and much more, while  keeping  up with the ever-changing regulatory laws and requirements.

Due to ever changing business expectations, safety professional job requirements have expanded well beyond what anyone could have ever anticipated. The most important and marketable skill an effective safety professional needs today is business management acumen.  An understanding of organization behavior, financial management and strategic thinking, are all needed for successful management and implementation of a safety program.  Safety professionals are program managers and are expected to be able to use effectively available resources while minimizing costs, which will occur if there is a better understanding of the behaviors and expectations of the organization. 

A successful safety professional is usually required to hold a college degree and professional certifications, is asked to take on more responsibilities, and to be highly competent in their field of knowledge and expertise.

All of this can seem to be overwhelming, but as the field of knowledge and skills needed to be a successful safety professional expands so does demand for competency and professional knowledge.   Successful safety professionals have the ability to work with, and advise management on, safety program management and how it can be a key component in the development and implementation of profitability within their company. 

How you can gain all of these skills while also focusing on the safety and compliance aspect of your chosen field?  The answer is simple: “There is no original idea.” Most safety professionals are willing to share their programs, strategies and ideas.  A successful safety professional utilizes mentoring and networking at the beginning and all throughout their career. This strategy will assist you along the path of becoming a successful safety professional, will open doors  and will bring value and expertise to your efforts in developing your skills. Social media has come a long way in assisting our society in accessing information and can be most useful in helping you develop professional knowledge. There are many online groups, discussion boards and chat groups that are specific to the safety field.    Join professional groups such as the American Association of Safety Professionals (ASSE), seek out your peers by attending local meetings and conferences.  Never forget that the core value in being a successful safety professional is to believe in what you are doing by doing what it takes to assist your company, and protect the lives of those who work for and with you.

Bio: Susan Tolbert, MS, is the safety and risk manager for the City of Concord, N.C. A graduate of Columbia Southern University, she sits on the CSU Safety College Academic Advisory Committee. Tolbert is a proven professional with over 20 years of experience in OSHA, environmental compliance, employee compensation and risk management.