Critical thinking, communication skills needed to achieve safe work environments
There’s no such thing as a typical day for those in the occupational health and safety profession. You may have plans to develop a new policy or process one day, but it gets placed on the back burner due to an unforeseen issue. For example, a new piece of equipment arrives, and you have to deal with the concerns that come along with it.
Eldeen Pozniak, Director of Pozniak Safety Associates, has more than three decades of experience in the occupational health and safety (OHS) field. She works with UFred on its OHS Business and Academic Development. At a high level, she says the daily work life of an OHS professional involves developing, implementing, maintaining, and evaluating the structure and culture within an organization. Some days, OHS professionals will be focused on different components and issues related to the structure and culture. Other days, they will be more focused on hazard and risk, prioritizing high-risk aspects.
“Basically, the structure in which we operate,” said Pozniak. “On a daily basis, we’re developing it, implementing it, we’re improving the structural component of the safety management systems that are in place. If we’re in an office environment, we might be focused on ergonomics hazards or fire hazards. If it’s an industrial environment, that focus might be more on confined spaces or working at heights,” she said.
Pozniak believes the information in UFred’s OHS course content offers an important foundation of knowledge to effectively incorporate health and safety into any work place.
“The courses are focused on not only what those foundational pieces are, but also on how we assist and advise those who are responsible for ensuring health and safety is in place, and that specific activities are occurring. That includes workers, supervisors, and managers, right up to owners, employers, and senior leadership,” she said.
“Safety is everyone’s responsibility. That’s part of what we (health and safety professionals) are doing. We work with every level of the organization to ensure they have the right structure and culture in place.”
UFred’s courses ensure people know how to check on health and safety policies and processes. Students learn how to get feedback and adjust accordingly for a continuous improvement process, then integrate a process improvement plan that ensures the change occurs.
“This is the foundation piece for our daily life and is based on local, national, and global health and safety management system standards,” she said.
Some people have skepticism about fully-online OHS education, citing the need for tangible experience in the field. But Dr. Sheri McKillop, UFred’s Vice President of Academics, says online students can apply the knowledge from the course material immediately after learning it. This is especially true of students who study online because they want to stay employed.
Dr. McKillop wrote her Doctorate of Business Administration dissertation on overcoming employers attitudes towards online degrees. Through extensive research, she determined that online students develop a deeper understanding of the material as they have more opportunity to review and absorb the curriculum than when it’s delivered in a classroom setting.
“This timely confirmation of the learning not only reinforces the learning but is shown to result in longer-term retention of the learning,” she said.
Pozniak adds that UFred’s programs use problem-based learning so that students can develop critical thinking skills and demonstrate value, rather than simply jumping into action.
“By setting up a situation where they can directly apply the course material to a real-world problem, the majority of the time, we can talk through that in advance,” Pozniak said.
“We don’t jump into it right away. We have to be critical thinkers. How do we construct that and apply it in a system? How do we apply that in a system? How do we talk to people?”
Online students also develop an equal or higher level of communication – both written and verbal – due to the reviewing process that allows them to consider the message written or said before finalizing it, says McKillop.
“For example, a classroom student puts their hand up and blurts out the answer. An online student writes a response and, most times, reviews and considers the reader on the other end to ensure the message is right,” she said.
She adds that it’s important to be able to communicate in such a way that grabs people’s attention, that they understand what’s communicated, and that it’s a simple call for action and they know what to do once the information is relayed.
Pozniak says OHS professionals should consider the communication factor in the culture component of their structure as well.
“Structure helps dictate our culture, and culture helps dictate our structure,” she said.
“Culture is what someone is doing at work when someone is watching and when no one is watching, and the commitment and attitudes toward health and safety. We’re continuously communicating and looking at how to get the right safety climates and culture we want.”
Pozniak says safety professionals and subject matter experts developed UFred’s course material in such a way that can help set challenging goals and stimulate reflective and creative thinking to determine how the material applies in students’ work environments.
“Our job at the university is to widen perspectives with many different theories. The students can decide which one they believe in and what to apply within their work environment,” she added.
While there are many different theories on what causes accidents and how to prevent them, Pozniak says the students need to know all of them because they’re going to come across other leaders, supervisors, and safety professionals as they move between jobs and organizations that may have a different philosophy and use a different approach.
“They need to know how to work with that, or what they need to do to move the organization more in line with their own theories and practices,” she said.
Pozniak says UFred’s programs employ active learning that students can use immediately to solve real life, real workplace problems, and connect that learning with something relevant within their work environment.
“Critical thinking is what we’re really focused on,” she added, along with problem-based learning and teaching the transfer of knowledge.
UFred offers an alternative approach to traditional classrooms. As opposed to giving out more isolated bits of information that demand memorization, UFred utilizes problem-based learning, where people are given knowledge and real world-based scenarios.
Dr. McKillop adds that online students develop a deeper understanding of the material as they have more opportunity to review and absorb the curriculum than when it’s delivered in a face-to-face classroom.
She adds that students currently working in the OHS profession can access past classes and materials as needed as they perform their jobs.
“For example, if you study Protocol XYZ, but you have never dealt with it on your job, it doesn’t have as much impact. But six months later, Protocol XYZ is front and centre at your job. You can go back to your course when that protocol was taught and review, allowing a timely application at the job site. When you study face-to-face, you may have a textbook for reference, but not the entire course with lectures.”
“In many aspects, as safety professionals, we’re salesmen. We’re selling a product, and our product is knowledge of hazard and risk, and a commitment to action by individuals to ensure that safety is within a work environment,” Pozniak said.
Pozniak says UFred is currently revamping its programs to focus on how to create a safety management system where OHS professionals will ‘Plan, Do, Check, Act.’
“It shows people how to plan, and planning is creating that process to address the hazards, risks and controls in the workplace, and also consider legislative process and standards for best practice,” she said.
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