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Health, work and director leadership

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Geraint Day, from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), comments on HSE survey findings regarding director leadership on health and safety, including practices and influences to ensure that health and safety is addressed at board level.

Workplace health is on the agenda of most boards of directors in UK organisations that employ five or more people, which is what nearly 90% of 1,600 randomly-chosen directors agreed in a survey in the third quarter of 2008.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) had commissioned the telephone survey, from Databuild Limited, to look into director and board practices on health and safety. It used a representative sample of enterprises across all sectors of the economy of Great Britain – HSE's responsibilities cover England, Scotland and Wales.

"The larger the organisation… the more likely it was that the board carried out any of the behaviours listed."

The directors were also quizzed on their awareness and response to guidance that had been issued by the Institute of Directors (IoD) and HSE. That publication, 'Leading Health and Safety at Work', came out in October 2007. The HSE for Northern Ireland had also endorsed the 12-page A4 guidance. Therefore, the IoD and HSE guidance applies throughout the UK. It covers directors, governors, trustees, officers and their equivalents in the private, public and third sectors.

Alongside director responsibilities on health and safety, it also has material relating to health and wellbeing at work. As the table below shows, board level monitoring of sickness absence and workplace health came top out of eight practices that were asked about by the interviewers (88% of organisations surveyed). In addition, 4% out of the 88% said that their organisation had implemented such monitoring since October 2007. In general, the larger the organisation, as measured by number of employees, the more likely it was that the board carried out any of the behaviours listed.

Bottom of the list was public reporting of health and safety performance in annual reports; 8% reported that they did so before October 2007, with 1% having introduced that practice after that date. Small organisations are less likely to produce glossy annual reports, of course, than their larger counterparts.

From the perspective of directors and boards, a more fundamental practice comes to mind. That is whether health and safety appeared on board agendas. According to the survey findings, 65% of organisations said yes, with 4% having brought it in after October 2007.

The HSE sees director leadership as vital in taking forward the health and safety agenda, and indeed in improving health and safety outcomes for workers and members of the public. Leadership was a key theme in the draft of HSE's new strategy for the health and safety system of Great Britain – consultation on which concluded in March. In a speech to the Worshipful Company of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators that month, Judith Hackitt (chair of HSE) said:

"Leadership comes from actions not words, and one of the greatest risks to leadership integrity arises from 'Do as I say, not as I do'. The best management system imaginable will have a hole right through the middle of it if the actions of the board are inconsistent with the instructions given to everyone else."

She also advised that directors should get outside the boardroom:

"… visit workstations and talk to staff. Ask them if they have any health and safety concerns and show genuine interest and concern in their response. If you don't like what you hear, resist the temptation to go on a witch-hunt and find someone to blame – take personal responsibility and show leadership in finding a solution. It's quite possible that you may already have solved the problem simply by listening to what your employee has to say! The people you talk to may well know the solution as well as being able to tell you the problem."

"One area where the HSE wants to improve matters is over director awareness of the IoD and HSE guidance."

For board agendas, Hackitt said that it was better to have a quarterly or six-monthly in-depth review of health and safety than a monthly cursory glance at a set of 'lagging' indicators. A review of monthly performance after the fact provides a very limited view of real health and safety performance.

HR professionals clearly have an important part to play in ensuring that accurate and appropriate information on health and safety is communicated to the board.

One area where the HSE wants to improve matters is over director awareness of the IoD and HSE guidance. The Databuild survey found that 25% of directors said that they were aware of the 'Leading Health and Safety at Work' report. Half of those had read it.

Awareness and use tended to be higher in the larger organisations. Highest awareness was among directors of large public sector bodies (at 48%). Lowest was in small voluntary sector organisations (10%). There were also differences between sectors – with the stated awareness levels of NHS board members being 54% and directors in hotels and catering being 19%.

Again, HR professionals may be able to help ensure that directors are aware of their responsibilities for health and safety and workplace health. The overriding object for everyone is to secure improved outcomes in health, safety and wellbeing.

Geraint Day is policy adviser in the Business Involvement Unit at HSE. For further information and for the HSE/IoD guidance, go to: www.hse.gov.uk/leadership and www.iod.com/hsguide. To view the report of the Databuild survey, go to: www.hse.gov.uk/research/rrhtm/rr695.htm

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