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A study of safety leadership and safety governance for board members and senior executives

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Ensuring the safety of employees remains an elusive goal for many companies. The imperative to operate safely, efficiently and profitably can often create competing objectives for senior leaders and requires constant focus and commitment from every level of the organisation. Traditionally, the role of board members and senior executives has not been considered in the context of workplace safety beyond that of ensuring compliance with relevant safety legislation. The research in this paper draws upon leadership theory and corporate governance to explore the role of board members and senior executives in safety leadership and safety governance.

Three criteria of safety leadership have been identified from existing safety leadership literature – vision, personal commitment, decision-making – with an additional fourth criterion of transparency developed based on alternative models of safety leadership. In a novel approach, these four criteria have been applied to written communications as well as examined against the views of board members and senior executives. Study 1 involved a longitudinal analysis over a ten-year time period of safety-related disclosures in annual reports and corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports of 76 large Australian listed companies. The findings from Study 1 have provided empirical evidence of the application of the four criteria of safety leadership to public disclosures of safety-related activities.

Study 2 was an in-depth exploration of two Australian companies from within the Study 1 sample to provide a more detailed consideration of safety leadership. Findings from Study 2 confirmed that external safety-related disclosures reflect an internal focus on safety by senior leaders. Further, the findings from Study 2 confirmed the applicability of the four criteria of safety leadership to the most senior leaders of an organisation – board members and senior executives. In a contribution to practice, safety governance has been defined and a framework developed for use by boards to assist with integrating safety leadership behaviours into board decision making processes around workplace safety, and to help guide senior leaders’ relationships with internal and external stakeholders on this key organisational issue.

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