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Executive/Senior Manager - Leadership, health and safety culture

Invest in health and safety

The word culture comes from the farming concept of ‘cultivation’. It refers to the organisational forces that shape behaviour through mechanisms such as workplace norms, support, modeling, and communication. Strong cultures offer reliable consistent guidance about attitudes and behaviours.

A strong health and safety culture is a key to profitability, sustainability, reduced compensation costs and other success measures. With an aging workforce, the impact of chronic disease in the workplace and a competitive labour market, businesses using targeted strategies to build health and wellbeing at work will have better business performance and people outcomes.

Measuring health and safety performance provides an insight into management and investment decisions.

Key enablers:

  • systems of work
  • leadership
  • accountability, governance
  • implementation of policies and procedures
  • measuring behaviour, monitoring attitudes
  • existing indicators of organisation health (eg staff surveys, workforce planning, attendance management, etc).

Safety: a wicked problem (Peter Wagner & Associates: 2010) provides insight through qualitative research exploring ‘what will deliver the next level of transformational change in OHS?’

CEO’s provided the following solutions across ten areas

1. Focus on enterprise

While compliance to legislative requirements serves as a foundation, it does not lead to performance improvement alone. An environment of innovation should be encouraged at enterprise level and successes shared across all industries.

2. Engage employees in a collaborative conversation and develop resilient cultures.

Providing employees with an understanding of work practices and/or the need for change will lead to significantly better WHS outcomes (ie more effective management of hazards and risks).

3. Ramp up skills and education.

Education should cover a broad-based curriculum that includes business strategy, change management, influencing, safe working behaviour and technical WHS components.

4. Upgrade data quality and availability.

This will enable insightful decision making at strategic and operational levels.

5. Create learning forums for business leaders.

These forums should focus on strategy and topics such as safe behaviour, culture change, change management, innovation and transformation.

6. Alter community mindset and expectations.

This will ensure that society is not only better informed about WHS matters, but expects higher levels of performance.

7. Support technology development.

Deliver new technologies that can effectively reduce and eliminate risks and hazards within the workplace.

8. More research funding.

Give funding to understand best practice at a global level and how these practices might best be applied in the Australian context. For example, how people see and understand risk and what drives appropriate safety behaviours.

9. Increase investor interest.

Organisations that get safety right generally outperform their peers in terms of share price. In turn, increased competition would lead to a higher focus on safety across all industries and accelerate performance improvement.

10. New solutions for WHS in small business.

WHS in small businesses needs to be redeveloped with a practical framework built that is easier to communicate and execute.

Leaders have a pivotal role in developing and committing to a health and safety culture within their business. Executive and senior managers must openly and honestly commit to high standards of health and safety by being seen to practice what is said. Your actions will show how you:

  • value wellbeing, health and safety as much as productivity and financial outcomes through fostering and encouraging a learning environment
  • commit to health and safety by being visible in the workplace
  • communicate your concerns for health and safety through active listening and consultation
  • connect with your workers to understand the health and safety issues in your workplace
  • are seen by workers at all workplaces within the business, make time to visit workers and hear about their ideas, issues and concerns
  • ensure that health and safety is included in any business planning, board meetings and as a part of the day to day business
  • identify early the signs of cultural problems such as a lack of information sharing, poor relationships and improper behaviour
  • understand differences in internal organisational culture, and an emphasis on whole-of-organisation identity and approaches
  • build a shared vision: common identity and sense of identity
  • set standards by which workers set priorities that enable them to judge and make decisions about their health and safety. What values are permeated through your business?

Talking about health and safety on an emotional level creates an atmosphere of connection. The number one reason people leave their jobs: they don’t feel appreciated. (Tom Rath and Donald Clifton).

Make sure everybody counts and everybody knows they count, that what they do makes a difference and matters.

Leadership style and attitude

Management attitude, behaviour and style tend to be less quantifiable indicators of WHS and injury management outcomes than WHS and injury management systems. Nonetheless, these factors have a very powerful effect on workforce health and safety and help separate the good from the excellent organisations.

A strong, visible management commitment is crucial for good health and safety performance. Senior leaders must be seen as actively interested and committed, and need to show that health and safety is important by how they behave in addition to what they say.

The challenge for senior management is not only to improve safety and injury management but also to develop skills and qualities that build positive management and worker capabilities. For workers, it is their perception of leadership qualities and attributes that is crucial for improving workplace safety and injury management.

There are a number of specific qualities and attributes that signal leadership commitment and contribute to a good health and safety culture and safety outcomes. These are detailed below.


Interpersonal trust between leaders and workers is important for many organisational variables such as quality of communication, performance and co-operation.

Communication style

Frequent and informal communications between workers and management on safety issues is critical for improved performance. These behaviours demonstrate a managers concern for safety and provide opportunities for early recognition of hazards.


Management commitment and involvement in safety programs has been found to be associated with good safety performance. Involvement includes making a personal contribution to WHS consultation and frequent contact between workers, management and supervisors.

Senior management involvement is a motivational force for both middle management to implement organisational guidelines and directives in WHS and injury management, and for employees to cooperate in this implementation.

Participative management

People work more safely when they are involved in the decision making process, have specific and reasonable responsibilities and have immediate feedback about their work.

Management styles characterised by openness and encouragement of worker participation are likely to be the most effective in promoting a positive safety culture.

Locus of control

The degree that control over work organisation and task structure is centralised is an important consideration in the culture of safety, with greater decentralisation making for better health and safety outcomes.

A decentralised approach is the most effective way for senior management to promote workplace safety motivation and accident prevention.

Flexibility and adaptability

Management styles that emphasise flexibility and adaptability to changing conditions, while maintaining organisational consistency and continuity, encourage worker commitment to organisational goals and values.

Better health promotion and OHS programs have also been found to improve worker health directly and to ‘immunise’ against workplace injury.Investment in these areas has been found to foster perceptions of organisational commitment and build worker loyalty in areas such as safety behaviour. This may be because these programs are seen by workers as evidence of management’s concern for their wellbeing. These programs may also help to bring workers together, forming closer relationships.

Page last updated: 28 Feb 2018