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Developing an effective safety governance framework

While they may not be involved in day-to-day management of a company, board members influence the tone and safety culture of an organisation through the questions they ask, the focus they place on key organisational issues and the messages they given during direct interactions with employees. An effective safety governance framework will ensure that senior leaders – including not only senior executive teams but also company boards – have the tools, knowledge and structures in place to maximize the safety performance of the organisations they lead beyond mere compliance with relevant safety legislation.

It is important for health and safety professionals to identify the level of safety governance maturity in their organisation in order effectively influence change at the board and the senior executive level.  The Safety Governance Pathway was developed as a tool to help identify what stage of safety governance maturity an organisation may currently be experiencing.   Understanding where an organisation currently sits on the Safety Governance Pathway is essential for understanding where senior executives and boards are starting from in their approach to safety governance and determining a vision for where an organisation might like to move to.

Every organisation will identify themselves at a different point on the pathway and may find themselves moving forwards of backwards depending on the commitment to safety of the senior leaders in place, the emphasis and initiatives to drive safety improvements, or serious incidents that may have occurred. Below are some indicators which can help identify where a particular organisation is placed.

Transactional  Does your board and senior executive team generally see health and safety as the responsibility of the health and safety team? Do they tend to become engaged in health and safety only after an incident has occurred? Do you have a culture of ‘production over safety’? If so, it is likely your organisation is at the transactional stage.

A transactional approach to safety is the least effective stage of safety governance. There is no clear health and safety vision across the organisation and no clear understanding that ‘good safety’ means ‘good business’. Health and safety is seen as the responsibility of someone else, most likely the health and safety professional where one is engaged (although often they are only part-time or brought in as consultants). Health and safety performance is not prioritised and is not disclosed in public company reports. Line managers do not take responsibility for safety outcomes but rather all responsibility for safety is directed to the health and safety professional.

Compliance – Is compliance with health and safety legislation the main driver of reporting to the senior executive team or board? Are they primarily focused on ensuring the minimum legislation standards are met? If so, it is likely your organisation is at the compliance stage.

During the compliance stage, the board are aware of their legal responsibilities and compliance is the main driver for establishing a health and safety governance framework. Health and safety data is reported; yet the focus of reporting is ensuring compliance and concentrates primarily on lag indicators. Basic (often generic) safety policies and procedures are in place and the CEO or President and the board are not aware of the importance of their own safety leadership. A brief mention of health and safety may be made in annual company reports.

Focused – Have you noticed the senior executive team and board asking more detailed questions lately, often wanting to drill down into the causes of incidents with much greater understanding? Does your senior executive team and board consider site visits an important part of their safety leadership role? If so, it is likely your organisation is at the focused stage.

After realising that mere compliance with legislation will not necessarily ensure everyone returns home safely every day and a plateau in safety performance is reached, a President or CEO often drive a more focused approach to safety governance. During this stage, the specific role of the board in health and safety may be included in the board charter.  A health and safety vision is introduced and safety performance reporting will begin to include lead indicators. A health and safety management system is in place and processes are disclosed in annual company reports. There may also be focus on the resourcing of the health and safety function as well as consideration on where the function is included in the organisational chart so there is visibility to the executive team.

Pro-active – Do you feel that most of your senior executive team and board ‘get’ safety? That is, they understand that a strong safety culture involves much more than simply compliance, and requires safety leadership both inside and outside the boardroom? If so, it is likely your organisation is at the pro-active stage.

The pro-active stage is often driven by a President, CEO or board who have become more confident in their safety leadership role and seek to take a pro-active approach to safety governance. The board may establish a subcommittee to focus on health and safety. The President often includes a personal commitment to health and safety performance in their annual company reports or at shareholder meetings. Safety performance referencing both lag and lead indicators is disclosed. In most cases, the lead health and safety professional will report to the CEO and report on health and safety directly to the board.

Integrated – Do your senior executive team and board seek to understand the safety impacts of every decision being made across the organisation? Does the concept of ‘safe production’ set the tone for all health and safety discussions? If so, it is likely your organisation is at the integrated stage.

The most effective stage of safety governance occurs when health and safety is completely integrated into business operations. The board and senior executives understand that a high level of health and safety performance is linked to business excellence. The board’s commitment to health and safety is stated clearly in annual company reports and safety disclosures are transparent. Safety committees will cascade throughout the organisation so that safety information can be readily shared and obtained from the board sub-committee through to employee safety committees. The senior health and safety professional understands their role is not just a technical position but has a significant strategic focus for the business.  Line managers acknowledge and accept their own responsibility for safety rather than seeing it as falling to the health and safety function. There is transparent sharing of safety data and learnings with other organisations in the industry and beyond.


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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