October 7, 2019 / Carl Sall

Soft Skills

This post is the first in a series devoted to topics related to soft skills. Soft skills, which AIHA CEO Larry Sloan defined as “personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people” in a SynergistNOW post earlier this year, are not typically taught in classrooms or in training courses. These skills are vital to the success of leaders, but each leader will learn and apply them in unique ways. As industrial hygienists, we must understand that soft skills are as vital to a professional’s success as knowing how to predict, evaluate, and control hazards. To start this discussion, let’s look at how we can get people to take an active role in health and safety.

Take a minute to think about what influences people to act if they identify a hazard. Are these influences primarily related to a person’s environment (for example, how they were raised by their family), or are they primarily due to heredity (for example, a genetic predisposition to care about others)? This contrast is commonly described as “nurture” (the environment or culture) vs. “nature” (biology or heredity). We cannot deny that nature—a person’s biology and neurology—has an impact on how they think and act (or react). But does this mean we can do nothing to influence behavior?

It is true that we can’t rewire a person’s brain and nervous system, but we can control situational factors that influence people. When implementing health and safety programs, we know that developing a strong health and safety culture is a key factor in successful programs. Leaders can encourage the development of a strong health and safety culture in two ways.

First, we need to foster an environment where people are encouraged to ask questions and take the initiative to resolve problems (such as health and safety hazards). Developing this environment is especially important for people who tend to avoid human interaction (that is, introverts). This environment will encourage them to identify and address issues quickly before they become a problem.

Second, we need to have open communication without focusing on where to place blame. Placing blame will stifle communication. Instead, if we strive to find solutions, we will encourage open communication. An added benefit of a safe place for open communication is that it encourages more human interaction, which engages extroverts to become more involved.

Implementing a culture that encourages people to act, cultivates open communication, and focuses on identifying solutions, not placing blame, will benefit the entire organization. Think how the quality programs or project management would benefit when people not only identify issues but find a solution and openly communicate about how to improve processes. Developing such a culture within an organization would set it up for future success.

Carl Sall

Carl Sall, CIH, CSP, is associate vice president for health and safety at WSP in Exton, Pa., and a past chair of AIHA’s Leadership and Management Committee.


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