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  • Andy Cook

Health & Safety Success Through Emotional Intelligence

Ensuring the right fit every time

The science of psychometric testing is well proven and long-standing. It can provide the scientific basis that is often required to separate candidates for the same role. It also can detect stresses and pressures that may be present and can often act as an early warning system in order to prevent employee dissatisfaction and ultimately disengagement. Recent research clearly shows that employees rarely leave a company: they will often leave a bad boss or an ill-fitting role. Testing candidates and established employees regularly will pay dividends and lower the cost of business dramatically.

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An emotionally intelligent safety team will lead their organisation to world-class safety.

The success of any safety professional is not tied solely to the ability to conduct assessments, recite standards and regulations, or the possession of a deep technical knowledge. A successful safety professional must have this knowledge, these abilities and possess effective leadership skills to influence actions and behaviors.

What makes a CEO say yes to a high-dollar safety improvement? What makes a front-line supervisor stop and have an effective safety conversation with an employee? Perhaps most importantly, what makes an employee wear their personal protective equipment (PPE) after the safety supervisor is out of sight?

Safety professionals must possess strong technical knowledge and be skilled in the science of safety. What is missing is learning the art of safety—that skill set that helps us lead, communicate and engage employees. The single most powerful skill a safety professional can have is emotional intelligence (EQ).


According to Daniel Goleman (as quoted by Harvard Business Review), an internationally known psychologist, emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize, understand and manage our own emotions and to recognize, understand and influence the emotions of others. It is a group of skills that enable the best leaders to maximize their own and their followers’ performance.

In recent years, the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organisations at Rutgers University conducted an analysis of 188 mostly large, global corporations. The results showed that leaders must have three traits for their teams to achieve excellent performance: IQ, or intellectual intelligence; technical skills; and emotional intelligence (EQ). While all of these are necessary, the study found emotional intelligence was twice as important to a team’s performance, based on objective criteria like earnings and profitability.


Consider a situation in which a safety professional conducts an audit. They should be able to identify the hazard, and recall applicable standards, regulations and corporate policies. Furthermore, the expectation is that they can perform a risk assessment and engineer a solution to mitigate the risk. A truly effective safety professional, however, can harness the power of emotional intelligence to influence executives, line supervisors and even employees to participate in this risk mitigation process.

Imagine a facilities manager needs to make a physical repair for the identified risk to be mitigated. EQ is anticipating what that manager is feeling after learning the manager has mandatory overtime. EQ is understanding if the manager is annoyed with the safety request or instead is furious with their boss. It is using empathy to adjust the conversation, so the manager feels heard and is motivated to help solve the problem. EQ allows safety professionals to maintain relationships and lead people to engagement and ownership of safety.


The entry-level requirements of our profession are to have high-level technical and regulatory knowledge and experience. But in order to be next-level safety leaders, we need to improve our emotional intelligence by strengthening our skills in each component.


Self-awareness is knowing who you are. It is the ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions and drives as well as their effect on others.

To improve self-awareness, try to honestly assess your strengths and weaknesses. If your organisation conducts 360 feedback or something similar, take it to heart. Additionally, poll coworkers, friends and family on your strengths and weaknesses. Make a list of difficult situations in your career. What made it difficult? This may be an opportunity for improvement.

Understanding how the safety profession is perceived as well as understanding how you personally are perceived is the first step to breaking down safety culture barriers. Supervisors may believe that safety interferes with production. Front-line employees may believe that safety supervisors are safety cops. Consider starting training sessions by addressing that the attendees are the experts at how the work is done while our role is to help them complete the work with less risk. Acknowledging when we have a lack of expertise will allow the participants to trust us and be willing to work together on a real solution.

2. Self-Regulation

At times, our jobs involve some form of disagreement. We may be told there is no time for safety training or that the lockout/tagout procedure is too cumbersome. Using self-regulation, or keeping calm in the face of disagreement, helps a safety professional maintain a positive reputation as someone who is reasonable to work with.

One tangible way we can use self-regulation as an emotional intelligence tool is to write better e-mails. If we find ourselves replying forcefully to an e-mail, remember, DRAFT is our friend. Write it, and then save the draft. Wait a few hours, preferably until the next day, and re-read it. It is likely we will not be as angry and can compose a direct but calm and collected response.

3. Motivation

Motivation explains why we do what we do. Many safety professionals got into this line of work after witnessing a work-related injury, so their motivations are clear to see. To get buy-in for safety, we must also understand the motivation of our customers. Operations leaders, front-line supervisors and employees are all driven by many motivating factors. Understanding their motivation gives us the power to build a better business case for safety—speaking to the benefits to operations and using their language.


For a leader, empathy means thoughtfully considering employees’ feelings in the process of making decisions and taking action. Empathy is especially important after an incident or injury. Imagine a highly engaged, high-performing employee is injured after lifting a heavy box. They report the injury and their supervisor tells them to “work through it.” The injured employee powers through the pain but eventually seeks medical treatment and is taken out of work. The employee does not hear from anyone, including their supervisor, while recovering. Upon returning to work, they are immediately given a disciplinary action for failure to “lift properly.”

Simply put, the organisation showed they did not care about the employee. The employee is thus likely to become disengaged, possibly bitter and lower performing. They may share their negative experiences with other employees, causing the disengagement to spread. Conversely, a small amount of empathy, even a simple phone call to check on an injured employee, would be a powerful tool to increase engagement in safety from all employees.

5. Social Skills

Social skills can be defined as friendliness with a purpose—moving people in the direction you desire, like agreeing to implement a management of change process. Socially skilled people build rapport and work under the assumption that nothing gets done alone.

Jim Thornton, CSP, CIH said in an interview with the American Society of Safety Professionals that “usually the more successful safety professionals are people who can take complex topics—technology, standards, research—and translate them into easily understood language.”

A safety professional’s job is to get work done through other people, and social skills make that possible. A socially skilled safety professional can make a safety committee meeting fun and productive, get executives to identify their safety gaps, and implement solutions in a safety workshop, and have constructive one-on-one conversations with difficult employees.


Safety professionals must possess technical knowledge and think critically to solve problems. These are the minimum requirements for our profession. In 2019, over 1,300 CEOs were surveyed by consulting firm PwC and reported that, “Business leaders should continue to upskill their current and future workforce as well as cultivate soft skills such as creativity, problem-solving and empathy in their corporate cultures.” No longer can we be safety cops, auditors, or “support staff.” Safety professionals must now be true safety leaders and must increase our EQ skills in each component:

Self-Awareness: Inspire trust and participation by admitting a lack of expertise.

Self-Regulation: Stay calm and strong in the face of disagreement by writing better e-mails.

Motivation: Build a better business case for safety by understanding operational motivators.

Empathy: Inspire a safety culture by showing care for employees.

Social Skills: Build rapport and become a skilled safety translator.

An emotionally intelligent safety department will lead their organisation to a world-class safety management system. Safety will become less of a battle and more of a team sport. Furthermore, we can then create operations leaders with a high safety EQ.

Imagine if front-line supervisors understood safety rules and could translate them to front-line employees to get them on board. Imagine if executives could clearly express the benefits of safety to achieving production goals. Imagine a facilities manager fixing a safety hazard without being asked. Imagine an employee noticing they feel at-risk and stopping work. This is what can be expected when we learn to harness the power of emotional intelligence.

Camille Oakes, CSP, SMS is president of Camille Oakes Consulting (


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