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Middle Manager - Leadership, health and safety culture: what part do managers play?

Consultation, communication and engagement

A healthy and safe workplace is more easily achieved when workers at all levels within the business talk to each other about potential issues/hazards, and work together to find solutions. From their knowledge of the workplace and work practices, workers can provide valuable input on work hazards and the effectiveness of policies and procedures.

Consultation between Officers, WHS Practitioners/Advisors, managers and workers on health and safety matters, can result in healthier and safer workplaces, improved issue or decision ownership, effective and robust outcomes, stronger commitment by everyone to implementing decisions and greater cooperation and trust between all levels of the business.

When is consultation required?

Under the WHS Act, consultation is required:

  • when identifying hazards and assessing risks arising from work
  • making decisions about ways to eliminate or minimise those risks
  • making decisions about the adequacy of facilities for the welfare of workers
  • proposing changes that may affect the health or safety of workers
  • making decisions about the procedures for resolving health or safety issues
  • monitoring the health of workers or workplace conditions, information and training or consultation with workers
  • when carrying out any other activity prescribed by the WHS Regulations.

What is consultation?

Consultation is a two-way exchange of information. It should be seen as an opportunity to add value to the PCBUs decision-making processes.

The Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission (SRCC) has adopted a working definition of what constitutes consultation from the Australian Industrial Relations Commission case, Australian Workers’ Union v Campbell Mushrooms Pty Ltd 1183/96 Print N4825 (1996). Consultation, as explored in that case can be summarised as:

Consultation means to appropriately inform workers, inviting and considering their response prior to a decision being made. Workers’ opinions should not be assumed. Sufficient action must be taken to secure workers’ responses and give their views proper attention. Consultation requires more than a mere exchange of information. Workers must be able to contribute to the decision-making process, not only in appearance but in fact.

Steps to effective consultation

The following six steps may assist managers in determining how to approach consultation and communication

1) Inform

Your workforce will be more aware of risks and how they are controlled.

How can success be achieved?

  • Provide information during workplace induction.
  • Carry out regular workplace briefings.
  • Use an interpreter and/or translation service if necessary.
  • Involve workers in all matters which affect their health and safety at work.

2) Instruction and training

Your workforce will understand how to do their job in a way that does not put themselves of their colleagues at risk.

How can success be achieved?

  • You need to show your commitment so that your employees recognise the importance of training. You may also need to appoint someone competent to conduct the training for you.
  • Supervision is particularly vital when workers are new, inexperienced or young. Even experienced workers can become complacent and take shortcuts.

3) Health and Safety Representatives (HSR)

HSRs and other worker representatives for health and safety can play a key role in getting people on board with new initiatives. They represent the interests and concerns of their fellow workers and provide valuable insight, skills and resources.

How can success be achieved?

  • Give the HSR full support and access to necessary equipment and facilities
  • Understand the role and function of the HSR and other representatives
  • Involve HSRs as a potential champion to assist in the promotion of WHS in your team

4) Teamwork

HSRs should be looked upon as a valuable resource – someone who asks questions about practice or developments in supportive, yet challenging ways.

How can success be achieved?

  • Consult regularly, even if it is informal.
  • Arrange specific meetings for key issues such as high risk areas, proposed changes in the workplace and health surveillance issues.
  • Arrange for health and safety to be part of other scheduled meetings (e.g. team meetings).

5) Consulting

As workers are often the most aware of health and safety issues and solutions, it makes sense to listen to them. If your workers feel their ideas are valued, they will generally have a stronger commitment to tackling such problems.

How can success be achieved?

  • Conduct regular scheduled meetings.
  • Conduct tool box talks.
  • Engage in face-to-face discussions.
  • Set up focus groups to deal with specific issues.

Other ways could include:

  • Undertake worker surveys.
  • Display information on noticeboards.
  • Log and respond to issues or concerns raised by workers.
  • Share information and good practice through newsletters and updates.

6) Joint problem solving

This will assist to improve health and safety standards and increase productivity, efficiency and motivation throughout the workforce. It will also boost co-operation and trust between workers, managers and senior leaders.

How can success be achieved?

  • Involve workers and their representatives in tackling health and safety issues to create a genuine and valuable partnership.
  • Allow concerns and ideas to be freely shared and acted upon as the whole workforce aims for a healthier and safer environment.
  • Tell your workers about health and safety and they’ll know about it, Involve them and they’ll understand.

Barriers to effective consultation

There are many barriers to how we communicate and consult with each other in the workplace. Finding the right time and delivering messages in the right way can be a challenge. Managers should establish a relationship with their workers that encourage open and honest discussion and mutual trust. Consultation often fails due to:

  • lack of clarity of message
  • absence of emotional resonance in your message
  • inaccurate targeting
  • poor timing
  • no genuine feedback process.

Tips to reduce barriers through communication:

  • Engage people on an emotional level.
  • Provide clear messages with concrete examples to help people focus their energies.
  • Think about what you say and how you say it (is what you are saying aligned with what your are feeling and thinking?)
  • Written material should be backed up by verbal communication.
  • Check the tone of the communication (edit, edit and edit again).
  • Some news is better than no news.
  • Let people know the status of what is happening, you are the key in communicating change, workers look to you to see if there is real acceptance.

The manager's role in health and safety culture

Managers, as a part of the overall leadership team, play a pivotal role in the development and commitment to health and safety culture within their teams. Workers respond positively to managers who are open and honest in how they lead and manage them and value loyalty and commitment especially when it involves their health and safety.

Managers should demonstrate, through their words and actions, high standards of health and safety. If a manager makes it clear that the most important thing to them each day is that they all go home in the same condition as when they arrived, then it sends a powerful message to workers to say “this is the accepted safety standard and it’s the way we do things around her”. In essence it’s essential to put into practice what is preached.

The standard a manager accepts and displays is often the standard that their workers will follow and mirror. A manager who turns a blind eye to, or encourages short cuts in work practices, does not convey to their workers that they are committed to safe work practices.

To guide and contribute to a stronger health and safety culture, managers should also consider how they can influence and support workers through:

  • valuing their wellbeing, health and safety as much as productivity and financial outcomes.
  • making your commitment to health and safety visible in the workplace.
  • effectively communicating any messages, concerns or issues on health and safety through active listening and consultation
  • connecting with your workers to understand the health and safety issues in your workplace
  • being seen by workers at workplace activity locations
  • making the time to visit workers and hear about their ideas, issues and concerns
  • ensuring that health and safety is included in any team planning, discussions and as a part of the day to day business.

How can I contribute to improving and promoting communication

Managers often have many conflicting priorities on their time. They should however always make time to listen to their workers wherever possible and be aware of the importance of establishing open and honest communication channels to workers.

On any normal working day we communicate on a number of different levels. We:

  • talk to other team members
  • seek support and guidance from friends and other colleagues
  • discuss work practices and other issues with your managers
  • use the internet and intranet to gain updates and information
  • use an assorted number of social media options to stay in touch.

To ensure that communication is effective in your workplace, you should use all the available and established channels to provide your ideas and concerns about health and safety in your workplace.

Managers can use the following suggestions as ways to ensure they are promoting and contributing to effective communication:

  • encourage worker contribution at meetings
  • access and seek information from your intranet and raise awareness on matters that may affect workers
  • use emails to clarify, and provide a two way communication approach
  • establish an open and constructive approach to talking to your workers
  • consider the barriers to communication in remote and isolated work locations (e.g shift work, working on your own, isolated by distance or team support, working from home) make daily contact with workers where possible.

Essential leadership principles

Managers are front line leaders, role models and often the first line of support for workers. Managers who lead through worker involvement, consultation and open communication demonstrate that they value workers thoughts and ideas. It is often the workers who perform the work that can have the best and safest solution to a health or safety issue.

Managers should encourage workers to become involved in the planning and decision making process wherever possible and reinforce the need for workers to be actively involved in health and safety initiatives and programs.

The following leadership principles and guide may assist managers to assess how they currently lead their workers.

Leadership means:

  • Displaying strong and active leadership from the very top with:
    • visible, active commitment from all leaders
    • the establishment of effective ‘up and down’ communication systems and consultation structures
    • the integration of good health and safety management with business decisions.
  • Encouraging worker involvement through:
    • engaging the workforce in the promotion and achievement of safe and healthy conditions
    • effective ‘upward’ communication
    • the provision of high quality training.
  • Maintaining effective and regular assessment and review for:
    • identifying and managing health and safety risks
    • accessing (and following) competent advice
    • monitoring, reporting and reviewing performance.

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 safety and help separate the good from the excellent businesses.

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

Most managers are familiar with the term ‘what interests my manager fascinates me”. Whilst many do not necessarily agree with the statement itself, the intention is to relay that workers will always be interested in what a manager does and how they do it. If there is no commitment to internal policies and procedures on health and safety from managers, how can they then expect workers to adhere to and believe in those same policies and procedures. Managers need to believe and own health and safety systems before they demand the same from their workers.

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


Interpersonal trust between leaders and worker 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 behaviors demonstrate a managers concern for safety and provide opportunities for early recognition of hazards.


Management commitment and involvement in health and 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 leader involvement acts as a motivational force for both middle management to implement organisational guidelines and directives in WHS and injury management, and for workers 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 health and safety culture.

Locus of control

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

A decentralised approach has been shown to be the most effective way for senior leaders to promote workplace health and 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 WHS 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 such programs are seen by workers as evidence of management’s concern for their workers, or that the programs help to bring workers together, forming closer relationships

Page last updated: 07 Mar 2014