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Viewpoint: HR Professionals Play Vital Role in Setting Safety Culture

A group of people sitting around a table looking at a tablet.

​Few occupations have functions as varied as the human resource professional.

Recruiting and hiring. Payroll and benefits. Training and policy management. The HR professional touches every department and every employee.

Within these duties lies one of the most fundamental responsibilities of an organization: ensuring the safety and well-being of its employees.

HR professionals have varying levels of obligations in this realm, typically based on the size and resources of an organization. A larger company may separate its HR and safety roles completely. Another may direct them to work in tandem. And some smaller companies with fewer resources may place the responsibility for safety solely on an HR manager.

But at the end of the day, in one way or another, HR professionals will have a hand in creating and maintaining their organization's safety culture.

Mohammad Farhat Ali Khan, the quality, health, safety and environment lead for Qatar-based shipping company Milaha, reinforced this idea during the Global Learning Summit organized earlier this year by the Board of Certified Safety Professionals (BCSP).

"Human resources management is instrumental in creating a safe work environment and proactive, preventative culture," Khan said. "Human resources professionals play an important role in ensuring employee health and safety, as they know the workplace, the employees and their job demands."

Intersection of HR and Safety

Laura Rhodes has explored the intersection of human resources and safety from two different angles.

As an associate professor in the safety sciences department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Rhodes teaches safety theory in an academic setting. As a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) with her own safety and regulatory consulting business, she puts those theories into practice.

What she sees in the field is that not only do most small businesses not have a dedicated safety position, many do not have an HR professional who was formally trained in those responsibilities. That makes it even more difficult to effectively wear both hats. But the crossover is so great, especially at the small business level, that an understanding of the relationship is vital.

"If you have your job description and it says the employee has to climb a ladder, they have to be on their feet for four hours, that they have to be able to lift 50 pounds and twist and walk with those 50 pounds, that's at the heart of the HR job," Rhodes said. "But that's where we have a crossover with safety because then we can look at ergonomics and the NIOSH [National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health] lifting guide where you're plugging in numbers and measuring how far someone is reaching above their head. Is it too heavy for including that twist? Can we get rid of that twist?"

Those questions are hard to answer if you haven't received the proper training.

Safety Begets Profitability, Engagement

Regardless of who bears the ultimate burden, a strong safety culture is crucial. And not only for compliance with state and national regulations. In AlertMedia's 2022 State of Employee Safety Report, only 53 percent of survey respondents believed their safety was "extremely important" to their employer. At the same time, the respondents rated safety just as highly as compensation when considering career moves.

And while a good safety record is beneficial for attracting and retaining quality employees, it can also affect the health of a company's business. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA's) Safety Pays Estimator assesses the impact safety has on profitability, considering things like profit margins and average costs of injuries and illnesses.

"An HR professional can help make it clear to the directors that if increasing employee productivity, enhancing the company's reputation and increasing annual profits all sound like the type of things they would like to see more of, it's time to start paying more attention to health and safety," Khan said.

Where to Turn for Help

Sometimes, though, it may be difficult to know where to start. Rhodes said one of the most frequent questions she receives when consulting is how to locate training for safety practices: "Where can I find information on implementing a forklift safety program? Where can I find information on implementing a bloodborne pathogens program?"

The good news? Help is available in a variety of forms.

OSHA has the On-Site Consultation program for small and midsize businesses. Consultants come to you for free and assist in identifying hazards and compliance issues that might otherwise lead to penalties from OSHA's inspection staff. They can help you formalize a safety program.

There's also the ANSI/ASSP Z10.0 Occupational Safety and Health Management Standard from the American Society of Safety Professionals, which provides a risk assessment tool to assist in determining the likelihood of a potential injury and its severity. It's a tool Rhodes shares with each of her clients.

Credentialed professionals can help with a specific issue or situation. When Rhodes identifies the need for one of her clients to seek outside expertise, she said she always recommends finding a verified expert, someone like a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) or a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) whose proficiency is demonstrated through their certification.

Prepping HR for Safety Work

Ultimately, though, Rhodes would like to see a world in which HR professionals enter the workforce with a greater level of safety education that has taught them theory to help in making decisions. At Indiana University of Pennsylvania, she is starting to see more students who are not safety majors in her Safety 101 class, as other departments on campus recommend or even require students to add a safety class to their major-specific course offerings.

"Sending them for more training is great, but my perspective all along is that college curriculum needs to include safety," Rhodes said. "When I have nonmajors, I try to point out to them, 'This is where this comes together.' "

Until safety education becomes more widespread at the college level, there will still be HR professionals called to handle safety responsibilities they may not have expected and for which they have not been thoroughly trained.

They may find themselves dealing with any number of duties, including topics like safety committee administration and employee safety training, disaster preparedness and security, accident investigation and safety disputes.

Regardless of an organization's size, the HR professional will always play some role in safety, whether it is implementing policies, communicating policies throughout the company or dealing with safety issues that arise among employees.

"In addition to overseeing policies and procedures, and ensuring employees adhere to these, HR's most important role is to ensure that every member of the organization, from the top down, understands that occupation safety and health is everyone's responsibility," Khan said 

Tyson Mathews is a writer for the Board of Certified Safety Professionals.


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