Health & safety: image problem, or self-image problem?

Health and safety | January 2019

gerry parsons from shirley parsons ltdA call to arms from Gerry Pearson, Co-founder and M.D., Shirley Parsons

logo for shirley parsons ltdShirley Parsons is a global health and safety recruitment, staffing, and leadership advisory organisation. We’ve been speaking to health and safety professionals and the businesses that employ them every day for 15 years. In my role as Managing Director, I’m privileged to be able to see how health and safety is viewed on a macro level, from both within and outside of the profession.

It may surprise you that much of the talk I hear and read with regards to the ‘image problem’ of health and safety actually comes from within the profession. So are we perpetuating the perceptions that existed over 15 years ago? In a sense, yes.

Since I have been involved (2004) in recruiting health and safety professionals and advising companies on their talent needs, the consistent impression has been that a) health and safety professionals have a mix of technical knowledge, commercial acumen, and strong influencing skills and b) Most companies ‘get’ this which is manifested through their specifications when briefing us on a recruitment assignment. So is there really an image problem?

When it comes to perception, we need to stop looking within the profession (the talent supply) and start looking outside to the wider business community, who have the demand for talent in order to meet their business goals. At Shirley Parsons we work with SMEs through to bluechips across the UK….in the large majority, they are asking for commercially astute individuals, with strong influencing skills, and technical competence. And they are being supplied with talent that matches those exact specifications. So is there really an image problem?

We talk to thousands of health and safety professionals every month and, to a greater or lesser degree, most meet what we consider to be the essentials: technical competence, people skills, and commercial acumen. We meet many health and safety professionals at all levels who are exceptionally bright and driven (self funded to MSc level), people who are fantastic company and highly engaging, and with high levels of commercial awareness. The image problem from the 20th century has to a large extent gone. It has gone because the modern health and safety professional offers so much value to businesses, and because businesses are demanding value, and getting it.

Most businesses are switched on and see good health and safety management as an essential business enabler. Sure, there is a spectrum of wanting to simply be compliant, right through to having mature health and safety culture – but what’s wrong with being just compliant, if taken as a serious obligation. Some very large companies that I know of are happy with just compliance – and are hugely appreciative of the health and safety professionals that help them achieve that.

Some health and safety professionals are hell-bent on changing entire cultures. That’s brilliant! But hard to achieve – just getting top level buy-in is hard….let alone the rest of the workforce. My favourite assignments are those that unlock the passion and talent of a senior health and safety director to change culture in a way that ultimately has a tremendous effect on the bottom line. Remember, the bottom line is the primary reason for being for any business. Some businesses do not want to invest in a ‘health and safety culture’, that is their decision and it doesn’t mean that they do not take safety seriously. Anyway, the very best health and safety professionals are able to change culture through a silent revolution, through first class influencing skills and execution of initiatives – and when the board see the results the buy-in magically appears.

So, I don’t think there is an image problem, or if there is one then it is certainly not significant in any way.

I do think the profession looks inwardly a bit too often though, insisting that things must change, that the profession must modernise. It already has, and has been modernising for at least 15 years! Are the debates within the profession and the occasional story from outside of it ‘fake news’? Sometimes. Are businesses insisting on change? Are they ‘down’ on the health and safety profession? No. There are more switched on and commercially orientated people in health and safety than ever before. UK PLC knows it too. It’s high time to be proud of the health and safety profession and to encourage a healthy self-image.

Stop being so hard on yourselves!


More about Gerry Pearson

gerry pearson md of shirley parsons ltdGerry Pearson, along with Shirley Parsons CMIOSH (whom the company is named after) was an original co-founder of Shirley Parsons Ltd in 2005. Their aim was to make the company the world’s go-to organisation for HSEQ talent. It grew rapidly and is now established as the UK market leader. In 2014, Gerry co-founded Shirley Parsons’ US business. Today it is the fastest growing HSEQ talent business in the US, with offices in Boston and Los Angeles.

Gerry’s journey has seen him become a career agent to many leading HSEQ professionals and the HSEQ talent partner to global bluechip businesses. This has given him unique insight into best practice and business excellence across a multitude of industry sectors. Shirley Parsons continues to grow globally with Gerry as Managing Director, leading the company’s provision of HSEQ specific executive search, staffing, and recruitment services across the UK, Europe and USA.

Visit Shirley Parsons at www.shirleyparsons.com