Skip to Content
Construction Safety

A Checklist for Hiring the Perfect Safety Manager

TJ Lyons | June 24, 2016

On This Page
Construction workers shaking hands

A recent note from a safety colleague brought to mind what makes a great safety person, so I put together my list. My challenge to readers: please send along those attributes I missed.

I received a nice note last week from Stuart Olsen, one of the best safety professionals in the world. He is a project superintendent for Layton, and we worked together over a decade ago on sites across Northern California and Nevada. When Stuart arrived on a project for an inspection, the first thing he did was sit and enjoy a cup of coffee with the superintendent. He understood the power of trust and relationships. From his first moment on the site, that team understood he was there to keep them all out of trouble.

This got me thinking about the attributes that great safety managers have. The following, in no particular order, are a list of things to look for when searching for the perfect safety professional.

  • Look for a never-ending passion for safety. Nothing is more critical than to love what you are doing from first light until you go to bed. On weekends, these folks will drive a bit slower by a worksite or stop when they see someone on a ladder at the mall and offer to help hold that ladder.
  • When something goes horribly wrong and someone gets hurt, safety professionals will carry some of that burden. They will own at least a part of the incident, thinking they could have done more. That shows that they care. How can you tell? Ask them about an accident that happened on their watch. You will know based on the details they provide. How badly hurt were those involved, and how did they do afterward? Were they able to return to work? If the emphasis is on how the candidate helped avoid an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recordable, turn to the next candidate. During an incident review years ago, the safety director for that firm was discussing the accident (fatality) and seemed surprised someone got killed because "I thought we had safety on the project." For some projects, a full-time safety person was "purchased," allowing blame to be focused on the consultant responsible for safety, not the system. Great safety professionals will own at least a part of the incident and believe that they could have done more. That's the person I want.
  • Money is important, but not critical, to happiness in the safety field. When looking for a safety professional, get a feel for what the candidate will be looking for. Overtime is rare, but a true safety professional will stay on the site until everyone heads home. That is the culture of the work. And when you find a candidate who understands that he or she is part of a team, that is the one to hire. If you mention the project will supply a vehicle for the safety manager, the correct answer should be "Thanks!," not "Well, I prefer a pickup."
  • Personality matters. Basically, they have to be nice. You will know in the first few minutes. Do they talk about their family? Are they proud of what they have accomplished, or are they arrogant about it? A candidate once said to me, "I am the rock star of safety!" Another said, "on Thursdays, I hold court during our coordination meeting and decide punishments for those who do not get it." Next candidate, please.
  • Look for determination and commitment. Always ask this question: "Do you think all accidents are avoidable?" "Yes" is always the correct answer. There is no wiggle room. If the candidate explains that the idea of zero incidents is a tough target based on chance and probability, he or she is doing the homework, but follow-up with "Yes or no?" If anyone feels there is any room for an accident to occur, next candidate, please.
  • Is the candidate an active member of a professional organization? This shows interest in the field and the chance to network. Few things are more important. Learning can never stop. I once asked the safety director for a construction firm to attend the annual safety conference. His answer was telling: "What else is there for you to learn, TJ?" We did not get along too well.
  • Giving back to the community speaks volumes. Look closely at their resumes, and see if they ever volunteered for anything, like the PTA, a 5k race, or the local fire company or ambulance squad. Were they ever EMTs or first aid/CPR instructors? These are clearly team organizations, and taking 80 hours to be an EMT or 40 hours to teach CPR shows the passion and care that help make great safety professionals.
  • Someone with certifications is someone to look at. Today, one of my favorite project managers, Robert Pitcock, passed his Safety Trained Supervisor certification. This is not an easy accomplishment. This further confirms what I know about Mr. Pitcock. He is what I term a "give-a-sh*t guy." For someone to even consider studying for a safety certification and then go through the application process is commendable. To then step up and potentially fail (the exam) in front of your peers is honorable.
  • Scan resumes for the word "prevention" to find the right attitude. It is critical to know if your candidate has a history of planning and preventing, not policing. I find this is one of the most relevant tests of a resume. No reference to prevention, no hire.
  • Look for experience in the OSHA Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) or an OSHA Partnership. Working in either of these arenas indicates the desire to work with the authorities, not fear them. If the candidate had the opportunity to participate in a VPP project, he or she will carry some of those "best in class" habits along in his or her career.
  • Does the candidate have any experience working for projects overseen by the Department of Energy (DOE)? In my opinion, there is no better safety system in play than those developed by the DOE. They look closely at who will work on their projects, review the planning required to do the work, and watch the work underway to make sure the contractor delivered what was promised. No other group focuses so closely on an incident in order to learn. The investigations are thorough, disruptive to the work, and incredibly detailed because the investigations are done right. They understand there is not one root cause; it is a compilation of contributors. They then take the time to share what was learned across all their sites to keep someone else from getting hurt. I am a fan. If a candidate has DOE experience, he or she is experienced.
  • Military experience is a gift. If the candidate is a veteran, he or she is used to working in a tight system and under a strict chain of command. We had the pleasure of hiring a Wounded Warrior this year, and the level of training he came with was remarkable. Today's veteran is one smart candidate.
  • Look for someone with US Army Corps of Engineer experience. On any US, military, or federally-funded project anywhere in the world, their Engineers Safety and Health Requirements Manual runs the safety show. Similar to OSHA regulations, this manual is targeted toward work on federal sites. It is easier to read and understand than OSHA regulations, it is practical, and it provides examples of what right and wrong look like. This is a solid approach to saving lives.

Lastly, while not an attribute, it's important to look within your ranks for a candidate. Is that safety manager always sending notes from the local newspaper about a construction accident? How about the project superintendent that proudly forwards his tailor-made Toolbox Talks to you each week? These are the people with passion. They may not have credentials (yet) or know how to provide the calculation on air changes per hour in a fuel tank, but they want to know how. One of the most damaging things we can do in an organization is look outside for a candidate while looking over the heads of some of our best.

Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.