Health, safety and corporate leadership

It is difficult to argue with the statement “leaders play a key role in influencing the management of safety and health in a number of different ways”, the conclusion of recently published research into the role and impact of leadership on occupational safety and health. Mike Sopp reports.

The effective management of occupational safety and health (OSH) is known to be a key driver of continued business success, and those who lead an organisation must provide the necessary “strategic direction for the management of safety and health”.

In its research, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) has identified key differences between good management practice and good leadership, reaching the conclusion that “it is important that senior managers seek to demonstrate effective safety and health leadership alongside and integrated with their other responsibilities and duties”.

Leadership analysis

EU-OSHA recognises that attention is now being paid to the impact that leadership has on improving, and then sustaining, good health and safety practice. The general principle is that improved and sustained performance requires a fundamental change in an organisation, this being “the creation of a prevention culture, which shows that the organisation places the highest values on OSH in the workplace”.

EU-OSHA notes that such far-reaching cultural changes “can only be brought about if they are genuinely led and driven by the organisation’s leaders. Thus, leaders’ attitudes and behaviours regarding safety and health promotion are arguably of greater importance than structures, processes and systems”.

To this end, the Agency has undertaken research to review leadership practice, resulting in the publication of Leadership and Occupational Safety and Health: An Expert Analysis. The report attempts to define leadership and concludes that it is “a group phenomenon (including interaction between two or more people) and an intentional social exertion of influence, which aims at attaining objectives by communication processes”.

From the OSH perspective, leadership was seen as having a positive influence on encouraging and supporting safe and healthy behaviour among employees, but it was acknowledged that improving the safety behaviour of employees “is an ambitious leadership goal”.

Reference is made to the Health and Safety Executive Research Report 367, which concludes that there is a positive correlation between attitudes and behaviours displayed by leaders and the development of a safety culture and safety climate.

This is based upon the social exchange theory, which argues that “followers” who enjoy high-quality relationships with leaders reciprocate the relationship by behaving in ways that the leaders appear to value. The literature review found evidence that employees in high-risk professions behave more safely in organisations where the leaders demonstrate they value such behaviour than in work environments in which the safety climate is not so positive.

Improving safety behaviour

The EU-OSHA research also aimed to identify leadership styles and their impact. These vary, but the report suggests that, in practice, a range of leadership styles is needed by the effective leader and that leaders need to expand their leadership repertoire if they notice a lack of variety in their own approaches.

In addition to leadership styles, the report identified certain steps that leaders can take to improve safety behaviour in others, which are summarised as follows.

  • Commitment of the board and senior managers, primarily demonstrated by the value that senior managers demonstrably assign to safety.

  • A consistent approach to health and safety from leaders at all levels within the organisation.

  • Valuing and caring for employees, as valued employees have high morale and a greater commitment to the organisation, and exhibit safer behaviour.

  • An open approach to health and safety by fostering top-down, bottom-up and horizontal lines of communication.

  • Encouraging employee ownership and involvement in decision-making.

  • Proactive responsibility for health and safety with a “just culture” and praise for good practice.

Guiding principles

The conclusion drawn by the EU-OSHA report is that “employers have a duty to take exercise leadership in order to secure high standards of OSH in their organisations” and that “effective leadership has been shown to strengthen employee commitment to the organisation and to improve the work climate, enhance innovation and increase productivity”.

A number of broad guiding principles have been developed by the authors of the report. The first is that leaders must take seriously their responsibility for the establishment of a positive prevention culture. This, the report notes, will require leaders to employ a repertoire of leadership styles that can take account of the cultural context, including the “emotional intelligence” necessary to effect changes in culture and behaviours.

The report found that the use of emotional intelligence can be valuable in the delivery of OSH and can be an intrinsic driver for safe behaviour, since individuals “consider consequences for themselves and others before acting”, thereby developing a more favourable attitude towards safety.

Further guiding principles can be summarised as follows.

  • Leaders should be seen to prioritise OSH policies above other corporate objectives, and apply them consistently across the organisation and over time.

  • Health and safety measures can only deliver to their full potential if they have the unequivocal commitment of the board and senior management. High-level management, not just line management or specialists, must be directly involved in implementing OSH policies.

  • Good, regular, multi-level communication is vital to the delivery of improvements in OSH. Leaders should set out to cultivate an open atmosphere in which all can express their experience, views and ideas about OSH and which encourages collaboration between stakeholders, both internal and external, around delivery of a shared OSH vision.

  • Leaders should show they value their employees, and promote active worker participation in the development and implementation of OSH measures.

It is thought that in the modern work environment, “a participative approach and readiness to involve employees are becoming important in the leadership skill set” and that “the most successful leaders have mastered a range of different leadership styles from which they choose the most appropriate for a given situation”.

The good, bad and ugly

The “good, bad and ugly” of leadership styles were reviewed. Good practice was deemed to be “transformational leadership”, which aims to promote positive changes in individuals and social systems by enhancing the motivation, morale and performance of followers through a variety of mechanisms. These include:

  • connecting employees’ sense of identity to the mission and the collective identity of the organisation

  • understanding the strengths and weaknesses of employees, so the leader can align employees with tasks that optimise their performance

  • challenging and encouraging employees to take greater ownership for their work

  • acting as a role model for employees to inspire and motivate them.

The bad and ugly leadership styles respectively are deemed to be:

  • passive leadership (characterised by leaders waiting until performance issues become serious before they take corrective action), inaction, being unavailable when needed by subordinates, failing to clarify performance expectation and avoiding both decision-making and leadership responsibilities

  • abusive leadership, characterised by behaviours (verbal and non-verbal) that are perceived as undermining, aggressive and emotionally abusive.

Interestingly, when concluding the findings of the case studies, the report found that it was “difficult to draw firm conclusions… as to which activities are most successful in driving improvements in OSH”, but that it was clear that activities of all kinds seem to bring about a reduction of accidents, incidents and sick leave.

Recommendations for leaders

The EU-OSHA report concludes by making a series of recommendations for leaders.

Commitment and leading by example

In terms of improving the safety culture, the report states that “leaders need to effect genuine cultural change through a change management process, which results in the creation of a genuine safety culture. Safety needs to be embedded in everyday business, in the workplace culture and in the company’s corporate social responsibility policies”.

To achieve this outcome, leaders are expected to lead by example and take their responsibilities for health and safety seriously. Leadership qualities, behaviours and attitudes are seen as being as important as systems and procedures.

The report recommends that “managers should display leadership by, for example, following all health and safety procedures themselves, and never being seen to cut corners. They should take personal responsibility and show that safety matters, acting as a role model for others and challenging their employees to take ownership of safety issues”.

It is also recommended that leaders should ensure the board and senior managers show commitment to and have visible involvement in health and safety, for example by assigning specific responsibilities for health and safety to various directors.

Integrating health and safety

As part of the integration of health and safety into the overall business model, it is recommended that “leaders should implement measures, which are appropriate to the specific circumstances”. In particular, it notes that leaders should consider the safety and health implications of introducing new processes, new ways of working or working with new people or groups with policies and practices being dynamic, adapting and evolving over time.


Participation, collaboration and open communication are seen as essential leadership elements. Indeed, the report notes that “clear communication has emerged from this report as one of the most powerful tools for effecting improvements in OSH” and that a “culture of openness should encourage employees at all levels to speak their mind on safety issues without fear”.


Competency is another area discussed, with recommendations being made as follows.

  • Leaders should provide adequate training with resources being put into training, and senior management must be ready to free up enough of their own time to undertake necessary training alongside those at more junior levels.

  • Leaders should ensure access to the expertise and skills the company requires and employ quality assurance methods to ensure that those put in positions of responsibility are well-fitted for the role.

Incentives and recognition

The report also recommends that leaders should “incentivise, recognise and reward safe behaviour”. It recommends that consideration should be given to including performance on safety and health in staff appraisals, and when making management appointments.

It also recommends that the development of a safety culture should be linked to the personal development of individuals in the company with “direct incentives including competitions, awards and bonuses” being introduced, both to stimulate the generation of good safety ideas and to reward safe behaviour.

Finally, the report recommends that the organisation’s safety and health performance should be recorded in its annual report, and noteworthy achievements by individuals and teams recognised and celebrated in corporate communications.

Further information

Leadership and Occupational Safety and Health: An Expert Analysis, European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, 2012.

Development of a Leadership Resource Pack, prepared by Ernst & Young for the HSE, 2001.

RR367 A Review of the Safety Culture and Safety Climate Literature for the Development of the Safety Culture Inspection Toolkit, HSE, 2005.