The influence of safety leadership at board level
Dr Kirstin Ferguson
Dr Kirstin Ferguson is a professional company director on publicly listed, private company and government boards. In 2014, Kirstin was named by the Australian Financial Review as one of Australia’s 100 Women of Influence. Kirstin is the founder of Orbitas Group, a boutique consultancy specialising in safety leadership and safety governance for board members and senior executives.
As part of the new Women in Health and Safety forums taking place at the Safety & Health Expo in June, Roz Sanderson, digital editor for SHP, is speaking to women in the profession to find out what drives them.
You currently sit on a number of large company boards as a professional non-executive director. What prompted you to also become the Founder of Orbitas Group after completing a PhD in safety leadership and safety governance?
I first became involved in health and safety as CEO of an international workplace health and safety organisation focused on cognitive behavioural safety. I moved from that role into becoming a professional company director and so I was interested in understanding how safety leadership at a board and senior executive level can be demonstrated since boards are often far removed from day-to-day operations yet can still, indirectly, heavily influence an organisations safety culture.
As a board director, I sit on public and private company boards in hazardous industries, including as Chairman of board committees responsible for safety, and so it is very rewarding to have been able to combine research on this issue with my practical experience.
Why is it so important to consider safety governance when constructing the framework of a company?
The safety governance framework of a company is essential to help support and drive improved safety performance. In my research, I defined safety governance as the relationship between board members and the senior executive team in the safety leadership of an organisation.
The reason it is important is because it provides the structure through which the vision and commitment to safety is set, agreement on how safety objectives are to be obtained, a framework for how monitoring of performance is to be established and the processes in which legislation will be complied with.
Every organisation will have a different level of maturity in their safety governance frameworks. This will ultimately influence the relationship between the board and senior executive team in how they approach leading and governing safety in the business.
You have said that “the best safety professionals understand all the issues confronting the organisation – not just safety”. Why is it so important to look at safety holistically? And is this kind of behaviour commonplace?
The best safety professionals I have come across as a company director have been those that enter the boardroom to provide their safety report with the big picture in mind.
That is, they understand the context that the organisation is currently operating in. They present their reports with full awareness that, for example, financial pressures on the business are having an impact on employee’s attention to safety through distraction or production demands. They understand that hazard reporting is lower than it should be due to the potential high levels of bureaucracy involved in lodging a hazard report which in turn reduces employees willingness to complete the process.
I think the days of safety professionals presenting a report to the board that looks at lag indicators only are long gone. And board directors themselves are becoming more experienced in safety issues and demanding more from the safety professionals in the organisations they govern. I see this as a tremendous opportunity for the safety profession.
Who or what inspires you to carry this message of safety leadership to board level?
Any board director who has been notified of a workplace fatality while sitting on a board knows that safety is much more than just monthly reports or statistical analysis. I am inspired by the tens of thousands of employees who work in the organisations of the boards I sit on to ensure they each return home safely to their families every day.
I understand how challenging it can be to influence safety culture and safety performance from the distance of the boardroom so I am determined to assist directors in this wherever I can.
How do you communicate this importance down as well as up?
That is a great question. Ultimately it is the role of the senior executive team to communicate directly with employees on safety, rather than the board. The board however does play a key role in supporting and reinforcing the safety vision of the CEO and in ensuring, whenever they are on site or talking with employees, that they live and breathe the safety values of the company.
Having a genuine, authentic conversation with an employee about how important their safety is to you as a board member can send ripples through the workplace that can only help build the safety culture of the business.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out in their career as a health and safety professional?
My advice would be to remember that while you are a specialist in your field, you are not the only person responsible for safety in your business. Safety is the responsibility of everyone, including individual employees, line managers and senior executives.
While safety professionals will support and facilitate safety processes and procedures, I would encourage you to avoid the temptation to be the only person that takes responsibility for safety. Empower and enable others to understand how they can each help to create a strong safety culture in your business.
Dr Kirstin Ferguson is a professional company director on publicly listed, private company and government boards. In 2014, Kirstin was named by the Australian Financial Review as one of Australia’s 100 Women of Influence. Kirstin is the founder of Orbitas Group, a boutique consultancy specialising in safety leadership and safety governance for board members and senior executives. You can contact Kirstin via Orbitas Group or follow her on Twitter.
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