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The Importance of Self-Taught and Mentored Learning in Training Safety Professionals

Mentor with mentee

Entering the safety profession can indeed be challenging for beginners, particularly if they lack the drive for self-learning and the guidance of a seasoned mentor. Figuring out the intricacies of this field without the assistance of an experienced individual can be daunting and potentially lead to mistakes.

Further, safety professionals must cultivate a deep desire to understand the broader context of their role and the problems they might encounter. Without this innate curiosity, crafting effective, real-world solutions becomes significantly harder. This is why a combination of self-taught learning and mentorship is so vital in the journey of a safety professional.

Drawing from my journey, I want to share some valuable insights that may aid you, whether you're a fledgling safety professional or a seasoned expert aspiring to mentor the next generation.

Perspective as a New Safety Professional

Female worker with safety vest and clipboard

Upon my initial entry into the safety profession, my formal training was predominantly overseen by a senior safety professional who managed multiple facilities, while I was assigned to just one site. The crux of the training revolved around a comprehensive review of our organization's safety policies and programs.

These policies and programs excelled at outlining what was expected of us—the benchmarks to hit, the standards to meet—but where they often fell short was in illustrating how to achieve these stipulations. I quickly realized that while knowing what to do is important, understanding how to do it effectively is equally, if not more, crucial.

Self-Learning Approach

Here's where the self-learning component of my training became key. Among the many programs I scrutinized, I singled out the Lock Out Tag Out (LOTO) program for closer inspection. Acknowledging my bias for this topic, given my experiences from a previous job, I decided to delve deep. I meticulously reviewed the LOTO procedures, tested a few with the machine operators and maintenance staff, and contrasted these procedures with the program's original directives.

This process unveiled areas for improvement in our methods, thereby prompting a more profound review of both the program and its procedures. It turned out to be an enlightening learning experience and a practical exercise in continuous improvement. This journey underscored the value of a proactive and participatory approach to safety and served as a testament to the importance of self-learning in the safety profession.

Given my initial experience with the Lock Out Tag Out program, I adopted the same self-learning and problem-solving approach to other policies, programs, and procedures outlined in the company's Environmental, Health, and Safety (EH&S) manual. The manual became my roadmap, guiding me through our safety protocols and their relevance to our daily operations. My task was to scrutinize each protocol's adoption, requirements, and our facility's adherence to them.

This approach was straightforward and practical, albeit requiring a significant amount of diligence and perseverance. The essence of the process was akin to auditing the facility's protocols for adoption and compliance, which, in my opinion, is an indispensable part of the safety professional's role. However, the key to effective auditing lies in a solution-oriented mindset. It's easy to point out problems, but the real challenge lies in creating and implementing effective solutions.

In this journey, learning the protocols and the manufacturing processes from the production staff proved invaluable. This not only strengthened our relations but also facilitated significant improvements in our safety protocols. However, despite the support from management and production/maintenance staff, some challenges were too enormous to overcome single-handedly, particularly for someone at the onset of their career as a safety professional.

Certain insights and perspectives come with experience and time, which I had yet to acquire. Fortunately, I was not alone. The company had other, more seasoned safety professionals whose experience and guidance proved to be a very helpful resource in my journey. Their mentorship supplemented my self-learning efforts, empowering me to grow and excel in my role.

Receiving Mentorship

Though I received mentorship from various safety professionals and environmental specialists, the majority of it came from the safety professional assigned to my facility. He regularly checked in on me, but I often found myself reaching out to him. For some, you might consider this normal, particularly at the onset of a career.

However, what set these interactions apart, which I came to appreciate later in my journey as a senior safety professional, was the quality and content of the questions I posed. As a novice, my queries were intensive and detailed, often probing beyond the surface. This reflected my innate curiosity and determination to gain a comprehensive understanding of safety protocols and practices.

Sometimes, my line of questioning centered on the specific wording of our safety protocols so the proper meaning of the text was illuminated. But it's important to note that most of my questions were rarely posed without significant prior research on my part. I always strived to do my homework, to understand an issue as thoroughly as possible before seeking guidance.

This approach not only allowed me to supplement gaps in my knowledge and understanding with those of someone more knowledgeable but also showed me if I was on the right track or not. In my opinion, this kind of mentorship, one that encourages self-learning and critical thinking, is instrumental in fostering growth among safety professionals.

Although I was in constant communication with the senior safety professional, my questions were seldom as straightforward as "How do I do this?" or "What are the rules for this?". I always sought to delve deeper, to understand not just the 'what' but also the 'why' and 'how' of our safety protocols.

To clarify, if you're aspiring to develop as a safety professional, you need to demonstrate commitment, not just in performing your assigned tasks, but also in proactively researching safety rules on your own. Of course, in the initial phases or during unexpected circumstances that are beyond your control, seeking advice from more experienced colleagues is both sensible and encouraged.

But remember, this should not become the norm. As you gain experience and your knowledge base expands, you should be able to analyze and react to situations independently. If emergencies are becoming a routine occurrence, this calls for a comprehensive review and enhancement of your expertise.

The essence of being a safety professional isn't just in knowing the rules but in understanding their application, nuances, and implications. So, make it a point to invest time and effort in learning and truly mastering your role as a safety professional.

From the Mentorship Side of Things

Industrial worker showing something to another industrial worker with clipboard

As I transitioned into a more senior role in my company's safety department, I had to recalibrate my approach toward safety management. I found myself shifting from a direct problem-solver to a mentor and facilitator, working alongside facility safety professionals and management to enhance their problem-solving capabilities.

Now, I don't mean to sound supercilious, but I noticed that many safety professionals skipped what I believed were fundamental steps.

For instance, there were safety professionals who would instantly reach out to me to verify if a specific action was permissible under the company's safety rules, without taking the initiative to consult the guidelines themselves. Some did not make efforts to resolve an issue or engage their teams, including safety committees, in finding solutions.

There was also a tendency among some professionals to not balance their time appropriately between office and fieldwork, typically focusing heavily on one and neglecting the other. This observation reinforced my belief that the journey toward becoming a proficient safety professional requires a balance of initiative, teamwork, and continual self-improvement.

Transitioning from a primary problem-solver to a mentor opened up an avenue for me to share solutions to problems that I had already tackled, which was immensely beneficial for facility-level safety professionals and members of facility management.

This exposure helped them broaden their perspective on what could be accomplished within the realm of safety. It's a challenging task to refute the feasibility of a solution when it has already been executed successfully.

Instead, this transition shifted the onus onto the facility to justify why a proven solution would not work in their specific context. It's not just about providing answers but about fostering an environment where safety professionals themselves are encouraged to explore, question, and develop their unique solutions.

My Mentoring Approach

Mentoring Safety Professionals

My specific way of mentoring, while broadly similar, varied slightly depending on the person I was interacting with. Particularly when dealing with someone in the role of a safety professional or a similar position, I seldom answered a question directly.

Instead, I would first investigate the nature of the problem, inquire about what they had done to resolve the issue, and then guide them back to the rules. Moreover, instead of giving them the answer, I would work through the problem alongside them.

This approach occasionally frustrated some as they were seeking quick answers. However, in the long run, it seemed to benefit them greatly. It not only improved their understanding and problem-solving abilities but also boosted their confidence, which is pivotal in the role of a safety professional.

Mentoring Facility Management

Despite having fewer opportunities to mentor facility management compared to safety professionals, the experiences were equally rewarding. Usually, interactions with facility management involved more direct answers to their queries.

This was partly due to the nature of their roles, which did not exclusively revolve around managing safety at the facility. Yet, there were instances when facility management sought deeper understanding and wished to work through problems with me.

These mentorship opportunities were reminiscent of those with safety professionals, although my expectations for their knowledge of safety matters were adjusted to their roles. Nevertheless, their enthusiasm for learning was commendable.

While I didn't expect a facility manager or production supervisor to possess the same depth of knowledge on safety matters as a safety professional, their desire to integrate safety perspectives into production was impressive. This integrated approach helped in developing consistent and feasible solutions, demonstrating that they too can contribute significantly to safety management.

Key Takeaways

Picture spelling out key takeaways with a combination lock and an ink pen

If there is one vital message to glean from this article, let it be this: Safety professionals must adopt an attitude of continuous learning and personal growth, mustered through their own initiative. It is this willingness to learn that truly sets apart effective safety professionals.

On the other hand, mentors play a crucial role in supporting this journey of self-improvement. A mentor's task is not to spoon-feed information, but rather to facilitate the process of self-discovery, stepping in to provide guidance and fill knowledge gaps when necessary.

Additionally, mentors help minimize issues from slipping through the cracks as well as help prevent safety professionals from making costly mistakes. There is a function of being a safety net of sorts to a degree.

This balanced partnership between mentee and mentor can foster a culture of constant progress and improvement within the field of safety management, benefiting not only the individuals involved but also the overall safety practice at any facility.

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