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January 26, 2016

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Becoming a health and safety leader

leaderHealth and safety professionals are increasingly expected to be leaders in their businesses, whatever their level. But what does a great health and safety leader look like? In the first in a series of six articles Dr Kirstin Ferguson suggests some approaches.

Health and safety professionals are the thought leaders and internal experts for health and safety within their organisations, yet often underestimate the level of influence they hold.

That could be because, all too often, health and safety professionals find themselves primarily focused on activities such as collating and analysing incident data, overseeing safety investigations, ensuring timely close out of corrective actions, or conducting safety observations. In other words, the administration of health and safety can often make it challenging to find the time and space needed to add value to the senior executive team and board at a more strategic level.

I have been fortunate to work with some of the world’s leading health and safety professionals. Two traits they have all had in common is the ability to recognise the strategic importance of health and safety to business excellence, and the wisdom to understand that while there are numerous health and safety-related administrative tasks that need to be undertaken every day, the real value they can add lies elsewhere.

The most effective OHS professionals I have worked with bring to their interactions with senior executive teams and boards an understanding of the context in which the organisation is operating. They grasp the impact of volatile commodity prices on their business. They understand the level of distraction (and therefore potential impact on safety outcomes) that a potential divestment (or acquisition) is likely to have on employees. They are aware of digital disruptions impacting their industry and the ways such a disruption can be leveraged by the organisation to have a beneficial impact on health and safety. The health and safety professionals who are best placed to develop credibility are those who can add value to their organisation by understanding the strategic context in which their role operates, as well as the broader environment in which their organisation functions.

So, how can a health and safety professional best add value? One way is to put yourself in the shoes of your CEO or board during each interaction and ask: what information would they want to hear from the internal expert in this field? It is also important to learn as much about the business and the industry in which you operate as possible. Credibility will follow from being able to participate and add value in business discussions with other leaders, beyond focusing solely on the health and safety function.

kirstin fergusson
Dr 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
, you can follow her on Twitter (@kirstinferguson) or connect on Linked In.


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