Remembering ‘health’ in workplace health and safety discussions

Frequently workplace health and safety discussions focus primarily on the safety issues facing employees, rather than the health side of the equation.

I recently had the privilege of being the keynote speaker at the largest workplace health and safety conference in New Zealand’s history, Safeguard 2015. I had been invited to speak from my perspective as both a professional company director, as well as having completed PhD research in the field of safety governance and safety leadership.

Dr Kirstin Ferguson speaking at Safeguard 2015

Dr Kirstin Ferguson speaking at Safeguard 2015

After speaking for 30 minutes or so on safety governance maturity, engaging boards in safety discussions and more generally on safety leadership, I opened the floor to questions. As I was getting close to the final question I was asked by a conference delegate about how to engage corporate boards in discussions on workplace health.

Health. The incredibly important issue that is so often absent from health and safety discussions.  I sincerely thanked the conference delegate for the question and acknowledged that my  failure to discuss health in my presentation was, I speculated,  representative of a singular focus we too often see on safety  – and even more specifically physical safety – during such discussions. The question has stayed with me and prompted me to consider why that may be the case and what we, as senior leaders passionate about the safety and health of our employees, need to do about it.

There are probably many reasons why safety receives more overt attention in most organisations. Firstly, reporting on physical safety is well advanced. We have more experience in collecting data and we have developed tangible statistical measures to help understand organisational trends. As limited as they may be, lag indicators, and often also lead indicators, are common in safety reporting with many industry benchmarks available for comparison. The same broad based reporting for health issues is not readily available and as a result is less common in board safety reports and annual report disclosures.

Secondly, there is often a time imperative which is relevant for senior leaders when they become aware of physical safety hazards that require immediate attention to prevent injury. Invariably these safety incidents (or risks) will dominate the attention of senior leaders in an organisation. Preventing catastrophic safety incidents, or even less severe but more frequent “slips, trips and falls” can often set the agenda for safety discussions within an organisation. By contrast, health issues may take many years to manifest themselves. Gradual hearing loss, cancers caused by inhalation of carcinogens, or psycho-social health issues such as depression and anxiety generally do not have a sudden onset and are also not necessarily immediately visible to supervisors or managers to report upon. For example, the employee who is absent from work for a day after spraining their ankle in the workplace is likely to be included in monthly statistics, with follow up attention on the environment to prevent re-occurence. By contrast, the employee is absent due to stress is not.

Lastly, many health issues are difficult to measure. For example, depression and anxiety amongst employees may have a significant impact on business yet goes highly underreported due to the stigma and concern with actual or perceived professional consequences. Absenteeism directly caused by workplace stress is not a statistic easily captured and disclosed in monthly reports. Therefore, the visibility through monthly reports of health risks can be lacking, particularly when compared to lengthy and detailed analyses available for physical safety risks. This is further complicated by many health issues generally being the responsibility of a number of areas within an organisation.

So where does that leave us?

The general term of health within any health and safety conversation can include a wide range of employee health and wellbeing considerations. To reinforce the need to raise awareness of health issues in Australian workplaces, Safe Work Australia has included preventing or reducing work related disease as a focus of the Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012-2022. As an example of just some of the myriad of workplace health issues the national regulator believes require focus, the Safe Work Australia Strategy is investigating respiratory disease; cancer; contact dermatitis; infectious and parasitic diseases; cardiovascular diseases; musculoskeletal disorders; mental disorders; and, noise induced hearing loss. Within the category of mental disorders, stress is the most significant factor and may be caused by work pressure, harassment, workplace or occupational violence, exposure to a traumatic event, suicide or attempted suicide and other mental stress factors.

It is clear from this small example of the work being done by Safe Work Australia that the focus on employment health and wellbeing issues are complex and wide ranging. Many of these issues would not be considered in current workplace health and safety reports to boards. The challenge for health and safety professionals is to engage senior executives in these issues and make them relevant to the context of the organisation in which they are operating. Senior executive teams then need to develop reporting to the board that can bring discussions on health issues, including mental disorders, inside the boardroom in the same way that physical safety risks are discussed. Some organisations are doing exceptionally well in this regard although I suspect, just as I demonstrated in my conference presentation, all too often safety is the main focus.

Dr Kirstin FergusonAbout the author – Dr Kirstin Ferguson

Dr Kirstin Ferguson is a professional company director sitting on ASX publicly listed, private company and government boards. Kirstin was previously the global CEO of a safety consulting organisation operating in the mining and resources industry. In 2014, the Australian Financial Review named Kirstin as one of Australia’s 100 Women of Influence. Kirstin has a PhD in Business focused on safety leadership and safety governance for board members and senior executives, and was awarded the QUT Colin Brain Corporate Governance Fellowship for her research contributions. Kirstin is an Adjunct Professor at the QUT Business School.

You can connect with Kirstin via Twitter, Linked In or send an email to

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