Safeguard Editor Peter Bateman reviews the key messages in Dr Kirstin Ferguson’s opening speech to the 2015 Safeguard National Health and Safety Conference.
“I want to talk about the number five. That is the number of fatalities I personally have been informed about as a director of the companies that I sit on. I know all their names, and the circumstances that led to their deaths. Five is also the age of the first fatality I was informed about.”
Opening the 2015 Safeguard National Health and Safety Conference with these words, Australian company director and safety governance researcher Dr Kirstin Ferguson left delegates in no doubt about her commitment to effective health and safety leadership.
As a professional non-executive director on multiple boards, including those of companies working in hazardous industries, Ferguson completed a PhD in safety leadership because she wanted fellow directors to understand how to move beyond compliance. Good safety leadership – characterised by boards, safety professionals and CEOs working together – can be a game changer for industry, she said.
“I want to provide some ideas on how you, as safety professionals, might engage your executive team and your boards so you can be visible and heard.”
This is important, she said, because the Pike River experience – where, in the words of the Royal Commission, the company’s safety focus was “distracted by financial and production pressures” – is a constant in many businesses, not only in the boardroom, but also at operational level.
“It can be hard for safety professionals to gain attention among other significant issues. So it’s important to understand what’s going on for boards, and to find ways to engage them.”
During her ten years of research into the safety leadership practices of 77 leading Australian companies, Ferguson discovered the term “safety governance” had never been formally defined. She developed her own definition, identifying it as the relationship between board members and senior executives in the safety leadership of an organisation.
“Both groups have roles, but different ones. And the reason the relationship is important is because it gives you structure, vision and commitment to safety, agreement on how you’re going to achieve whatever those objectives are, a framework for how you might monitor performance, and processes to comply with legislation.”
Stages of organisational safety leadership
There are, she said, five stages of organisational safety leadership:
- Transactional, where safety management is largely reactive and seen as solely as an issue for the OHS professional;
- Compliant, in which OHS is driven by fear and measured with lag indicators;
- Focused, where boards look for something more than strict compliance and begin to develop safety charters;
- Proactive, where board members practice safety leadership and work with managers and executives to boost OHS performance; and
- Integrated, where safety is an integral part of every operation, and business excellence is understood to be an output of safe production.
Progression between these stages is not linear, with certain situations causing rapid progress or, in some cases, regression, while integrated leadership is difficult to maintain.
“I encourage you to think about where your organisation fits. I sit on five boards, each of which is at a different stage of safety governance maturity, and how I respond as a director is different in every case. It’s not an exact science – you may be halfway between two stages – but if you’re not aligned with where your board is, it will create frustration that ultimately impacts on safety leadership and performance.”
Using this understanding, OHS professionals need to help influence and educate boards, Ferguson said. “The board defers to you to understand what’s going on in the organisation. The more we can all talk the same language, and understand what you’re trying to achieve, the bigger impact you’re going to have.”
Site visits, by small groups of well-briefed board members, reinforce safety leadership if there is authentic engagement with workers on safety issues, she said, and directors also appreciate this as a way to verify the information they are given.
OHS professionals must also make sure the company has a safety vision that aligns with company values, and educate boards on what safe production really means. “Many directors don’t have operational experience and don’t understand that they’re sending mixed messages if 80% of their newsletter is around production and they then say: ‘Of course we want you to do it safely.'”
Safety managers also have responsibility for ensuring employee concerns about safety are heard. “Regular, robust and meaningful safety reporting is vitally important as it often sets the tone for the quality of the safety discussions in the boardroom.”
She advised delegates to think about safety beyond pure statistical analysis and to provide examples of employees making safe choices. The use of different presentation techniques could also be effective. “On one occasion there was a hazardous task that we’d been briefed about in writing, and we were very concerned. Next month they brought along a video of that task being performed, and we were saying: ‘This can never happen again!’ The practical things you can do to engage your board are very powerful – particularly for directors who may not really understand safety.”
Transparency in reporting – a willingness to communicate “the good, the bad and the ugly” – is also important. “In my view there shouldn’t be any secrets between companies around safety. People’s lives are at stake, and it’s in everyone’s interests, including our competitors, to be as safe as possible.”
Safety professionals make a difference
Ferguson urged safety professionals not to underestimate their ability to make a difference at board level.
“I think you’d be surprised at the power you actually have to help drive the agenda for boards. You have an incredible opportunity to influence, particularly now when there’s so much focus by your boards on the topic.”
She said the best safety professionals come into the boardroom with the big picture in mind, understand what the organisation’s currently going through, and tailor their reports to it. “Think commercially – feel that you are an integral part of the strategy of your organisation.”
Credibility is also important, she said, with managers who were willing to admit to some struggles getting a better response than those who claimed everything was going well.
“It gives me a great deal of comfort to know that we’ve got safety professionals in the organisation who understand that this is an ongoing journey. But for me it all comes back to that number five – I’m here, and passionate about safety, because I’ve been notified five times about people who have been killed. I wish it wasn’t five, but I never want that number to change, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Watch Dr Kirstin Ferguson’s presentation on the 5 stages of organisational safety leadership
This presentation was first delivered at the 2015 Safeguard Conference. This video is one of four highlighting principal conference messages.
- Non-Executive Director Dr Kirstin Ferguson discusses Safety Governance and the four criteria of safety leadership as it relates to directors.
- James Barnes from Park Health & Safety Partnership UK discusses some of the reasons why Occupational Health interventions fail and proposes some ideas on how they can be made successful
- James Barnes discusses managing occupational health risks through minimising exposures. He proposes the 3 W strategy, which looks at the worker, the workplace and wellbeing.
About the 2015 Health and Safety Conference
For more read Safeguard magazine’s Editor Peter Bateman’s overview: Conference: Out of the Park – Key messages from the Health and Safety Conference 2015.