Improve Safety Culture by Hiring the Right People

Guest Blog by Adel Lawson CMIOSH

Often during my time in a number of safety roles, I had been tasked with recruiting safety officers to support the HSE team in the various activities within the department. The majority of the time this involved interviewing safety personnel to work for our contractors for the full duration of a given contract or hiring short-term employees for periods of plant turnarounds, maintenance activities or projects. On occasion, the hiring involved recruiting safety officers, specialists or advisory safety positions directly to work for our own team.

I remember it being quite a daunting task when I first started out as interviewing people was not something I generally enjoyed doing and often never really knew what the right questions where to ask. With much support from peers, supervisors and department managers over the years, I learned how to perfect the process and developed a formula that ensured we hired strong and determined safety professionals with a good combination of safety competence, care for people, communication and an overall long-term vision for developing strong safety cultures. A formula that has served me well and that I still use to this day.

I have used this article to highlight some of the key areas to consider when recruiting personnel for safety officer or advisor positions within your organizations.

Attitude

I always believed that to be a successful safety professional you must always care for people and have an innate desire for everyone to go home safely after a day at work. Unfortunately, these days, too many people are in the health and safety business for the wrong reasons and I often tailored my questions to be able to understand a candidate’s motives for choosing such a profession as well as seeking for them to demonstrate that duty of care.

“Who do you believe should be responsible for health and safety in our company?” is undoubtedly the one question every candidate should be asked at some stage during the interview. This says quite a lot about a candidate’s outlook on how health and safety should be managed within an organization. The answer that I generally look for is something in the lines of “Everyone in the company should be responsible for health and safety”. This indicates that the candidate understands that health and safety is a collective task and that he or she is just someone that facilitates this process. Answers such as the “safety department is in charge of safety” or “this comes under the responsibility of the section manager” indicates that the candidate might have a more authoritarian outlook on how health and safety has to be managed, an outlook which is genuinely not advisable when it comes to establishing a strong safety culture.

One of the key attitudes a candidate must demonstrate is a willingness to suggest and work with employees to come up with safer ways to support ongoing operations. Candidates must understand that your company is a business with ongoing processes that must be completed in a timely manner and they are not there to merely stop ongoing work for a safety reason and walk away.

Asking them to explain a scenario of their experiences from when they stopped work on a site and what they did after can give you an indication as to their way of thinking.

Knowledge of Behaviours

Candidates need to demonstrate an understanding of the at-risk behaviors that might lead to future incidents, they need to demonstrate thinking in terms of leading indicators and proactive approaches to potential safety concerns. Experience of participation in behavioural safety programs, participation in supervisory behavioural meetings, understanding key terms used and providing solutions to remove safety barriers are all key markers of having this understanding. More advanced candidates may have even been involved in delivering behavioural based safety training in the past.

Questions to gain an understanding of such knowledge revolves around asking about key behavioural safety areas they would focus on. Answers such as the line of fire, pinch points, tools and equipment are common ones for personnel involved with behavioural safety programs. You might want to ask about what type of solutions they would recommend for any major trends in these areas and how they would monitor these for improvements.

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Cultural Awareness

Local culture, as well as the culture of the general workforce, must be taken into account when reviewing safety officers previous experience. Working in the middle east, for example, much of the labour force within the construction industry are from the far east and Indian subcontinent. Unless you are happy to provide ample time for an individual to adapt or you are prepared to provide extensive cultural awareness training, having a safety officer who has no exposure to working elements in the middle east is a recipe for disaster.

It is always best to hire someone who might have good working experience in the region, understands the culture, the language, and the operations within your particular industry.

Training Experience

This may be a personal preference but I very much appreciate safety officers who are “all-rounders” and the ability to stand in front of a crowd to deliver training, have a safety stand-down, present a toolbox talk or chair a safety meeting are great added skills to have.

Many companies assess this during the interview stage and may request for the candidate to prepare a small presentation on a safety topic of their choice as part of the interview process. This will allow the interviewer to observe communication and interaction skills as well as a candidate’s capability to develop training packages.

Also look for any evidence of any train the trainer programs attended by the candidate. In the United Kingdom training assessor programs (A1) or PTLLS courses are generally good indicators of having the training delivery skillset.

In the United States, the 36-hour OSH Trainer program is a very good indication of this skill as there are a number of specific health and safety training areas they would need to complete as prerequisites.

In reality, candidates with these skillsets will also demand higher rates. If you are in a position to stretch your budget it is well worth the investment.

Administrative capabilities

Compiling monthly HSE reports, writing accident investigation reports, developing safety observations forms, building an excel near miss record database, writing the minutes of the last safety meeting or producing a toolbox talk communication are only some of the administrative responsibilities a safety officer may be involved with. Having the capability to develop a basic excel spreadsheet, create a report in a word document or develop a PowerPoint presentation should be basic expectations.

Similarly, to creating a training program, some employers may want to assess the candidate’s competencies by requesting them to produce an example of accident investigation form, a safe scaffolding inspection checklist or an excel housekeeping inspection schedule.

Although safety officers are not necessarily required to be lead or internal auditors, knowledge of health and safety management systems such as the OHSAS 18001 (recently transitioned to ISO 45001) is always an added bonus.

Working with new technology HSE systems is also a great skill to have. Some of the better candidates may have experience with e-permits, health and safety online learning management systems, risk assessment, accident investigation or behavioural based observation software.

Associations

Being a member of a recognised safety association is a great way to assess the level of the candidate’s experience. This also says much about the candidate’s desire to continuously improve, enhance their skillsets and learn about how to improve safety systems within their respective industry. For the employer it can also provide a good experience reference as many of the associations would require the candidate to have provided references, explained their career progression as well as provided evidence of qualifications and career development plans.

In the United Kingdom, the Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (IOSH) is the most recognised of such associations, with TechIOSH (Technical member of IOSH) normally being a minimum requirement for safety officer or advisor positions. Being an Associate member of the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management (AIIRSM) is another similar acceptable membership level.

In the United States, the Board of Certified Safety Professionals (BSCP) is the most prevalent and being an associate member (ASP) is generally a minimum requirement for this level.

Similar associations also exist in Canada, Australia, and Europe with various means of converting to a similar level within a different association available.

The influence of such memberships have begun to grow worldwide and many organizations outside of the United States and the United Kingdom have come to embrace these associations as minimum requirements for certain safety positions within the company.

Experience

Experience is key to hiring any health and safety professional. Typically, organizations look to hire safety officers with experience working within their particular industry. This does not mean that those skills are not transferable into other similar industries and in the current competitive market, it would be unwise to completely dismiss an individual if their experience is not always a perfect match.

For example, industries such as energy, oil and gas, petrochemical, renewables, mining or construction often have the same type of process risks from a health and safety standpoint and an individual can learn to move between these industries with relative ease. Other similar industry groupings such as a manufacturing, engineering, automotive or facilities management also generally contain the same type of work-related risks.

Generally, organizations ask between two to five years of experience for safety officers, although this may increase depending on the criticality, responsibility or the number of reports. Employers must set their basic experience requirements for health and safety officers and I always suggest a benchmarking exercise with similar organizations be conducted to get a better understanding of the amount of experience required.

In the United States, the American Society of Safety Engineers provides these details in a guide for employers to consider when hiring a safety professional.

Qualifications

Although essential, I have left this section for last as there is so much more than just a safety qualification that needs to be considered when recruiting a safety officer. I do admit, in certain cases in the past, I have hired safety officers who had not yet completed their health and safety qualification because I knew they were so much stronger in many of the other areas.

In general, however, safety qualifications are a must when it comes to hiring safety officers. Considerations always must be made to the type of standard you apply in your organisation as qualifications differ from country to country.

When it comes to hiring safety officers in the UK for example, level three National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ-3) are a minimum. Examples of these are the various NEBOSH Certifications as well as the British Safety Council certificate (ICertosh). In the United States, there is no unified safety certification and many companies in the states ask for associate university degrees in health and safety or a combination of OSHA approved certifications in particular topics.

Additional certifications such as first aid, accident investigation and root cause analysis, confined space training, working at height or basic firefighter qualifications may also be necessary depending on the industry and the type of operations involved.

If you’re an organization looking to hire safety officers or if you’re a recruiter hiring for a project, don’t let the process of finding a suitable candidate overwhelm you. By following some of the advice in this article you would get a basic idea of what to look for in any potential candidate. It is always very important to understand the industry you are hiring for and the additional competencies that might be required for those sectors.

Listen to Adel talking about this topic on the Safeti Podcast

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