Rethinking the Role of EHS Expert: Why Safety cannot Be Confined to a Department

“Stop executing, start inspiring…

Jaap de Bruin, EHS expert with 40 years of experience

Believe it or not, numerous organizations still think that Safety is a standalone department.

But a significant paradigm shift is underway. Intending to create a culture of holistic safety consciousness, in this article, we explore the reasons behind this transformative approach.

Let’s overview the traditional notion of the EHS role as it is today. The conventional setup often leads to the misconception that Safety is solely the responsibility of the designated EHS person at the plant.

Not to mention that this puts enormous pressure on the shoulders of one or few people on site, the risk of this perception is exponential.

And here is why:

Balancing Proactive and Reactive Measures

EHS professionals face the challenge of balancing between proactive and reactive approaches. Preventing incidents and promoting a safety culture are crucial, but they must also respond swiftly and effectively when emergencies occur. This dual role demands a delicate equilibrium between preparedness and response from all the process participants.

Meanwhile, EHS professionals often feel overlooked when blamed for something that goes wrong while being ignored when everything goes well. 


Interdisciplinary Expertise

The EHS role demands a unique blend of interdisciplinary expertise. Professionals must comprehend scientific, technical, and legal aspects while possessing strong communication and leadership skills. They must consider the technical part of many projects to ensure policies are relevant and not to build artificial hurdles for the shop floor people.

Meanwhile, there is a rare case when EHS professionals have direct access to expertise, especially at smaller plants. 


Cultural Change and Engagement

Implementing safety and sustainability initiatives often requires driving cultural change within organizations. EHS professionals must convince stakeholders of the value of these initiatives, overcoming resistance and fostering a mindset shift. Achieving this cultural transformation demands effective communication, negotiation, and the ability to inspire others toward a shared vision.

Meanwhile, EHS people are often perceived as those “who check checkboxes” being overwhelmed with execution.


Balancing Short-Term and Long-Term Goals

While immediate safety concerns demand immediate attention, long-term safety improvements also require strategic planning and patience. Navigating this duality requires foresight and the ability to manage priorities effectively.

Meanwhile, EHS people often lack data to plan strategically, project future changes, and prove progress.


Ever-Evolving Regulations

The landscape of environmental and Safety regulations is dynamic and ever-changing. EHS professionals must stay updated on a plethora of local, national, and international regulations, often adjusting their strategies and practices accordingly. This requires a continuous learning curve, adaptability, and the ability to translate complex regulations into actionable measures.

Meanwhile, EHS people often have legacy tools at their disposal.

Please watch videos about the role of EHS people by Sjoerd Nanninga here:

Mindset shift required

So what should EHS people do to empower their organizations and to engage more people in safety topics and to achieve Operational Safety Excellence? First of all, they need to rethink from being the one who executes to being the one who inspires and leads. Here are just a few examples of changes of mindset needed to fulfill this:

Adapting to the company’s success

One fundamental aspect that stands out is the adaptability of leadership within the safety domain. Safety professionals play a critical role that evolves with a company’s growth trajectory. In the early stages, these professionals are often focused on operational tasks such as procedure approvals and measurements. However, as organizations mature, these roles transform into advisory positions, influencing and championing safety culture. Aligning safety roles with the company’s development phase is vital for ensuring that safety practices are both effective and contextually relevant.

Cultivating a Culture of Excellence

A cornerstone of operational safety excellence lies in the attitudes that drive it. Encouraging a mindset of continuous improvement is essential. Thought-provoking questions become powerful tools for promoting critical thinking. By challenging the status quo and encouraging innovation, safety professionals can strike a balance between enforcing standards and fostering creativity.

Navigating Challenges and Facilitating Change

Implementing standardized safety practices across diverse locations presents a unique set of challenges. Balancing universal corporate standards with local perspectives requires finesse. Collaboration with local teams is key to ensuring that standardized safety practices are well understood and embraced. Success stories from companies that have managed to scale safety initiatives underscore the transformative potential of such endeavors.

Fostering Cross-Organizational Collaboration

An essential quality of effective safety professionals is their ability to bridge gaps within the organization. Connecting different levels, from shop floor workers to top-level management, facilitates a comprehensive understanding of safety dynamics. This cross-organizational connectivity fosters a collaborative approach to enhancing safety measures.

Given listed above, if organizations want to elevate safety culture to a new level, they must adopt the concept that every individual, irrespective of their role, holds a share of responsibility for Safety. By embedding safety principles into an organization’s core values, it becomes a collective endeavor rather than a compartmentalized task of a single person (of a couple of people).

How EHS People Can Nurture Safety Culture

So what should EHS people do to empower their organizations? The answer lies on the surface: engage more people in safety topics. Here are some tactics for this:

-> Shared Responsibility and Ownership

Empowerment begins with instilling a sense of shared responsibility. Talk to people more often, create connections, practice Gemba, and co-create and co-design rules to encourage individuals to view Safety as a collective effort, fostering a sense of ownership that transcends job titles.

-> Effective Communication

Open and transparent communication builds trust and serves as a cornerstone of safety engagement. Regularly communicate safety updates, initiatives, and incident reports to keep everyone informed. Providing avenues for employees to voice concerns, suggest improvements, and share their experiences to develop collaboration. 

-> Tailored Training and Education

One-size-fits-all training approaches can lead to disengagement. Tailor safety training to the specific needs and roles of individuals. Interactive, hands-on training sessions can make safety concepts more relatable and memorable. Additionally, provide ongoing opportunities for learning and development, empowering individuals to stay updated on best practices.

-> Recognition and Incentives

Positive reinforcement creates a sense of achievement and encourages others to follow suit. Recognizing individuals who exemplify exceptional safety practices reinforces the desired behaviors. Regularly acknowledge employees who go above and beyond to ensure Safety. This is especially relevant when measurable results are achieved.

-> Collaborative Problem-Solving

Engage employees in collaborative problem-solving. Encourage them to identify potential hazards, suggest solutions, and actively participate in safety committees or forums. When individuals feel their input is valued and contributes to safety improvements, they become more invested in the process.

-> Mindfulness of Emotional States

Emotional state can significantly impact safety and efficiency in manufacturing, as it can influence workers’ decision-making, behaviour, communication, and teamwork. Therefore, EHS managers need to be aware of people’s emotional states and how to manage them effectively. Read more



The shift from viewing Safety as a department to a shared responsibility signals a transformative journey in operational Safety. Recognizing Safety as a collective commitment rather than a task confined to specific roles fosters a culture where everyone is a safety steward.

To empower organizations, EHS people should foster their leadership skills and engage more individuals in the safety domain. Adapting mindsets, aligning roles with growth trajectories, and fostering cross-organizational collaboration are essential steps.

To achieve this, strategies such as shared responsibility, effective communication, tailored training, recognition, and collaborative problem-solving are vital. These strategies transform Safety from an obligation to a collective commitment.

As the role of EHS experts evolves, a safer and more prosperous future is envisioned—a future where Safety thrives as a shared value, driving success and safeguarding the well-being of all.

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