It is estimated that most businesses spend billions of dollars annually on costs associated with workplace injuries and illnesses—expenditures that are deducted directly from the company’s profits. Research has indicated that workplaces that promote and encourage a culture of safety can reduce their injury and illness costs by 20 to 40 percent. However, a healthy and safe work environment cannot be established by simply implementing rules and standards alone. There must also be effective leadership. Leadership by example influences employees’ perception of the way health and safety in the workplace is managed; those perceptions then go on to influence employees’ on-the-job behaviours and decisions.

What Is Leadership?

Leadership is understanding and providing the context and situation for creativity and productivity. It involves identifying latent opportunities for continual improvement, eliciting collective ownership and confronting change. Thus, health, safety and environment leadership means caring about yourself, your employees and the environment.

Why Is Leadership Important?

Leadership drives company culture. Company culture drives health and safety performance. Therefore, organizational leadership and health and safety performance are inextricably linked. The way an individual leads their team on health and safety, significantly influences how safe the work environment is. According to Health and Safety Executive, this is because:

  • A leader’s attitudes and beliefs about health and safety drives his/her behaviours
  • In turn, his/her behaviours in the workplace sends a powerful message to employees regarding how seriously they should take the issue of occupational health and safety

What makes a good leader?

A good leader should be a transformational leader. That is, he/she should seek to transform, energize and motivate his/her employees by positively impacting on their employees' attitudes and behaviours, as well as organizational performance. Therefore, a transformational leader must be able to carry out the following roles effectively:

1. Visioning and Setting an Example

  • Create an inspiring vision and shared value
  • Lead change
  • Lead by example
  • Demonstrate confidence

2. Empowering and Energizing

  • Inspire and energize employees
  • Empower employees
  • Communicate openly
  • Listen, support and help

3. Leading a Team

  • Involve everyone, use a team approach
  • Coach and bring out the best in their employees
  • Encourage group decisions
  • Monitor progress but at the same time avoid micromanagement

The 4 Essential Steps for Leading Workplace Health and Safety

Step 1: Plan

Plan the direction for health and safety. Demonstrate your company’s commitment to health and safety by developing, writing and implementing an occupational health and safety policy statement. This OHS policy statement should be an integral part of your company’s culture, values and performance standards. Furthermore, health and safety should be one of the issues addressed at all board meetings.

Step 2: Do

Undertake the necessary actions to ensure that all levels of your company receive competent health and safety advice. Additionally, ensure that all employees are trained regarding their health and safety responsibilities, and that systems are in place to assess risks, as well as control those risks that are identified. Ideally, a health and safety committee should be established as a subset of the board and an effective health and safety leader should chair this committee.

Step 3: Check

Monitoring and reporting are essential aspects of safety culture. Effective monitoring of workplace health can alert the company to underlying problems, which can negatively impact on company performance. Additionally, collecting workplace health and safety data can allow the company to measure its performance. Therefore, this step entails monitoring, collecting and reporting information, such as training data, accident rates and employee absence rates, as well as periodic audits of the effectiveness of management structures.

Step 4: Act

Management must formally and periodically review the company’s health and safety performance to determine if the OHS system is effective at managing risk and protecting employees. Some key things to consider in this step include examining whether or not the company’s OSH policies reflect their goals, deciding on actions to address any weaknesses or shortcomings, and establishing a system to monitor these actions.

Tips to Become an Effective Health and Safety Leader

Leadership is a condition for success. Here are some simple strategies put forth by Health and Safety Executive that you can employ to ensure that you are effectively and efficiently leading health and safety at your workplace:

  • Challenge the status quo. Determine how health and safety practices in your workplace can be improved. Brainstorm whether or not there are new ways to improve health and safety and challenge your workers by asking them what more can be done to improve workplace health and safety
  • Create a vision. Consult your employees when identifying and setting health and safety goals. Be sure to involve them in the planning and decision making, while at the same time, motivating them to create a shared vision through these goals
  • Inspire your employees to be healthy and safe. Ensure that all your employees have the skills and resources to do their jobs safely. If barriers are present, find ways to work around them. If possible, share your expertise. This will help foster a mutual trust between you and your employees. Additionally, you should reward employees who successfully work safely
  • Be a good role model. Maintain high levels of honesty and integrity. You should always put health and safety first, ensuring that you behave in a manner conducive to safety at all times while on the job site. This will allow you to promote safe work behaviour and practices among your employees. Further, you should be fair by showing your employees that you trust them when it comes to making health and safety decisions
  • Show consideration. Respect the opinions of your employees. Show personal concern for your employees’ health and safety well-being. Additionally, you should get to know each employee and treat him or her as an individual. This will encourage the development of ‘team spirit’ or a safety culture where safety is the number one priority, and everyone looks out for one another
  • Communicate regularly. Keep your employees up-to-date with the company’s health and safety performance. Encourage your employees to give their feedback, responding immediately to their concerns. Most importantly, be approachable and receptive to your employees’ ideas, as well as maintain an open line of communication

Leading the way to workplace safety

Safety leadership is a vital component of any health, safety and environment process. It is the engaging in and maintaining of behaviours that help employees to achieve their company’s safety goals. It is important to note that safety leadership is not safety management. Safety leadership boils down to what you think about the employees that work for you and how important their safety is to you. Therefore, leadership drives safety performance and, as such, management should support the decisions made by safety leaders, empowering them to guide others to achieve a workplace safety culture.