Safety Leadeship

Setting the tone from the top : Safety leadership in the boardroom

Frequently safety leadership research focuses on the behaviours and attitudes of managers and supervisors working directly with employees in the field. Yet recent tragedies such as the Pike River Coal Mine tragedy where the Royal Commission highlighted the role of the board in not providing effective safety leadership and instead being distracted by financial and production pressures (Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy (2012), p. 18). Recent PhD research has now identified four criteria of safety leadership specifically applicable to this important group of senior leaders. In addition, the concept of safety governance has been defined in order to clarify the vital role that senior executives and board members play in working to improve the safety outcomes of an organisation.


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 defined as the ability to publicly articulate shared safety goals that resonate across all levels of an organisation. Senior leaders demonstrating vision will inspire others, set high standards for safety behaviours and solicit commitments to safety from others. In a practical sense, this may involve the CEO primarily, and the Chair where appropriate, 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 essential in the development of a strong safety culture. In the context of this group of leaders who are often removed from the daily operations of the organisation, personal commitment is defined as 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. In a practical sense, boards may choose to ensure a commitment to safety is included in the board charter; ensure a company safety vision exists, is communicated regularly and widely, and aligns with, and supports, company values; and ensure the board and senior executives accept, promote and communicate the concept of ‘safe production’ while ensuring all decisions within the boardroom are consistent with that message.


The third criterion of safety leadership relates specifically to the decision-making task of senior executives and board members. Decision-making is a fundamental role of senior executives and board members and in the context of safety leadership is defined as promoting sound assessment of safety issues while also providing an opportunity for open communication between all levels of an organisation. 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.


The final criterion 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. Transparency in this context is defined as being open to scrutiny of safety performance through monitoring and communicating the effectiveness of safety initiatives. Senior leaders demonstrate transparency through formal and informal communications, which celebrate safety successes, as well as openly communicate safety challenges as they emerge. In a practical sense, this may involve ensuring a consistent and comparable range of lag and lean indicators are reported and disclosed to stakeholders, developing open communications with other companies to develop best practices in safety, and including team safety performance within an executive remuneration system.

Safety governance

Finally, when considering the role of senior executives and board members it is also necessary to think about the framework in which they operate. This group of leaders is, in most cases, geographically and physically removed from the coalface. And in the case of board members, while not involved in daily management of the company they 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. The concept of safety governance is therefore to ensure that the senior leaders 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. In this context, safety governance has been defined as the relationship between board members and senior executives in the safety leadership of an organisation and provides the structure through which the vision and commitment to safety is set, the means of attaining safety objectives are agreed, the framework for monitoring performance is established and compliance with the legislation is ensured.


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.

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