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The Six “Sucks” of Working in the Safety Profession: The Bu*l$H!* They Don’t Tell You About

I’ll start right here; I LOVE MY PROFESSION! I now truly feel that I’m doing what I was born to do (cheesy, I know). But, early on in my career, I nearly left the profession. I was frustrated, burned out, and I felt lied to. “Did I just waste the first few years of my professional life on something that I now hated and didn’t believe in?” That’s a pretty soul crushing thought.

Before I dive too deep, let me tell you a little about my background. I started in the profession pretty young, I like to say that “I grew up in safety.” I started and spent a sizable portion of my career in commercial nuclear generation. From there, I moved on to fossil generation, construction, maintenance, and various safety management roles for large-scale contractors and utilities. I spent many years traveling from project to project; all across the United States. That travel eventually brought me to Phoenix, Arizona on a temporary assignment, one that (10 years later) I’m now comfortable calling a permanent assignment.

Sounds like a blast, huh? Well, within the first few years, I was looking for employment outside of safety. Why? I was tired and craved a life outside of work; I was burned out and done with the beatings. My first few years in safety probably taught me the most, but I was left disenfranchised with traditional safety. I was simply over it and ready to move on.

So, where does this big long rant lead to? It goes here: I wish I knew. Not so I could avoid the profession, but so I could be prepared for the profession. I’m a firm believer in the old saying “you can either do this job or you can’t.” It takes a very unique person to make a well-rounded safety professional; even more so as we move beyond traditional approaches. Many amazing safety professionals enter this field blind to what awaits them. Sadly, many do not survive and leave to pursue careers in other fields.

People just entering or hoping to enter the profession ask me a few times each week: “What do I need to do to get into safety?” or “Do you have any advice for a young safety professional?” I always take the time to first share the “suck;” the stuff that I wish someone would have shared with me. I like to share with them this first: they’ll have days where they’ll say “I can’t believe they pay me to do this!” But, that they’ll have just as many days where they will say “you could never pay me enough to do this!” I like to share the not-so-great stuff right out of the gate. I’m not trying to scare them off, but I really want them to prepare themselves to “grow through the suck.”

With all of that out of the way, let’s get down to the afore mentioned “Suck!” These are simply my thoughts and are not in any particular order:

You’ll never know your success – it really is a thankless career. You’ll never really know how many lives that you improve, the amount of betterment you create, or the amount of poor outcomes you prevent. But, you will definitely hear about anything that you do not execute perfectly on.

Your managers mean everything to your success or failure – First, you need to understand that your reporting structure will always be murky. You’ll have a direct “safety manger” (they’re kind-of-sort-of your manager) but you’ll probably also have “dotted line” accountability to a few other leaders (operations, HR, etc…). FYI: They’ll constantly fight over who you actually work for; sounds fun right? Second, everyone else will also think that they’re your boss and if you don't agree, "you don't care." Lastly, your success is highly determinant on the level of support you receive from your leadership. Without solid support from the mess of leadership I mentioned above, you'll never really accomplish much and/or you'll find yourself on the job hunt. 

You’re usually expected to be a subject matter expert… on everything – That’s right, from port-a-jon placement to asbestos; you’re it! Folks will look at you like you’re stupid when you don’t know the regulatory requirements around an Inline 175A-CV3 Modulator Valve. “Gah, what kind of safety guy are you! You don’t even know what an Inline 175A-CV3 Modulator Valve is!”     

Safety Fix It! Is the norm – If it says “safety” or remotely even sounds like it’s safety related, guess what? You get it. Enjoy! Go forth and fix the world! As a young safety pro, oh how you’ll try! You’ll try and try before you realize that you’re doing everyone else’s job for them and you’re actually making things worse.  

Work/life balance = 100% work 0% life – there’s a couple of big contributors here: One, you’re new, which means you will get the most undesirable shifts known to humankind. Two, you haven’t learned how to say “no” and self-manage your work/life balance. Another option is that you work for a not-so-amazing organization that doesn't realize the importance of the "care and feeding" of professionals.

Ah heck, anyone can do safety! I just called my cousin - they start tomorrow!

“Anyone Can Do Safety...” Mindsets are Prevalent - Environmental position = Heavily qualified environmental professional, Engineering position = Heavily qualified engineer, Human Resources Position = Heavily qualified human remains :) professional, Safety position - Ah heck, anyone can do safety! I just called my cousin - they start tomorrow! Long ago a mentor of mine told me: " There's a difference between a safety person and a safety professional - strive to be the latter."

I'm Mr. Doom and Gloom, I know! Here’s the good news: you’ll’ grow up, you’ll figure out how to deal with and overcome many of these issues on your own, some will self-resolve with experience, and you'll move on from employers that do not deserve you. But, in the meantime, here’s a few good ways that I’ve found to “grow through” those tough years:

Find mentor – This is huge! I lucked up and had a few amazing mentors; folks I still call to this day. They act as a voice of reason; guiding me through the hard times.   

Lean on family & friends – Don’t shut them out, tell them what’s going on; give them the opportunity to support you through challenging times. I tried really hard to be “tough” and “leave work at work!” That doesn’t work so well when your phone is ringing at 2:00 AM. They see it already, open up and talk about it!  

Disconnect – Pro tip 1: I work extremely hard to protect my personal phone number from work - if they get it, I change it. Here’s pro-tip 2: Every day when I get home from work, I put my phone on airplane mode and put it in a kitchen drawer. I leave it there for a couple of hours each and every day. I got to the gym, I have dinner, and I live life without my work phone. It helps a lot more than you’d think.   

Build your “brand” – Yes, I said brand. Who are you? Do you show people who you are? Show them your care, your level of know-how, your ethical commitment, your work ethic, and on and on… Showing people “who you are” will build your respect in the field and open up doors of opportunity that will lift you out of not-so-great situations.

So what do you think? What do you wish you knew before you started? How do you deal with the “Suck?” Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are MINE and MINE ALONE. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any of my employers (present, past, or future). The views and opinions expressed in this article do don’t reflect my feelings for any of my employers (present, past, or future).

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