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Leading From the Top: Safety Principles of Leadership

  • June 2, 2015
  • Comments Off on Leading From the Top: Safety Principles of Leadership


Failure to include health and safety as a key business risk in board decisions can have catastrophic results. By following these principles, you will help your organization find the best ways to lead and promote health and safety, and therefore meet its legal obligations.

This article sets out an agenda for the effective leadership of health and safety for all directors, officers and their equivalents in the private and public sectors. It applies to organizations of all sizes.

Protecting the health and safety of employees or members of the public who may be affected by your activities is an essential part of risk management and must be led by the board. Failure to include health and safety as a key business risk in board decisions can have catastrophic results.

Many high-profile safety cases over the years have been rooted in failures of leadership. Health and safety law places responsibilities on organizations and employers, and directors can be personally liable when these duties are breached – members of the board have both collective and individual responsibility for health and safety. By following these guidelines, you will help your organization find the best ways to lead and promote health and safety, and therefore meet its legal obligations.

The starting points are the following essential principles. These principles are intended to underpin the actions in this article and so lead to good health and safety performance

Essential principles

■ Strong and active leadership from the top:

–  visible, active commitment from the board;

–  establishing effective ‘downward’ communication systems and management structures;

–  integration of good health and safety management with business decisions.

■ Worker involvement:

–  engaging the workforce in the promotion and achievement of safe and healthy conditions;

–   effective ‘upward’ communication;

–   providing high-quality training.

■ Assessment and review:

–  identifying and managing health and safety risks;

–  accessing (and following) competent advice;

– monitoring, reporting and reviewing performance.

We also all need to raise the bar on process safety management, leadership and safety culture across the whole industry and it all begins with Leadership.

To prevent major incidents HSE recommends that major hazard organizations should focus on process safety leadership built around certain key elements:

  1. Leadership which is demonstrated through actions from the top, so that all managers and staff know that process safety is being taken seriously.
  1. Process safety management taking place at all business levels. Process safety is a Company Board issue and requires clear accountabilities at all levels, together with effective measurement systems, including indicators of process safety performance (allowing learning from near misses and pre-cursor events, and avoiding major incidents). 
  1. Real and dynamic risk assessments to ensure that staff understand the links between hazards and the risks they create, and the control measures that are in place to control them (the barriers to failure).
  2. Robust management of change approachesthat capture real time plant and operational issues so that today’s plant and operating envelope are properly understood by those that ‘need to know it’.
  3. Sustainability, with the business focusing on long term performance, so that investment and maintenance decisions, in particular, are focused on the longer term, whilst also maintaining a responsible customer approach to any activities that are contracted out.
  4. Well trained and competent peopleat all levels in the organization and in sufficient numbers to address steady state operation, periods of change and emergency situations, and the infrastructure to ensure sustained competency.
  5. A learning organisationthat not only values and encourages learning from its own experiences, but looks beyond itself for lessons, and avoids complacency.


Benefits of good health and safety

Addressing health and safety should not be seen as a regulatory burden: it offers significant opportunities. Benefits can include:

■ reduced costs and reduced risks – employee absence and turnover rates are lower, accidents are fewer, the threat of legal action is lessened;

■ improved standing among suppliers and partners;

■ a better reputation for corporate responsibility among investors, customers and communities;

■ increased productivity – employees are healthier, happier and better motivated.

Costs of poor health and safety at work

HSE statistics reveal the human and financial cost of failing to address health and safety. Each year:

■ Millions of working days are lost due to work-related illness and injury.

■ Thousands of people die from occupational diseases.

■ Around a million workers self-report suffering from a work-related illness.

■ Several hundred thousand workers are injured at work.

■ A worker is fatally injured almost every working day.

Organisations can incur further costs – such as uninsured losses and loss of reputation.

 When leadership falls short

Nigeria is fast rising to the point of where Health and Safety regulations will have stricter measures and backed up by law.

The cases outlined here reveal what holds in developed countries when board members do not lead effectively on health and safety management; the consequences can be severe. These examples mark issues for all boards to consider.

Competent advice, training and supervision

Following the fatal injury of an employee maintaining machinery at a recycling firm in Europe employing approximately 30 people, a company director received a 12-month custodial sentence for manslaughter. The machinery was not properly isolated and started up unexpectedly. An HSE and police investigation revealed there was no safe system of work for maintenance, instruction, training and supervision were inadequate. HSE’s investigating principal inspector said: ‘Evidence showed that the director chose not to follow the advice of his health and safety advisor and instead adopted a complacent attitude, allowing the standards in his business to fall.’


The managing director of a manufacturing company with around 100 workers was sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment for manslaughter following the death of an employee who became caught in unguarded machinery. The investigation revealed that, had the company adequately maintained guarding around a conveyor, the death would have been avoided. The judge made clear that whether the managing director was aware of the situation was not the issue; he should have known as this was a long-standing problem. An area manager also received a custodial sentence. The company received a substantial fine and had to pay the prosecution’s costs.


Risk assessment

A company and its officers were fined a total of £245 000 and ordered to pay costs of £75 500 at Crown Court in relation to the removal of asbestos. The company employed ten, mostly young, temporary workers; they were not trained or equipped to safely remove the asbestos, nor warned of its risk. The directors were also disqualified from holding any company directorship for two years and one year respectively.

Legal liability of individual board members for health and safety failures

If a health and safety offence is committed with the consent or connivance of, or is attributable to any neglect on the part of, any director, manager, secretary or other similar officer of the organization, then that person (as well as the organization) can be prosecuted.

Recent case law has confirmed that directors cannot avoid a charge of neglect by arranging their organization’s business so as to leave them ignorant of circumstances which would trigger their obligation to address health and safety breaches.

Those found guilty are liable for fines and imprisonment. Individual directors are also potentially liable for other related offences, such as the common law offence of gross negligence manslaughter. Under the common law, gross negligence manslaughter is proved when individual officers of a company (directors or business owners) cause death by their own grossly negligent behaviour. This offence is punishable by an unlimited fine and a maximum of life imprisonment.