The Safety of Work

Ep.30 What do safety professionals believe about themselves?

Episode Summary

Today, we discuss what safety professionals believe about themselves and their line of work. We talk about what influences their perspectives and what the outcomes are.

Episode Notes

We use David’s paper, Benefactor or Burden, to frame our discussion today.



“Very few safety people describe themselves as bureaucrats.”

“...Just that word, ‘Professional’. It tended to be the case that people who had tertiary education thought of that as being important as part of being a professional.”

“We value belonging and involvement, but we also require authority to do some of our role.”


Provan, D. J., Dekker, S. W., & Rae, A. J. (2018). Benefactor or Burden: Exploring the professional identity of safety professionals. Journal of safety research, 66, 21-32.

Episode Transcription

Drew: You're listening to the Safety of Work Podcast episode 30. Today we're asking the question, what do safety professionals believe about themselves? Let's get started.

Hey, everybody. My name is Drew Rae and I'm here with David Provan. We're from the Safety Science Innovation Lab at Griffith University. Welcome to the Safety of Work Podcast. If this is your first time listening, then thanks for coming. If you're coming back, well, thanks for coming back. The podcast is produced every week and the show notes can be found at In each episode, we ask an important question in relation to the safety of work or the work of safety and have a look at the evidence surrounding it. But every 10 episodes of the podcast, we indulge ourselves by talking about one of our own research papers.

In this case, it's a piece by David called Benefactor or burden: Exploring the professional identity of safety professionals. David, maybe you could start off by explaining just what professional identity is and how you came to be writing this paper.

David: Thanks, Drew. The background for this was I just finished my literature review. I really wanted to try to understand what had been researched in relation to the safety profession over the last 20 or 30 years. I dug out and read everything I could find on safety professional practice. We knew a lot about the tasks that safety professionals were performing. We knew about their training and educational background. We knew about a whole range of organizational factors and relational factors. I knew I didn't feel we knew what safety professionals actually believed about themselves and what they believed about safety.

I had also spent a bit of time exploring different social psychology theories and I was hung up a little bit on this idea of structure and agency, which is how much of the role behavior of safety professionals is directed by what they think and believe versus how much is directed by the structures, environments, and contexts within which they work. I was curious about this because I'd seen lots of safety professionals in organizations perform their roles in similar ways even though they had very different backgrounds and experiences. I got a little bit curious about this.

The way that they come to this was to research the beliefs of safety professionals about safety and their role. Before I go into the method and what I actually did, I thought you might give us a little bit of an overview of professional identity, role, and the background theory around that.

Drew: I've put this into the notes hoping that you were going to explain it to us. I do remember that at this time of the research, we were both pretty interested in what it would look like for someone who had a very new view of safety to be a safety professional. Before we assumed that that would be a totally different role, we really wanted to have some understanding of how much a safety professional’s belief actually matters. How much power does a safety professional have to reshape their role because they believe in safety differently or safety, too?

There are a few distinctions we need to make in talking about professional identity. The first one is the distinction between what someone does and who they are. We might call that the difference between role and identity. The role is what you do. Identity is what you believe and what you think. Obviously, the two are related. Your role helps create your identity. Your identity helps create the role, but it doesn't have to necessarily be exactly the same thing. Someone could have very progressive beliefs but be stuck in a very traditional role progressive identity.

The second thing that it's important to distinguish is between organizational identity and professional identity. We all belong to a number of different things. We're all part of our own family. We're all part of the company we work for. We all have our private lives. We're all part of a group, identity, or profession. We have different identities that come from each of those things. We need to tease that out a little bit, understand how much is coming from the company you work for, and how much is coming from yourself as a member of a profession. 

Your professional identity is an individual self-concept. It's what they believe about themselves, about what it means to be at how professional they are. You can break it down into what they've experienced, what they believe, their values, their motives, and their attributes.

David: Drew, thanks for taking that. You do all right. I was worried that I'd be spending too much time talking on this episode. I was looking to throw to you as often and as early as I could. Early on in this paper, we found a range of stereotypes that people had written in the literature and used to describe the safety profession. The safety profession had been described as a policeman, had been described as a bureaucrat, and even described as a priest or a psychologist. These personas, stereotypes, or labels that are put onto the safety profession, is this how we should think about professional identity?

Drew: This is where the difference between a stereotype and identity is whether it comes from the inside or the outside. Very few safety people describe themselves as bureaucrats. I do actually know a few who described themselves as safety cops but it's usually a little bit ironic. Those are outside of labels that people pin onto safety people. Whereas professional identity is how they see their role from the inside. It may match the stereotype. It may not. That's something that we want to interrogate through the research.

David: The professional identity literature. There is quite a body of professional identity literature. Furthermore, what we consider to be the more established professions. There's been quite a number of studies when we think about teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, police officers, engineers. These established professions have all had varying degrees of research done into what their common professional identity is around people who are in these roles.

I'd say the most popular model of professional identity is a model by [...] published in 1999. It describes five aspects related to professional identity. Just to finish off before we dive into the paper, just a quick definition of each of these. I might just run through these quickly and then we can move on. 

Experiences are simply events or occurrences that happened throughout your career or life that leave an impression on the safety professional regarding how they think about and practice their role. You'd all have had those events throughout your career that leave a lasting impact on how you think and how you perform your role. 

Attributes, these are qualities or features that can be regarded as an inherent feature of the safety profession. Things we see commonly, for example, the caring attribute in the case of nurses or an analytical type of attribute in the case of an engineer. 

Beliefs, this is trust, faith, confidence, or an acceptance that something exists or is true. I believe this. 

Motives, as you might think, motivation, a person's reason for doing something. A police officer much strongly identified with a motivation to protect communities or a lawyer to uphold justice. 

Finally, values. Values are principles or standards of behavior resulting from one's judgment about what's important in life.  To spoil some of it, a safety professional might think that I have to draw the line or call out things that are unsafe to protect lives in my organization. 

Drew, the core question we're asking today is what the safety professionals believe about themselves. Let's talk a bit about the method in the paper.

Drew: The paper as I mentioned early on is Benefactor or burden: Exploring the professional identity of safety professionals. The paper was published in 2018 in the Journal of Safety Research. That's one of the big four Elsevier safety journals. You may have heard of Safety Science, Reliability Engineering and System Safety, Accident Analysis and Prevention, and Journal of Safety Research is the fourth. The research was performed as part of David's PhD. He was the first author and the other two authors, Sidney Dekker and myself.

David: Drew, this wasn't the main research of my PhD. The main research was something that I did a study over about seven months where I really wanted to explore safety professional practice. This was the lead-in to go. To understand practice, I can observe all the things that are going on in an organization, but I need to have a model and an understanding of what's going on inside the minds and the heads (if you like) of the safety profession to try to make sense of all of that. Maybe when we get to episode 40, we'll flip a coin, and at least at some point, we might talk about the main research I did during my PhD.

The method for this was to do 13-in depth interviews, so get 13 safety professionals and have quite an in-depth interview with them. Given the constructivist nature of professional identity, much of the research involves what we call context-specific qualitative case studies because we need to get it very personal and often unconscious, beliefs associated with professional identity, you can't just ask a safety professional how do you identify as a safety professional? What are your beliefs? What's your motivation?”

You'll get a very transactional understanding of the person and more broadly their profession. We've talked a little bit about this in psychology research. You have to come at this from a slightly more obscure angle to try to elicit the deeper and the rich information that you need to build a model of professional identity.

Drew, you've already mentioned we need to separate professional identity from organizational identity. I had participants all from the same company because the feeling was if we had 13 people from 13 different companies and you get differences in insights about beliefs about safety, beliefs about the role, beliefs about who I am, it will be very hard to attribute whether some of that is confounded by organizational identity or whether that's a divergence in professional identity. That was a conscious choice of the researcher. Do you want to comment anything about the participants before we get into the method?

Drew: I think it's interesting because this is something, if I recall, the reviewers or the examiners did question. Is the tradeoff that you make when you get everyone from the same organization? The advantage is that the organization isn't a factor in the differences between your subjects, but what you don't know is how much organization is affected by the similarities between the subjects. That if there's something that seems to be common across all of your participants, that could just be that because they're from the same organization. They've had that same experience or they share that same value.

David: It's a good point and it's always hard I believe. As far as I understand, this was the first professional identity study done on the safety profession. These early exploratory types of studies are hard because you don't have a theoretical framework. It makes it hard to go broad to collect data. We knew we had to do depth-first rather than breadth-first research. We actually had to develop an understanding. To do that, we had to do it as a case study and do it quite deeply. They call it the end of the paper the need to actually broaden this out now and broadening this work out across the profession.

Drew: One thing that interests me is you yourself are a safety professional. These are obviously questions that you've had to ask yourself. Questions that I expect you were specifically asking yourself when you decided to move into doing a PhD. How do you think that flavored the research or was a help or hindrance in doing the work?

David: Reflexivity or research reflexivity, we've mentioned that before. People might understand it as researcher bias. It absolutely affects it and it's a tradeoff. We've talked about tradeoffs in safety as well because professional identity is so internal and detailed. Like I said earlier, sometimes unconscious understanding of a person's own beliefs, they're not things that we always readily have available in front of our mind. That professional identity emerges out of an ongoing dialogue. So for me to have the empathy and the understanding in the context, to be able to have a two-way exploration, probe, and explore, probably allowed a more allowable rich data than would normally get. It's quite common in professional identity research from reviewing the literature to having someone very familiar with the profession as part of the research team both in the data collection and in the analysis.

Drew: I imagine there are a lot of several references that you would miss if you weren't a safety professional yourself hearing someone talk about their work.

David: It did challenge me, though, because the questions that I mention now were hard and tough to put people on the spot. I am actually still not sure today how I'd actually answer the questions that I asked the participants. I asked four very open questions to allow participants to deliver their narrative, for who they are, and how they understand safety in their role. The first question was just simply, describe your safety background. Participants could come at this however they want. I left high school and did this. I was involved in an accident. My father did this type of occupation. There was an opportunity and it looked like a good job. This is where people could just tell the narrative for how and why they got involved in safety and trying to elicit these experiences and motivations.

The second one was, describe how you think safety is best managed in organizations. This goes to beliefs. This is also being influenced, Drew, like you mentioned earlier. We're trying to get underneath what types of safety theories people tie in with. Do they say that it's all about systems? Do they say it's about leadership and culture? Do they say it's about a good safety organization?

The third question was, describe your role as a safety professional in the organization. This was trying to get a little bit clearer so we could understand activities, values, the necessary attributes of people performing that type of role as it's described.

Lastly, the fourth question was, describe the major successes in your career as a safety professional. We're trying to get a sense of what good looks like. What do people see as the goals or outcomes of their role? Again, to get insights into motivations and beliefs about safety.

Four questions, Drew. I let them go until the interviews were finished. The interviews went for between 45 and 90 minutes, so ended up with a total of 655 minutes or about 11 hours of audio and about 170 pages of written transcripts. That got us the data. A huge amount of basically conversational texts. Do you want to tell our listeners about how we then went about turning that 11 hours of safety professionals rambling amongst each other about safety and the role into a model of professional identity?

Drew: There are two ways to answer that question. One of them is to talk about the theory of qualitative analysis, so grounded theory and discourse analysis. The other is to give our readers a sense of how this actually happens, which if I recall correctly, was you and I sitting on opposite sides of the desk with the same transcript in front of us, just each reading through and trying to work out what jumped out at us.

That isn't as unscientific as it sounds because a lot of what you're trying to do with this is to notice the hidden assumptions and values that are revealed by what people say. There are certain language structures that people use that link concepts together and say this is the same as that or distinctions that they make, I'm this. I'm not like that. I'm not one of those people. It shows that they see the world as having those categories and that they see themselves as belonging to those categories.

The first step is to sift through and find all of those statements that we think are significant and revealing. The next step is then to try to group those together, find common patterns, categories that keep emerging, assumptions that keep emerging, values that keep being revealed across the interviews.

David: You're quite right. We were in your office and we had printed transcripts. We sat there quietly for 30 minutes each. The task was one of the most important pieces of information in this transcript in relation to the safety professional identity or professional role. We’d start off. We'd playback to each other. We'd have maybe 50%, 60%, or 70% overlap. You'd pick out a nuance and I'd pick out a nuance. We'd frame it up. We go onto the next transcript. We'd learn something new. We go back into the first transcript and try to look for something that was consistent with or contradictory to that new piece of information from the second transcript.

This is a method of progressive comparison. You're coming up with the important things. You're looking at the next piece. You’re going in refining. You're looking at the third piece. You’re going in refining. That's why qualitative research is so deep but it's very hard to do with a large sample. It's not that hard for me to go and do 100 of these interviews in 100 hours, but it would be a very difficult analytical exercise and then do something with all that data.

Drew: The final thing I guess that's worth mentioning is how do you know whether what you've arrived at is complete and valid? There's a couple of concepts we use when we're trying to establish that in qualitative research. The first is this idea of saturation. There's no magic number for how many interviews to do. There is no textbook that says 10 is the right number of interviews or 20 is the right number. The idea is that over time you begin to see the same concepts come up over and over again and you see fewer and fewer new things coming out of an interview. If you've done 10 interviews and then the 11th interview tells you nothing more surprising, then you've got saturation. You might do one more interview just to check. If nothing new is coming up, then you know that you're reasonably complete in what you found.

The second important one is cross-checking and comparison. It's very easy to fall in love with an idea that's not actually real and just keep finding examples of that. You're constantly testing, okay, this person said this. I think they mean that. What's the evidence for and against that actually being the answer? You want to see something cropping up multiple times in similar ways before you start to believe it's real. It's not that every participant has to say the same thing. You need to allow for the fact that different participants have got different answers and different experiences. If something is just mentioned once with no support, then even though you might think it's really significant. If you can't test it or find some way of justifying it, then you just need to accept that that's interesting, but it's only just one statement.

David: Following on from that, I suppose in good qualitative research, we're trying to do some data theory matching as well. Once we've got those things out of the data, we then dive back into the literature and try to find theories, frameworks, and other empirical findings that provide an explanation for the thing that we've found or provided some further understanding of what's come out of the data that we've got. That's why we were able to use professional identity literature and particularly some studies that we've done on other professions to make sense of some of the things we're finding in relation to the safety profession.

Drew: Let's move on and talk about the findings. After all this work, these deep interviews, you came up with a simple, single, clear model that can tell us what is a safety professional and what do they believe.

David: Absolutely. For all the safety professionals out there, you'd understand that our role in an organization is one that is very simple, straightforward, and lends itself to a very simple model of the profession. Drew, quite sarcastically, that's not the case. Safety is an incredibly complicated profession. I concluded or we concluded that we have it consistent but quite a confused professional identity. This is why it was so valuable to do the deep roundabout discussion because people in their minds I think might have a very clear view of what they think their role is. But as we got underneath it, the tensions and contradictions are really unresolvable. These are complex social and organizational challenges that the safety professional faces in their role every day with their organization. 

Drew, we're going to talk about eight key areas in relation to that. Some in all the areas are a whole range of questions for safety professionals to consider about how they identify with the role but then there are some broader implications that we will talk about at the end.

The first one and the clear standout was that a safety professional’s experience is the most dominant factor in determining their professional identity. This probably doesn't surprise people. We talk about being a product of our experience. The main thing that was really interesting is whether people had a tertiary education qualification in relation to safety or whether they came off the tools (if you like) and had operational experience.

In this study, we had half the participants who had gone to school, gone to university, done a safety degree, and then worked as a safety professional for their whole career. About half the participants that had come out of being a pilot, paramedic, or a mechanic, and then came into the safety profession. Their view of the world is vastly different. 

Drew: David, I'm going to pause you for just a quick moment here because I like our listeners to stop and think about the relative importance of practical experience versus having some tertiary qualification in safety, and if you chose to form your own opinion immediately? I want you to tell us what you found about what safety professionals believe.

David: I think if you form the view that tertiary safety education is really important, I'm going to lay a lot of money that you are a tertiary qualified safety professional. If you form the view that frontline operational experience is really important, then I'm going to lay a lot of money on your career pathway and that you possibly don't have a tertiary qualification in safety.

Drew: I guess that's not that surprising that people tend to value the path that they have chosen. What shocked me was just how vehement people are and how much they devalue whatever type of experience they don't have. It's not that people who have practical experience were saying that that was important. It's that they were directly attacking the idea of having tertiary qualifications, attacking the competence, and practicality of people who had tertiary qualifications. It wasn't just that the people who had education were saying, hey, I really enjoyed my university and I think that that's important. They were downplaying the expertise and competence of anyone who didn't have that training.

David: Drew, I was even a little bit more confused than that because we've got some quotes here about someone saying that we shouldn't be employing people without tertiary qualifications in health and safety. Another person saying I think there's a group of people who are qualified in health and safety that are very theoretical in their approach, very rigid around safety, and I think that's personally disappointing. 

We got these quotes here. It was interesting that even when tertiary qualified people said it was really important, they also said that they didn't actually learn anything useful in their tertiary qualification. They've learned everything on the job. Their motivation was like, I'm committed to this profession. I've done the time. I've spent three years at university. I'm a real professional. This was the narrative. Even though they may not extract anything valuable out of it, that was an important part of being a professional to them and still a critical part for all professionals.

Drew: David, I don't know if you're planning to say this later but another thing that struck me about that was just that word professional. It tended to be the case that the people who had tertiary education thought of that as being important as part of being a professional. Some of the people without that experience didn't actually label themselves as professionals. They saw the role not as a professional role but maybe as a more of a practical role.

David: I'm not sure if it was a professional versus practical role. I just don't know if they identified with the label safety professional. We would have some participants in the research who would say these safety professionals are like this and use it to describe a group of people that wasn't them even though they were in a safety professional role. It's almost like they hadn't fully engaged with the label of safety professional for some reason that I don't understand. Whether they didn't like the label, they didn't agree with the people who use the label to describe themselves, or they wanted to consider themselves different, I'm not sure.

Drew: That's really interesting. Interesting here, too, what our listeners think of this, particularly where they've had similar experiences with that, either that antagonism or that decision about what to call yourself and whether the label professional is something that you respond to or don't respond to.

David: Drew, the second tension was about relationships versus formal authority. This is tension between safety professionals having strong relationships with decision-makers in their organizations and being able to influence versus having formal authority vested in them as professionals through management systems and having decision rights over being able to make certain decisions for safety within their organization. Even though the participants unanimously agreed that relationships were more important, they still wanted to have the formal authority. I think it was episode 23 on influence, they wanted to fall back. They wanted to be able to go, well, relationships are most important but if I can't influence through relationships, I still want to be able to get involved in making decisions.

Drew: I think one of my favorite lines from the study, the quote isn’t in front of me so I'm not going to get it quite right, with someone saying that it's not my job to make decisions. I'm just a business partner. It's the operational leader's job to make the decisions. It's my job to make sure they get that decision right. If I don't get it right, I've got to fix it.

David: We'll come back. I think that quote is a bit later in the paper. We'll save that until we talk a bit close to that theme. This is where people were saying quotes like, I see my role as a partner, a supporter, and enabler to the organization to deliver a great safety outcome. Also, people trying to understand this tension between formal authority in relationships by saying things like I'm not just a dude wielding an ASCMS slamming it down on tables every now and then and evangelizing. As if indicating what you said that is part of the role of the safety professional to uphold compliance with standards and make decisions.

Drew: I think it’s very telling. They didn't say, I'm not a dude wielding it. They say, I'm not just a dude wielding it, which is a concession that behavior is part of the role.

David: That's something that comes up more. I know I'm deferring some of these conversations, but many of these things are interrelated as our listeners would understand, even though we try to come up with a five-element model of professional identity. These findings are interrelated. That tension between relationships and formal authority leads to the next tension which is a tension between interpersonal skills versus technical knowledge. This is where people were talking about their role, if people remember the questions with their role, what success looks like. 

There was this discussion in every interview, in every conversation about soft skills and hard skills. I know they're terrible labels, but interpersonal skills and technical knowledge. The challenge here was that almost unanimously again, professionals concluded that interpersonal skills were more important, but organizations actually value the said profession for its technical knowledge, bringing some actual insights and information to the table. 

It was really interesting the way that people talked about the safety profession and interpersonal skills. This is fascinating. I know that the profession gets criticized quite a bit for not having great interpersonal skills. The first quote that I want to read out that I really love is, when asked about that, one participant said, it sounds a bit weird. It's going to sound really weird but the said profession just being a normal person quite frankly in terms of being able to relate with other people within the organization. 

Drew: The fact that they were uncomfortable in saying, the key part of my job is just behaving like a normal person. That's the key to success. It really says something about what they think about or has observed in themselves or in other safety professionals.

David: We had these discussions about this idea that people would be familiar with about being a safety cop and not having interpersonal skills but just forming a view on technical knowledge and trying to drive it through the organization. The safe efficiency does understand that that's not an effective way to manage. It doesn't identify with that being an effective way to identify with or perform the role. Quite nuanced quotes like understanding the dynamics and pressures of different people you're trying to influence under. You just can't be a bully trying a shot. You’ll always fail.

Drew: I think it’s really important to get to that distinction between professional identities versus outside the stereotypes. I don't really think that there was anyone in this study. Very few people in my personal experience who as safety professionals seriously don't think the job requires people’s skills and persuasive skills. Be seen or have stereotypes as your safety cops and bureaucrats, but the reality is that most safety people see themselves as influences and see those skills as a key part of the job and the key part of successes that they have achieved in the past.

David: Absolutely true. You mentioned stereotypes. Again, one of the challenges with professional identity is that people do get worried about and internalizing these stereotypes and these projections onto them. We're going to talk about a few more things like bureaucracy and that. People feel as part of their identity is about discrediting the stereotypes that are put onto them. They do get a lot of airtime within the professional identity. I'm not explaining this very well but if there's a stronger stereotype being imposed on the profession and a weaker professional identity, then there's a lot of work that the profession will put in to try to discredit that. If you've got a strong professional identity, maybe like a doctor, there's not so much strength of stereotype that gets projected onto that profession.

Drew: So you're saying that doctors don't have to spend a lot of time worrying that all people think of doctors as health cops? Therefore, I've got to deliberately not be a health cop. They just don't worry about it because people don't have that projection onto them.

David: Yeah. I think we'll talk about professional identity archetypes and then how training and education builds. We'll talk about it now briefly. Having training, education, career development, and progression that builds and reinforces the motives, the values, the attributes, and the experiences that lead to a more of a consistent professional identity archetype mean that there's this strength of identity amongst the profession which creates a closer connection between the external view of the profession and the internal view of the profession. That's one that's quite absent in safety.

Drew: These last couple of items on the list start to draw that link between the professional identity and how people go about performing their role. Do you want to just take us through the next couple of items?

David: Let's do that. One of the things that were very consistent in the data was this discussion about safety being about change, safety being about improvements, safety being about a journey, to take some thunder from Andy White. He's a friend of the podcast. He talks about journey narratives in safety. Success, the role, improving safety within organizations, in the mind of the profession was all about taking the organization to somewhere where it's not today. The quote would be like, I'm leading them through the vision of what safety could look like in 3, 5, to 10 years. Or someone else is saying, I've always said that good safety performance and good safety outcomes is a journey, not a destination.

This was really interesting. Why we pull this out is it's not necessarily consistent with management science or some of the new view of safety which says that there's a need to both understand the capacities that are currently delivering safety in the organization. Shore them up, reinforce them, and support them, as well as adding new things that may not be there at the moment, whereas the safety professional identity is all about change. That gives us, as a profession, something to do. It gives us a vision to work towards but may miss a huge part of the profession’s responsibility to support existing operations. 

Drew: I think this is one place where the role starts to dominate the professional identity. We have all of this narrative about needing to change, needing to lead, need to take people to the destination. But when we look at how much freedom people have to spend their time doing that leadership and creating that change, we find that they're in fact very much captured by the immediate bureaucratic tasks in front of them.

David: That's a perfect segue to the next one which the next tension is bureaucracy versus agency. The profession really understood and identified with the need to build capability into all people in the organization, to make decisions for themselves, be they frontline workers, managers, other professionals, and to have an agency to exercise that capability to make the decisions in front of them. But it also felt it was important to have safety systems, safety processes, and safety bureaucracy to drive consistent ways of doing things in the business. This tension between how much standard process bureaucracy do I have to generate outcomes versus how much capability and autonomy I build into people to be able to generate context-specific outcomes.

We had these statements of things that people would say there are lots of issues with our systems. They're very top-heavy. They create a lot of burdens. They tend to get in the way. Almost in the same breath, the quote says but our systems should underpin everything that we're doing. There was this tension between we need to have the system when the system's not working, but we can't really do anything about it. It was always this powerless kind of narrative around we just needed to accept it. 

Drew: It also seems to be a bit of a simultaneous faith and frustration with the system. Even the people who are most frustrated with the system have absolute faith that a good system is the answer. It's just that they haven't quite reached perfection in the system yet. For some people, it's the need to simplify it. For other people, it's the need to get people on board with the system. For others, it's the need to improve it. But there is this faith that we can fix problems through having good systems in place.

David: I'm probably not giving full credit to the identity if you like, if that's the right way to say it, because there was a general view that modern safety bureaucracies and absolute encumbrance on safety, but there was not necessarily a way to get started. What do I do about that as a professional, there was a lack of clarity about what to do about that, but there was a common understanding of the problem. 

I suppose some of this research through this was all happening at the same time, we just wrote the Safety of Work paper. We were just drafting the safety [...] paper. This was all happening around the same time and being influenced by some of these researchers as well as other projects that were going on at the time.

The next two are related so we might merge the two, the tension between aligning with line managers or providing professional advice. This is what I think Dave Woods said in the early 2000s about needing to be involved and aligned with line managers and operations, needing to be independent enough to have a more objective model of risk and provide insight and professional advice. In this way, the safest we're talking about is pushing away from owning safety, making sure that line managers and operation personnel were taking up their role, and then supporting what line managers needed to make it effective, but just holding the line and maybe just being in a position to be able to disagree with the decision-maker, that difficult challenge of providing support and providing the challenge.

Drew: I think this is the one where safety as a profession has it particularly hard. This is something that you touch on. I'm not sure whether it's in this paper in your later work, David, about it being really unclear what counts as a safety decision. It's really easy for a lawyer to be both on board with management, providing them good advice, and independent because they can say I'm giving you the best advice I can but it's my job to give you legal advice. This is what the law says. It's easy for an engineer to say like, I'm helping you achieve your goals but the calculations or the standard is this. This is where I draw the line. 

For safety, we don't have that professional domain to fall back on where we can say, I'm sorry, this is a safety decision, I'm the safety expert, and here is the answer because all safety decisions are also operational decisions, also engineering decisions, or are also financial decisions.

David: I think you're exactly right. I also think that sometimes there is that decision because there is a very specific regulation when we're doing operational decisions, like can I work at this height without this fall protection? There might be a regulation around that. Most of the decisions that we're talking about in safety are absolutely not black and white. They've generally got quite significant operational implications. You're right. We did write in one paper that safety is rarely a standard to be achieved. It's a point of consensus among stakeholders. Once you've got something that needs to be a point of consensus, we run into all these challenges with social challenges, challenges of power, hierarchy, and all these other things.

In a situation where there are no concrete rules, then this space becomes really complicated. How do I maintain my relationship and provide professional advice when that professional advice may not be what the person making the decision agrees with that may cost the organization a lot of money, and am I going to be able to influence the next time? These are all really complex decisions that safety professionals need to make in providing their advice.

Drew: Particularly since a lot of the professionals really have an absolute moral and ethical obligation to at times draw the line. Even though there's this idea that their job used to be a business partner to support management, they still felt a very strong ethical responsibility that there were times when they had to be the ones to draw the line between safe and unsafe, to stand on the right side of that line, and to protect it.

David: I think this was one that I've become more comfortable with. That's okay over time. When I first did this, I thought you can't sit there and go someone's accountable as long as they're making decisions the way that I think they should make them or I'm going to let people make their own decisions until they get to a line. Once they cross that line, then I'm going to revoke their decision-making rights as a safety professional. There was a quote in here that said something like the keeper and consciousness are part of the organization. There's always an element or a policing that's involved in our role. I think that is actually the case.

Our role is to support and enable organizations to a point. There's got to be an ethical responsibility for us to get to that point and not continue to support the organization beyond that. Where that point is an individual professional decision. I just wanted to add. At the start when I first did this research, when we first wrote this paper, you can't have your cake and eat it too, but I actually think that you need to.

Drew: That is consistent with other professions. The job of your tax accountant is to help you save money, reduce your tax burden, and to use the laws in your own favor as much as you can. But there's a time when they just have to say nope. Sorry, I'm not comfortable doing more than that. This is what the law says. On this side of it is tax minimization which is okay. On this side of it, it's tax avoidance. That's the law. No, I'm not helping you do that. Safety professionals, maybe that line isn't clear. We need to do more to support professionals in how to work out where the line is and to support them when they make those decisions but it is just a professional thing. Support up to a line and then have that line clear that you're not going to cross.

David: I think that's good. I think that's something that every individual safety professional can reflect on how they're thinking about where that line is for themselves and then when they want to do something about it, how they were approaching that conversation with their organization. The last one here is that safety professionals as we've mentioned a few times are morally and ethically motivated. Many safety professionals, not all, identify safety as a calling which is beyond merely having a job or an occupation. This makes the said profession similar to other professional identities like nursing and social work. Many of the narratives are I want to do this because I want to keep people safe. I want to prevent incidents. My father or mother had an incident. The quote here that says, “If I'm going to spend time at work, I want to do something that will make a difference.”

For this reason, though, the challenge here for safety professionals is that their professional identity and their personal identity is very close, which means that whether an organization makes a decision that's inconsistent with a safety professional’s advice, they take this as a very personal reflection on themselves, not just the performance of their role, which is if I'm just doing a job that I don't have close personal identity alignment with, then maybe I don't have a deep personal value, motivation, or care about the outcome. I can disassociate my own personal feeling of worth with my role performance, whereas safety professionals find it difficult to separate their personal worth from their role performance.

Drew: That's really interesting. I have to admit it was a little bit surprising to me, given that even though some people say why did you get into safety, involves some superhero origin story of harm that's happened and caring for the survivors, is now that harm? A lot of people get into safety by accident. People don’t grow up through primary school and high school saying I want to be a safety practitioner. You play people growing wanting to be nurses, doctors, social workers, or lawyers. A lot of people almost stumble into safety. Still, there's this almost universal moral and ethical motivation that goes along with the profession.

David: I think also, since you've mentioned that we also know that that narrative and identity evolves over time. People would say I did a safety degree at university because there was nothing else to do or I just did it. But then in the 10, 15, or 20 years of their career, they form that moral narrative through the way that they think about the contribution they're making, the way that others talk about them, or the way that they talk about others in the profession. 

People would say, for example, in the data that I want to keep people safe, that's why I do this job. Yet 30 minutes earlier, they would have told me that the reason that they did safety was because they couldn't get into their first choice at university and then there were really good graduate jobs at the time. I don't want to mislead listeners to think that that narrative doesn't evolve over time. It can be very hard for someone to distinguish between what they believe now and what they think that they believed when they first started joining the profession.

Drew: David, all through this discussion, I think you started off by talking about them as the identity being confusing. Some people might see them as almost contradictions, others as goal conflicts or tensions that have risen. Do you want to just maybe go through quickly the list of them? Just to spell out what are the key struggling points that make the safety professional identities so confusing and difficult.

David: Let's do this where, in the interest of time, I'll go quite quickly these tensions we've spoken about, and then we'll sum up with practical takeaways. The first is how we do think about what's better between operational experience and academic education, valuing diversity but undervaluing experiences that are different to mind. Relational influence versus formal authority. We value belongings and involvement but we also require authority to do some of that role. Interpersonal skills versus technical knowledge. We know that interpersonal skills are important but other people value us for bringing technical knowledge and information. Enabling change versus protecting operations. We value change and we potentially undervalued this protection of existing operations and existing capacity in the organization.

This Brock bureaucracy versus agency, we value our own freedom. We believe in the freedom of others to make decisions and build capability in them to do that but we believe that safety absolutely requires bureaucracy to be successful. This moral safety professional versus unethical organization, which is that we are morally driven and ethically driven and we have a belief that others aren’t as ethically driven like us, so we need to be there to uphold the right decisions and to draw the line. 

We know we need to align with line managers versus having independent advice. We want leaders to be accountable for safety, but we don't believe that they understand safety so they need us to still make sure they're making the right decisions. Finally, others making operational decisions versus us drawing the line. We respect other people's authority to make decisions, but we absolutely value control being the ones to make the safety decisions in the organization.

Drew: David, in the interest of time, rather than asking you a load of questions here, I might just mention directly that in the paper you point out a couple of ways that we can start to deal with these apparent contradictions. One of them is the idea of multiple logics. These don't have to be direct contradictions. They can just be different things that are important to us. At different times, different sides of these equations become more important or less important. Perhaps even for different people that we form teams where different parts of the team will uphold one side of the contradiction, the other part of the team upholds the other side. We exist in that tension but in a constructive way.

David: Absolutely true. I think I initially was searching for the formula and the answer to this. I think the answer is actually that the formula is very context-dependent, which may not be surprising to our listeners to think that in different situations, the safety professional needs to be able to draw on different balances of each of these types of contradictions. They definitely end propositions. You can't be at one end of the pendulum on any of these things I think now. There is quite a lot of theory in the institutional logic space which talks about multiple logic and paradoxes.

A paradox is just two things that are apparently different but both true at the same time. I think there's quite a lot of new theory in the organizational literature around paradox mindset, hybrid professionals, and multiple institutional logics that if I ever get around to finishing the paper, which is half done, will bring a lot of insight for the safety profession into how we might think about this role. Not be anxious about how complicated this is but understand it and then learn how to apply in a context-dependent way.

Drew: That sounds a good segue into practical takeaways. What's the value for a safety practitioner or safety professional in learning this stuff about their own professional identity? What's the practical use of studying safety professionals and reporting it back to them? What do you expect people to do with this information?

David: Firstly, I think it's useful to connect with our own identity and I suppose all aspects of our lives with who we are, how we think, how it drives our view of others, how we behave, and how we judge their behavior. I would hope that just the reflective practice nature of just holding this mirror up which our listeners can agree or disagree, but at least giving them the opportunity to reflect on that. It's also going to provide insights for how we may think about shaping very practical things around that role, how we think about defining our role, explaining it to others, and then more broadly, how we think about professional education and career pathways. I conclude in this paper that I absolutely think we need to maintain multiple career pathways.

Before this research, I had a tertiary qualification background. I thought the default position should be that that should just at least be a minimum for everyone. After doing this research, I found the view that that's not the case. There definitely needs to be barriers to entry for the profession, I agree, but there may be multiple pathways to come into the profession. We should probably preserve that diversity in the profession. I did also conclude that I think on the basis of this, that we need to rethink education. It's a related topic. Rethink education as well.

Also, I think if you've got all this information, it allows you to do really good role definitions within your organization. Many of these problems get exacerbated by the people we work with in terms of line managers, not having maybe a different understanding of what they think our role is than how we identify with the role ourselves. By having a framework around this, by having language, it allows us to have conversations in our organizations about what to expect. The same to managers, I'll support you up to a point but this is how I'm going to decide when I can no longer support you. This is how we're going to have the conversation when I get to that point. I think the model in this research provides the language and the framework to enable people to have discussions about how to improve the effectiveness of their profession.

Drew: Just for myself, I would say that if you are a safety professional going to go into a job interview, this is the perfect paper to read through and think through beforehand because the questions David asked in his interview pretty much the questions that I imagine a lot of people will ask in job interviews for safety practitioners. Someone who is reflected on these questions and has a position for where they stand and where they're flexible, (I think) is in a much better position in defining and owning any role that they're going to go into.

David: For people who have heard me once or twice, this was the research the way I form the view which I've communicated. It's in your view as someone who's developed a university curriculum but what I said is one of the most important things. Tertiary safety education program is probably to spend a semester where you send your students out into a frontline role like driving a truck, laboring, scaffolding, or a cleaner in a hospital. Get the person to experience being exposed to the risk on the front line, and look back at safety through the eyes of work and not look at work through the eyes of safety.

Drew: I think that's a fantastic idea. It certainly should be a part of any undergraduate curriculum is spending that practical time, not doing a practical safety job, doing a practical non-safety job as part of your safety education.

David: Drew, invitations for our listeners. What have you got?

Drew: We've laid out a whole bunch of questions and tensions in this episode. What I'd love is just for our listeners to reflect on those things and tell us what you do think that we've got it right. What do you think about the balance of education and practical experience? Do you think it's important for safety practitioners to come from diverse backgrounds? What's your own background? Do you see value in other backgrounds? How do you see the relationship between interpersonal knowledge and technical skills?

Maybe the interesting question here is how much do you feel that people demand that you demonstrate those technical skills versus how much do you value interpersonal knowledge? Also, that question of relationships and formal authority. How do you make sense of that? How do you balance those things in your own role? Are these the right topics to talk about? Are there aspects of the safety professional identity that we've missed in this study that you think we should have been talking about if we were talking about what makes a safety professional a safety professional?

David: A special shout-out, Drew, as a researcher to the participants. I hope and know that some of them might be listening. Thank you for your trust and your support in the research. To you our listeners, if you're liking what we're doing at episode 30—we're having a lot of fun every week—it would be great if you could leave us a review, a writing, or just tell one other person about the show and help people to find it.

That's it for this week. We hope you found this episode thought-provoking and ultimately useful in shaping the safety of work in your own organization. Send any comments, questions, or ideas for future episodes to us at