Leading from the front

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“Failure to include health and safety as a key business risk in board decisions can have catastrophic results. Many high-profile safety cases over the years have been rooted in failures of leadership,” says the HSE and IOD guidance for directors, Leading Health and Safety at Work.

Management of workplace health and safety requires sound policies, effective systems for control and competent people to ensure that policies are put into practice and the systems work. But this is not enough in order to be a high performing organisation.

Sound policies, effective systems and competence need to be underpinned by strong, committed and visible leadership and the active engagement of the workforce. Without these attributes it is difficult if not impossible for any organisation to effectively control the risk of workplace injury and work-related ill-health.

Neal Stone is a former deputy chief executive of the British Safety Council.
Neal Stone is a former deputy chief executive of the British Safety Council.

The risks associated with the health and safety of the workforce should not be viewed any differently by the board of directors from wider organisational risks. There is an inherent danger that by viewing health and safety as a distinct and separate risk from other risks impacting on the organisation the board will not succeed in carrying out its important responsibilities.

No matter the responsibilities of the board director it is essential with regard to health and safety that all directors recognise their role includes involvement in setting strategy, ensuring sound governance and oversight and monitoring performance and impact.

When probed some board of directors will tell you that they have a competent person in place who ensures the effective management of health and safety. This is not enough. Health and safety must not be a viewed as a silo – the sole preserve of the health and safety management team. Everyone within the organisation, whatever their role, needs to be assured that their health and safety is of paramount importance. But more than this. Everyone has a responsibility to ensure not only their own health and safety but all of those people affected by their work activities.

As Dr Waddah Ghanem noted¹: “Leadership includes setting strategic direction; setting values and standards of business conduct and objectives; holding management accountable for actions; upholding obligations to all stakeholders; and overseeing the internal controls and assessing their effectiveness.”

The question all board of directors should ask themselves, whatever industrial sector or size, is this, “Do I receive the information on a regular basis I need to be assured that the risk of injury and ill health in my organisation are being effectively controlled?” Alarm bells should ring if this question cannot be answered in the affirmative.

The competences that you need to develop and maintain to be effective as a board director are:

  • A clear commitment to health and safety performance and continuous improvement
  • The ability to assess that effective systems are in place and manage risks
  • A clear understanding of the key health and safety risks the organisation faces including in particular those risks in your part of the organisation
  • Being assured that relevant health and safety laws and standards are being complied with
  • That you take responsibility and are accountable for health and safety within your part of the organisation
  • That you demonstrate and role-model appropriate behaviour
  • You encourage and motivate others to ensure good health and safety.

As the HSE/IOD guidance makes clear: “Health and safety is integral to success. Board members who do not show leadership in this area are failing in their duty as directors and their moral duty, and are damaging their organisation.”

The benefits of strong and active leadership are proven in terms of business success, financial performance and increased productivity.

¹ Dr Waddah Ghanem, Environment, Health and Safety Governance and Leadership, Routledge, United Kingdom, 2018.

The HSE and IOD guidance, Leading Health and Safety at Work (INDG417), can be found here.

About Neal Stone
Neal Stone is head of policy and governance at the McOnie Agency, an award-winning business-to-business communications agency in the UK.

Neal was formerly deputy chief executive and policy director of the British Safety Council. From 1992-2008 Neal worked as a policy adviser at the UK’s main occupational health and safety regulator, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). While at HSE his roles included leading policy and engagement work on director leadership and worker involvement.

Neal can be contacted at [email protected]


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