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Throughout any organisation, health and safety practice is an important aspect to keeping everyone safe. Whether you are in the boardroom or on the factory floor, health and safety should be a priority for everyone, with different knowledge needed at various levels.  

However, Safe365 benchmarking data shows that Director and Management knowledge is lower than worker/contractor knowledge and engagement, at 51% and 49% respectively, indicating that there is some way for us to go to in increasing education and confidence around health and safety at a board level. In a 2019 study in New Zealand, Colmar Brunton and Worksafe NZ found for health and safety to be adopted and less bureaucratic, employers and workers need to be on the same page. As we’ll explore, directors hold a key role in how health and safety is embraced (or in some cases not embraced) within an organisation. Today we’ll be looking at some of the ways directors can take a leadership role in health and safety within their organisations, as well as some of the dangers when this doesn’t happen.

Leveraging internal experts to improve board education and understanding

One of the key reasons Directors need knowledge of health and safety is linked to their responsibility to make organisational decisions. As directors, improving your overall understanding of health and safety practices aids your ability to make confident decisions akin to your ability to make decisions on investment, market expansion or operational growth. 

For this to occur, turning to health and safety experts both internally and externally to act as educators, keeping up to date with changes to legislation, and understanding the risks within an organisation around health and safety are steps every director can take to incrementally increase knowledge over time. 

This continuous approach to self-education helps health and safety professionals to have their inputs understood, and for policy, initiatives, and other decisions to establish the right levels of rigour and debate to maximise impact.  

The Hepatitis Foundation of New Zealand, a not-for-profit organisation, has taken on the challenge of educating its board so informed decisions can be made. To make this happen, they created a health and safety committee, supplied formal training and produce monthly health and safety reports. 

Kelly Hayes, a former manager at the Hepatitis Foundation, says: “The board has had the experience hearing from our different staff …  what risks there are to them within their roles, so they have that type of insight into what our staff are facing.” The benefits of doing this speak for themselves, having been nominated as a finalist in the Safest Place to Work Awards. 

Embedding health and safety as a part of culture  

When informed decisions are made around health and safety, they are going to affect how managers, employees, and contractors work. Policy changes are not always going to be enough, instead, increased engagement is needed to change organisational culture and deliver organisational objectives. 

A straightforward way this can manifest is through worksite visits. By interacting, experiencing and becoming immersed in the workplace, everyday health and safety can become easier to understand, directors and c-suite leaders can better engage with their teams using localised language and the entire business adopts an attitude of importance towards health and safety as a whole.  

Depending on the gaps within your organisation, there are several other ways culture can also be changed through documentation and a series of implementation and review sessions with key staff. By having consistent and well-kept risk registers, the building blocks of health and safety transparency are laid, allowing effective decision-making to occur to address risks in the workplace.  

With steps like these, the culture surrounding health and safety goes from something that is imposed by those who are at the very top with little understanding, to something which is implemented with the understanding of how it will affect the whole organisation. The trust and respect that comes from this is invaluable and can lead to a series of flow-on benefits.  

Keeping communication open  

While directors can visit worksites and keep consistent registers, keeping communication open with those on the ground is key. This allows changes to happen when they are needed, instead of on a monthly or annual basis. By engaging with workers, it supplies a valuable opportunity to get their input during the decision-making process, as well as building a culture where incident reporting is an issue for everyone, not just those physically or mentally impacted.  

Engagement with workers can happen in several ways, with surveys surrounding workplace concerns a strong starting point for understanding the general organisational attitudes surrounding health and safety. This provides a foundation for decision-making that removes assumptions, but instead information straight from the horse’s mouth.  

From a purely business perspective, the benefits of having strong health and safety culture from top to bottom are clear in business outcomes. A healthy workplace can mean less worker absence and stronger economic return. It can also result in reduced business costs in form of fewer insurance pay-outs or having to constantly play catch up to meet compliance.  

While many directors may place more importance on other areas of a business, health and safety is linked to all areas of business, with health and safety affecting everyone regardless of status. With time, health and safety can be a key driver of risk reduction across a number of areas, satisfying those who may care more about financial or environmental risk.