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March 8, 2016

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Safety leadership at the top

figures-1010678_640Safety leadership efforts generally focus on managers and supervisors with very little attention placed on the role of the most senior leaders in business. So what can safety leadership look like in the boardroom? Professional company director and international health and safety expert Dr Kirstin Ferguson shares her research.

In the aftermath of health and safety tragedies there is often a focus on the actions of the board and senior executive team in the lead up to the event. Yet more often than not very little focus is given to this group of senior leaders to help them develop their safety leadership skills. In recent research, I identified four key criteria of safety leadership for board members and senior executives that takes into account their unique position which is often physically and geographically located away from operations.

Vision – is the ability to publicly articulate shared safety goals that resonate across all levels of an organisation. Senior leaders demonstrating vision inspire others, set high standards for safety behaviours and solicit commitments to safety. In a practical sense, this may involve the CEO regularly reinforcing the existing company safety vision; the board authentically engaging with employees in safety issues while on site visits; or the board understanding the importance of, and actively supporting, the CEO and other senior executives in their day-to-day safety leadership activities.

 Personal commitment this is a sincere, visible and genuine dedication to workplace safety that demonstrates care for the safety and welfare of others. Senior leaders with a personal commitment to safety exemplify a positive attitude to safety, role model safe behaviours and help solve safety issues on behalf of employees. For example, boards may ensure a commitment to safety is included in the board charter; ensure a company safety vision exists; and ensure the board and senior executives accept, promote and communicate the concept of ‘safe production’.

Decision-making in the context of safety leadership, senior leaders promoting decision-making ensure safety concerns are heard and employees are included in the safety planning process. Practically, this may include such things as establishing a board committee focused on safety; ensuring regular, robust and meaningful safety reporting of company safety performance; and encouraging senior executives to think strategically about safety and not just as a source of statistical analysis.

Transparency – this focuses on the need for senior executives and board members to ensure open, transparent communications regarding safety performance to encourage a culture of continuous improvement. This can be done through formal and informal communications and may involve ensuring a consistent and comparable range of lag and lean indicators are reported and disclosed to stakeholders. It may also involve developing open communications with other companies to develop best practices in safety, and including team safety performance within an executive remuneration system.

Workplace health and safety continues to be a challenge in modern organisations, despite the significant engineering and technological advances of the past century. While lives continue to be lost and injured at work, senior leaders will attempt to consider ways to reduce the level of harm on employees. Knowledge of the importance of safety leadership at all levels of an organisation will assist senior leaders to understand the role that their attention to workplace health and safety will have on safety outcomes and the impact their own personal commitment will have on others.

kirstin fergussonDr Kirstin Ferguson is a professional company director on public, private and government boards; and an international expert in safety governance and safety leadership for boards and senior executives. Dr Ferguson can be reached via www.orbitasgroup.com , you can follow her on Twitter (@kirstinferguson) or connect on Linked In.

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Mary Darlington
Mary Darlington

Fully agree with all of these points, I have been preaching this since 2011. Great Article