If you’ve worked in any construction or industrial setting long enough, you’ve likely encountered the “safety cop” – generally defined as a safety manager or safety consultant who strictly enforces rules and regulations at worksites, often employing a punitive approach. They’re quick to point out infractions and are typically disinterested in exploring the fundamental causes of violations.
“There are other names for these people, but ‘safety cop’ is probably the nicest,” jokes Pete Dugan, CEO of SITEX.
Safety cops usually aren’t the most popular people on a job site – and their existence highlights a disconnect within safety program management.
“A good safety manager shouldn’t act as the safety police,” Dugan explains. “That role needs to be a subject matter expert. They have to function more like a coach than a referee calling fouls or throwing flags.”
If the safety department wants to positively impact the business, it should be viewed as helpful, not feared. It needs to deliver education, motivation, and recognition instead of citations and reprimands.
“That’s not to say there isn’t a place for enforcement, but the safety cop approach tends to work against the overall goal of a safety program,” Dugan adds. “Safety cops focus on a single frame. We want to look at the big picture and create a culture where people look out for each other.”
When you outsource some or all of your safety roles, it’s important they’re more than safety cops.
“Safety cop types can easily create an atmosphere of resentment. It becomes a bit of an ‘us versus them’ scenario between workers and safety managers. If you have a safety person telling a veteran worker how he should be doing his job, well, they usually don’t like that much,” Dugan says.
The better approach, and one that SITEX favors, is to ensure information about safety hazards flows both ways and use that dialogue to improve processes and the overall safety culture.
“There’s usually a reason someone commits a safety infraction. They may not know they are. Or maybe they do know but have willfully chosen to violate a code because their PPE is uncomfortable or because they can finish the job a lot faster by doing it a different way. Understanding these reasons first allows you to make long-term, systemic improvements.”
Dugan notes that while SITEX needs to retain its independence and objectivity, it wants to function as a true partner – a safety consultant that elevates the overall safety culture.
“Compliance is critical, but it’s a lot easier to get there with dialogue than directives,” he says. “We’re not going to come in and start barking at workers, flagging violations, and reporting to OSHA. We’re going to get to the root of non-compliance. We’re going to understand what processes we can improve to make compliance easier.”
A good safety manager develops a culture where safety is a shared responsibility, emphasizing comprehension, engagement, and continuous improvement rather than simply enforcing rules. This approach enhances safety and contributes to increased productivity and employee satisfaction.
“We always refer to ourselves as a safety partner because that’s how we approach our work,” Dugan says. “We see our jobs as experts, educators, and coaches, not enforcers. At the end of the day, our mission is to save lives, and that’s best accomplished by having everyone onboard and understanding the best ways to protect people – not by just pointing out all the things that might be wrong.”
Here are some typical results from the two different approaches to safety management:
Disengagement: Employees become discouraged from actively participating in safety initiatives.
Fear-based culture: Workers fail to understand the need for certain safety measures and reluctantly comply with rules only to avoid punishment.
Lost opportunities for improvement: Disengagement keeps employers from becoming aware of existing safety issues.
Reduced morale and productivity: The negative culture behind punitive enforcement drains morale, which decreases productivity.
Promotes education: Emphasizes the ‘why’ behind safety protocols. Provides training and resources for willful compliance.
Builds relationships: Develops trust and rapport that encourages employees to identify hazards and suggest improvements without fear.
Proactivity: Implements preventive measures and audits. Involves employees in decision-making processes.
Fosters communication: Promotes open communication about expectations, procedures, and encourages feedback.
Learn more about how SITEX’s Total Safety Management approach helps businesses see safety through a holistic lens in our article A New Model for Safety Consulting that Delivers Long-Term ROI.
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