The Ideal Safety Career Path

EHS Today - July 2013
By: Terry L. Mathis
Printable Version

Safety professionals are so busy they don't always think about their own future. Those who do, often describe a desire to move from the position of site safety manager to a regional, and then a corporate level. When we ask them how they plan to do so, the usual response is, "by doing a really good job!"

We would like to suggest that safety professionals plan their own career path strategically and follow their plan meticulously. This plan will work both for those moving up the corporate ladder and for those happy to stay where they are but maximize their current position. It will increase effectiveness and efficiency, as well as job satisfaction.

Rather than trying to plan a career that climbs the corporate ladder or expands a current position, plan how to expand your value to the organization. You can do this in stages and each stage will make you more valuable whether moving up or staying put. Here are the three stages through which a safety professional should move in the course of a successful career:

Stage 1: Grunt – Almost every career begins with grunt work. Paperwork, daily routine, busywork and common tasks dominate your time and challenge your endurance. This work isn't given to beginners because it is easy; it's given because it is basic. It still requires skill, organization and an eye for detail to get it done in a timely and efficient manner. You will become more accurate and more cognizant of the value of such work as you do it and use the data you produce. As you begin to master this type of activity, you can look to the future. Your true calling is not to stay busy, but to make a difference. Begin to automate, handoff or minimize the daily grunt work and start to take care of your workforce.

Stage 2: Guardian – In this stage, you begin to move beyond the daily chores to the oversight of safety. You begin to see the big picture and take care of issues before they get out of hand. You quit trying to do everything for everyone and just make sure it gets done. If you have help, you learn the crucial skills of delegation and oversight. You realize that safety is not so much what you do as much as what workers and leaders do. You help them do it instead of trying to do it yourself. They begin to view you as a resource rather than a workhorse, and your sphere of influence grows.

If you become an effective guardian, you will find yourself overseeing more efforts than you could possibly do alone. You are helping the whole organization effectively manage safety and are serving as their guide and resource person. These efforts are significantly more valuable to the organization than your grunt work. You can now make more of a difference in safety than before. You can lead safety efforts and give them direction and meaning. Your example and expertise inspire the entire organization to pursue excellence in safety.

Stage 3: Guru – It takes a lot of climbing to see safety from thirty-thousand feet. That is why all your grunt work and guardianship pays off, because that is what helps you see the big picture clearly. At this level, you work on strategy rather than tactics or implementation. You help your organizational leaders to develop and deploy effective strategies for safety excellence. You are truly the expert who can map the path forward and solve the problems along the way. You have seen how other efforts got derailed or delayed and you build safeguards against such problems into your strategies. You warn others of potential pitfalls and help them avoid common problems. You become the critical thinker whose insight and point of view have stand-alone value to your organization.

You can now develop others into safety grunts and guardians and help them along the progression to your own level. You are now the ultimate safety resource. You can work at any level and help others to do so. You can help leaders to more effectively lead safety and turn supervisors into effective safety coaches. You can paint the big picture to new employees and start them on careers that include excellent safety performance. When new approaches to safety come along, you can evaluate their effectiveness and potential fit into your organization's safety strategy.

At the guru level, you will need to continually feed on new ideas and methods. You will need to belong to safety organizations, attend conferences and read the latest safety publications. You will need to become a reader of books; not just safety books, but also business books. You will quit seeing safety as a separate part of the business and envision how it belongs to a unified whole. You will help leaders to position safety as a part of producing goods and/or services rather than a conflicting priority. You will help them realize that managing safety is the ultimate indicator of how they manage the business.

Your organization will reach a level of safety performance that will qualify it to do business with the very best in your industry. Your continued guidance and strategic development of safety processes and metrics will become an integral part of the overall excellence of the organization's performance. You and other organizational leaders will find synergies in your efforts and will borrow ideas to improve other aspects of business. You will take your place with the other organizational leaders and provide the highest level of value possible.

Look at your career strategically and begin to take steps toward the next stage. Get into the habit of continuous, lifetime learning. Network with those in safety at the next level and make contacts with good mentors when you attend conferences or visit other sites. Form a support network of like-minded individuals in your field who can also see and value these three stages of growth and development and begin your journey. Climb the ladder of personal worth and the corporate ladder will take care of itself.

Terry Mathis, Founder and retired CEO of ProAct Safety, has served as a consultant and advisor for top organizations the world over. A respected strategist and thought leader in the industry, Terry has authored five books, numerous articles and blogs, and is known for his dynamic and engaging presentations. EHS Today has named him one of the '50 People Who Most Influenced EHS' four consecutive times. Business leaders and safety professionals seek Terry's practical insight and unique ability to introduce new perspectives that lead to real change. Terry can be reached at or 800-395-1347.

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