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Safety leadership in the boardroom

Safety 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?

Frequently safety leadership research focuses on the behaviors and attitudes of managers and supervisors working directly with employees in the field. Yet recent tragedies such as the Massey Energy explosion in West Virginia, or the Pike River Coal Mine tragedy in New Zealand, highlight the role of the most senior leaders of an organisation in cases where they have not provided effective safety leadership and instead have been distracted by financial and production pressures. 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 – Not surprisingly, an essential element of any successful safety culture is having a vision of what is to be achieved. In the context of senior executives and board members, such a 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 behaviors 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  The personal commitment of senior executives and board members to safety leadership is also critical to develop a strong safety culture. Personal commitment involves 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  The third aspect of safety leadership for senior executives and board members relates specifically to decision-making. Decision-making is a fundamental role of senior executives and board members and 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 – The final area of safety leadership 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.



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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