What makes a Health and Safety Mercenary?

It’s not that we fell out exactly but there was an obvious tension in the air and whilst it wasn’t said, it was clear we were just going to have to leave it and agree to disagree.

John is an OSH Practitioner and friend (still, I hope) of mine and we’d been discussing how far a practitioner should go in helping operational people to complete their risk assessments. John’s view was that he’d provided training and had worked through a number of assessments with the team and he’d satisfied himself that they understood the process, so now it was really up to them to allocate the time and get the assessments done. The discussion was about risk assessments but it really could have been about countless other things. I just felt that a practitioner should provide more and better support than that.

I was reminded of Mike Buttolph’s seminal articles on Styles of Safety Practice in the SHP journal in March and April 1999. Mike outlined several safety stereotypes (the Monk, the Mercenary and the Missionary) in order to explain the perceived low status of safety professionals at the time and to advocate a coaching and mentoring approach.

Mercenaries see safety much like a commodity, the possession of which makes them important to an organisation. They believe that at the end of the day, only they have the required knowledge and skills to be able to do what needs to be done to the required standard. Whilst they say that managers and supervisors should own health and safety, their tendency is to do the things that really ought to be done by others because it’s in their interests to do so and because it’s just easier to do something yourself than it is to support someone else to do it to anything like the required standard.

We discuss Mike Buttolph’s safety stereotypes in class and the consensus generally is that the Mercenary style is still very much alive and kicking not least of which because organisations are happy to let Mercenaries get on with it.

My contretemps with John, who thought that only a Mercenary-type would do any more than he had done, had caused me to reflect on what makes a Mercenary. Certainly John’s position isn’t unusual. Practitioners often say don’t they “I can’t do your assessments for you” and argue, rightly, that it’s the operational staff who have the knowledge (on the equipment, materials, processes etc.) and the experience of difficulties and near-misses needed for the assessments to be accurate. Practitioners generally see it as their role to train staff in the process of carrying out the assessments (identify the hazards, assess the risks, evaluate the risks etc.) But is this right? I don’t think it is?

I accept of course that as the practitioner I don’t have the knowledge required, but as the safety competent person, I do know the questions to ask. Does wanting to be there to ask them and listen to the answers and ask the next incisive question to ensure that the assessment is comprehensive and accurate make me a Mercenary? I don’t think it does. I think it makes me a coach. What matters is who provides the information isn’t it? Not who holds the pen.

As a coach I see my role is to be supportive and to help people perform better. If I focus on their development, a point will be reached when the operational staff also know the questions to ask and my job will be done. The same could be said for investigating accidents and for many of the other things that need to be done to exercise health and safety responsibilities. And that’s the difference. Mercenaries, whether it’s because they’re unwilling or unable, are not ‘collaborative partners’ who are genuinely interested in developing others.

I’m not sure if it ever is possible (or even desirable) for practitioners to work themselves out of a job, but if it is I’m certain it can only ever be achieved through developing people using coaching skills.

Sorry John.

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  1. I really believe that as SHP’s, we are partners with the site management in achieving a “safe site”; where we act as “Coach” to our people in terms of Health & Safety because we need to educate them regarding their roles & responsibilities in H&S, thus we need to listen to them & encourage them in reporting anything that happens in the site. And you are right, that they are the ones exposed to every hazard, the ones who really understands & has the knowledge of their situation, we just need to guide them in learning their part in protecting themselves & others who might be affected of their actions. Thus, it is from them that we will be able to develop an effective Risk Assessment because of their inputs & suggestions, for theirs is the first-hand information of such.

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