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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

Focusing your board’s lens

Directors are spending more time on health & safety, but is it effective or just more bureaucracy? FRANCOIS BARTON suggests three elements for boards to focus on.

The HSW Act ushered in potentially game changing requirements for health and safety – due diligence obligations on officers. It made clear what we all know – that culture gets set from the top.

I say potentially because I’m not convinced we’ve yet seen the impact of effective governance practices flow through to better health and safety. There are great examples of leading practice out there, and there has been an almost universal increase of time and effort invested by boards into health and safety.

But my lack of confidence stems from still seeing too many examples of “safety bureaucracy” choking out insight-led governance.

Over the last year I have been asking directors, CEOs and safety executives questions about the state of governance for health and safety. The feedback I get from them points to three observations:

  • • 
    Many directors still wrestle with where to put their efforts and attention – with a bias to “leaning on” health and safety, not “leaning in” – resulting in a find-the-holes approach.
  • • 
    An unintended consequence of the officer duties has been to reinforce health and safety as a discrete rather than integrated part of the “business”.
  • • 
    The dominant orientation in many boards remains focused on finding and solving problems, rather than shared learning for organisational improvement.

If we want to overcome these challenges, we need health and safety leads and business leaders to enable, challenge and support their directors to:

  • • 
    Focus on risk control effectiveness, not hazard hunting.
  • • 
    Use safety walks as an opportunity to learn rather than simply as “broadcasts of importance”.
  • • 
    Make time to reflect on the process as well as on the findings.


Earlier this year Dr Todd Conklin visited New Zealand. One of the world’s pre-eminent thinkers on workplace health and safety, his clear message to business leaders was simple – effective risk control is the “magic potion” for improving health and safety.

He stressed that this is more than solely trying to prevent accidents happening. Humans make errors, which makes accidents inevitable. Businesses, and boards of directors especially, need to accept that inevitability, and put in place controls so that when failure occurs, people don’t get killed or seriously harmed.

This is the thinking behind seat belts and airbags; they are not about eliminating a crash occurring – they allow for “safe failure”.

Todd says we spend a lot of time in health and safety talking about risk management – a term that doesn’t make sense given that by definition risks are unpredictable and unmanageable. Rather, the thing we actually manage is our risk controls.

That’s where a director’s attention and effort needs to go – on being curious about the effectiveness of your critical risk controls. To capture that curiosity and focus a director’s attention, Todd posed three simple but powerful questions:

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    In this business, what can kill people?
  • • 
    When an incident happens, what do we have in place to stop people from dying?
  • • 
    Is that enough?

As directors endeavour to make sense of management safety reports, audits, investigation reports and safety walks, those three questions should be front and centre.


Director safety walks are often seen as being about signalling the importance of safety to senior leaders. But they are also a material and useful opportunity for directors to learn.

The due diligence obligations require an officer to understand the risks and operations in their organisation. They also require an officer to not only verify that resources (processes, equipment and procedures etc) are being provided but they are, most importantly, being used.

Engaging directly with people doing the work provides a “reasonably practical” means of understanding whether the things designed to protect people from harm have been provided and are being used. To deliver on that opportunity, directors need to:

Do their homework – find out about the work done at the site, including the critical risks, the critical controls that should be in place, and what’s been happening there recently.
Be clear on focus – curiosity about critical control effectiveness, not hazard hunting.
Demonstrate humble enquiry – use open questions, listen (don’t tell), let the worker be the expert.


Too often, safety visits can almost become another activity for a director to check off, resulting in them becoming transactional rather than valuable steps in the process of learning.

The art of engaging with a diverse workforce, making sense of conversations with the front line, and learning to share insights with colleagues are practices that improve with deliberate practice.

Encourage your directors to not just “do the visit” but also to reflect on their roles in the conversation:

  • • 
    What went well? What didn’t go so well?
  • • 
    How did the workers or managers react?
  • • 
    What would they do differently next time?

Many leading boards ensure these visits add value by having a dedicated item on their agenda to focus on learnings from health and safety conversations. This can help directors learn effective practices from one another, and that something is done with the insights gained from the visit.

The due diligence obligations remain one of the most powerful parts of the HSW Act. If we want to reduce the numbers of New Zealanders dying at work, we need to support directors to play their unique part to learn and improve, not just add to the bureaucracy.

Francois Barton is executive director of the Business Leaders’ Health and Safety Forum.

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