Occupational Health and Safety Leadership


Leadership is doing the right things; management is doing things right.” (Peter Drucker)

Thanks Peter! Truly successful health and safety systems reflect a bit of the “art” and the “science” of management. Senior people in most organisations, when talking about leadership and management, will use words and phrases like;

  • Leadership / management commitment
  • Strategic management
  • Operating environment / context
  • Clear roles, goals and objectives, and
  • Compliance focus

Why is it then, that “people-focussed” functions (including work health and safety) attract such variable attention in many organisations? Ask most HR professionals and they will roll their eyes about inconsistent implementation of good HR practices.

Management functions must be underpinned by sound values and principles. Otherwise, managers will find themselves engaged in “tick a box” compliance activity. In terms of workplace health and safety, senior people need to be just as concerned with the human impact of accidents as the economic impacts.

Many large organisations (particularly in the construction and manufacturing industries) carefully monitor the “Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate” (LTIFR) across their operations. This is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. However, the LTIFR simply counts how many injuries (resulting in 1 or more lost shifts) occur in a period of time and convert this into a rate per million hours worked. This means that most of the lost time injuries are typically at the lower end of the severity spectrum. Collectively, they are expensive and economically worth addressing.

Because the LTIFR is skewed toward the frequency of injury, rather than the severity of injury, senior management should have other processes to support those less frequent, but much higher impact incidents. Sometimes it is difficult to get the team “on board” with managing the less likely risks. For example;

The Texas City Refinery explosion occurred on March 23, 2005, when a hydrocarbon vapor cloud exploded at the ISOM isomerization process unit at BP’s Texas City refinery in Texas City, Texas, killing 15 workers and injuring more than 170 others.” (Source: Wikipedia)

When investigators tracked back through company data, they identified multiple near-misses over several years, any of which should have initiated a proactive risk management response. Systemic complacency meant the risks were not effectively managed, resulting in tremendous human loss and suffering. The economic impact was also felt nationwide.

There are many examples of organisations planning for the known, routine risks and being caught out by disaster from a different direction. When reviewing your workplace health and safety system or strategy, certainly take into account what your hazard and incident data is telling you. But also remember the key to leadership is “doing the right things”.

Talk, listen, consult formally and informally with those who have a stake, and identify the less obvious “right things” to do.