Becoming a world-class health and safety leader

Health and safety professionals are increasingly expected to be leaders in their businesses, whatever their level in the organization. But what does a great health and safety leader look like? Dr Kirstin Ferguson suggests some approaches.

Health and safety professionals are the thought leaders and internal experts for health and safety within their organizations, yet often underestimate the level of influence they hold. This may be because, all too often, health and safety professionals find themselves primarily focused on activities such as collating and analyzing 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 recognize 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 health and safety professionals I have worked with bring to their interactions with senior executive teams and boards an understanding of the context in which the organization 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 organization 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 organization by understanding the strategic context in which their role operates, as well as the broader environment in which their organization 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.

For example, during a board meeting all business issues compete for the board’s attention. While I would expect that most boards understand and acknowledge the importance of health and safety on their board agenda, I also understand that at any given meeting there can be a multitude of incredibly important issues to be discussed and decisions to be made.

The best presentations I have seen from OHS professionals to boards, or senior executive teams, make health and safety relevant and interesting. There was one board I sat on as a board member where there had been a particular hazard that had been raised in a board paper to discuss. We had a discussion about the hazards based on the description in the monthly board report. As we were relying on words to explain a very technical task, it was difficult for board members to really appreciate the risk whilst sitting in a boardroom. The following month, the OHS professional presented to the board during their monthly report the same task, but explained it using video footage of the task as it was being undertaken by an employee. It is fair to say that a much more robust discussion was able to follow with the board having a much better understanding of the mitigation strategies being introduced.

OHS professionals should also work closely with their CEO and board on getting reporting right. It is essential that health and safety reporting focus on the right metrics and commentary since the discussion that follows will reflect the report. For example, if your reporting focuses primarily on lag indicators then the conversation is most likely focus on minor personal injuries including slips, trips and falls rather than the significant near miss that also happened during the month but which either wasn’t included in the report or was not even captured. Often I hear from health and safety professionals who are incredibly frustrated by the low level discussions during board meetings where disproportionate time is spent on minor incidents. In almost all cases the reason for that usually comes back to the reporting template being used.

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson (PhD, LLB(Hons), BA(Hons)), of Orbitas Group, is a professional board director on large publicly listed, private and government boards. She is also an international expert in safety governance and safety leadership for boards and senior executives and will be presenting at the Campbell Institute Symposium in New Orleans in Feb 2017.

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