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Safety Governance Inside the Boardroom: The Role of Senior Executives and Board Directors in Safety Leadership

Jan. 7, 2016
The conviction of Don Blankenship is a critical reminder of the role senior executives play in corporate safety leadership.

The conviction of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship in relation to the deaths of 29 miners killed at work in West Virginia in 2010 is a critical reminder of the important role that the most senior executives in a business play in safety governance and safety leadership. In many countries, such prosecutions are commonplace with legislation clearly placing responsibility for worker safety in the hands of senior executives and boards.

The conviction of Blankenship will be a reminder to all CEOs, presidents and boards in every industry that it is essential that effectively leading health and safety performance is not only a moral imperative but brings with it significant legal and financial consequences for failure to do so.

Frequently, safety leadership research focuses on the behaviors and attitudes of managers and supervisors directly working with employees in the field. Yet recent tragedies – such as the Massey explosion in West Virginia or the Pike River Coal Mine tragedy in New Zealand – highlight how the most senior leaders of an organization did not provide effective safety leadership but instead were distracted by financial and production pressures.

Recent research now has identified four criteria of safety leadership specifically applicable to this important group of senior leaders – vision, personal commitment, decision-making and transparency. 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 organization.  

How Mature is your Safety Governance Framework?

When considering the role of senior executives and board members in workplace health and safety, it also is necessary to think about the framework in which they operate. This group of leaders is, in many cases, geographically and physically removed from the workers in the field or on the factory floor. And in the case of board members, who are not involved in daily management of the company, they influence the tone and safety culture of an organization through the questions they ask, the focus they place on key organizational issues and the messages they give during direct interactions with employees.

The concept of safety governance is about ensuring that the most senior leaders of an organization have the tools, knowledge and structures in place to maximize the safety performance of the organizations they lead, beyond mere compliance with relevant safety legislation. In this context, safety governance is defined as the relationship between board members and senior executives in the safety leadership of an organization. And importantly, safety governance 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.

Safety Governance Pathway

The Safety Governance Pathway was developed as a tool to help identify what stage of safety governance maturity an organization currently may be experiencing. Understanding where an organization currently sits on the Safety Governance Pathway is essential for understanding where senior executives and boards are starting from in their approach to safety governance and determining a vision for where an organization might like to move.

Every organization will identify themselves at a different point on the pathway and may find themselves moving forwards or backwards, depending on the commitment to safety of the senior leaders in place, the emphasis and initiatives to drive safety improvements or serious incidents that may have occurred. Here are some indicators that can help identify where a particular organization is placed.


Does the CEO or board tend to see safety as someone else’s responsibility? Do they become engaged only after an incident has occurred? Is the culture of the organization such that production is the most important driver of business success?

A transactional approach to safety is the least effective stage of safety governance. There is no clear health and safety vision across the organization and no clear understanding that "good safety" means "good business." Health and safety is seen as the responsibility of someone else, most likely the health and safety professional (if there IS a health and safety professional; often they are only part-time or brought in as consultants). Health and safety performance is not prioritized and is not disclosed in public company reports. Line managers do not take responsibility for safety outcomes; all responsibility for safety is directed to the health and safety professional.


Is compliance with relevant workplace health and safety legislation the main driver of reporting to the CEO and board? Are senior leaders focused primarily on ensuring the minimum regulatory standards are met?

During the compliant stage, the board is aware of its legal responsibilities and compliance is the main driver for establishing a health and safety governance framework. Health and safety data is reported, yet the focus of reporting is ensuring compliance and concentrates primarily on lagging indicators. Basic (often generic) safety policies and procedures are in place and the CEO or president and the board are not aware of the importance of their own safety leadership. A brief mention of health and safety may be made in annual company reports.


Does the CEO or president and board members ask detailed safety questions, often drilling down into the causes of incidents? Do your senior leaders consider site visits an important part of their safety leadership role?

After realizing that mere compliance with legislation will not necessarily ensure everyone returns home safely every day and a plateau in safety performance has been reached, a president or CEO often will drive a more focused approach to safety governance.

During this stage, the specific role of the board in health and safety may be included in the board charter. A health and safety vision is introduced and safety performance reporting will begin to include leading indicators. A health and safety management system is in place and processes are disclosed in annual company reports. There also may be focus on the resourcing of the health and safety function as well as consideration on where the function is included in the organizational chart so there is visibility to the executive team.


Is there a sense that most board members "get" health and safety? That is, they understand that a strong safety culture is much more than simply compliance but requires safety leadership inside and outside of the boardroom?

The proactive stage often is driven by a president, CEO or board who have become more confident in their safety leadership role and seek to take a proactive approach to safety governance. The board may establish a subcommittee to focus on health and safety.

The president often includes a personal commitment to health and safety performance in their annual company reports or at shareholder meetings. Safety performance referencing both lag and lead indicators is disclosed. In most cases, the lead health and safety professional will report to the CEO and report on health and safety directly to the board.


Does the CEO, president or board seek to understand the safety impacts of every decision made in the boardroom? Does the concept of "safe production" set the tone for board discussions?
The most effective stage of safety governance occurs when health and safety is completely integrated into business operations. The board and senior executives understand that a high level of health and safety performance is linked to business excellence. The board’s commitment to health and safety is stated clearly in annual company reports and safety disclosures are transparent. Safety committees cascade throughout the organization, so that safety information readily can be shared and obtained from the board sub-committee through to employee safety committees.

The senior health and safety professional understands his or her role is not just a technical position but has a significant strategic focus for the business. Line managers acknowledge and accept their own responsibility for safety rather than seeing it as falling to the health and safety function. There is transparent sharing of safety data and learnings with other organizations in the industry and beyond.

Safety Leadership in the Boardroom

After identifying the maturity of your organization’s approach to safety governance, it is useful to now consider four specific components of safety leadership relevant to the most senior leaders of an organization, the CEO or president and their teams and the board.


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 the ability to publicly articulate shared safety goals that resonate across all levels of an organization.

Senior leaders demonstrating vision will inspire others, set high standards for safety behaviors and solicit commitments to safety from others. In a practical sense, this may involve the CEO or president 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 also is critical to develop a strong safety culture. In the context of this group of leaders, who often are removed from the daily operations of the organization, personal commitment is a sincere, visible and genuine dedication to workplace safety that demonstrates care for the safety and welfare of others.

Senior leaders with such a personal commitment exemplify a positive attitude to safety, model safe behaviors 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 a board or committee charter; ensure a company safety vision exists, is communicated regularly and widely, that 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 aspect of safety leadership for senior executives and board members relates specifically to decision-making. Decision-making is a fundamental role of senior executives and board members and in the context of safety leadership, promotes a sound assessment of safety issues while also providing an opportunity for open communication between all levels of an organization.

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 area 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 includes 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.

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson is a professional board director on a number of public, private and government boards. She also is the founder of Orbitas Group (, leaders in field of safety governance and safety leadership for board members and senior executives.

Ferguson has a Ph.D. in Business and was awarded the QUT Colin Brain Corporate Governance Fellowship and Safety Institute of Australia Dr. Eric Wigglesworth Award for her research contributions to the fields of corporate governance and health and safety respectively. You can connect with Ferguson via LinkedIn or you can follow her on Twitter (@kirstinferguson).

EHS Today is an IndustryWeek companion site within Penton's Manufacturing & Supply Chain Group.

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