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What tone should we set in the boardroom about safety?

While “tone at the top” has become a byword of the enactment of the Sarbanes Oxley Act, it is an essential element in the creation of an organizational culture of safety and incident-free operations. When we speak of “incidents,” we are referring to increases in exposure or risk, some of which result in recordable injury or illnesses or possibly major industrial accidents.

Attention to safety in all its dimensions, including exposures or risk and not just recordable injuries, starts at the top. The top must include the representatives of the shareholders, in essence the owners, and not just senior management. Setting a tone in the boardroom favoring safety performance means more than just reviewing the injury and illness statistics at each meeting or appearing once a year at an operating site. It means paying attention to safety, requiring accountability, and expecting improved performance, without always looking to place blame. It’s this kind of attitude that will make possible the improvement of “leading” safety indicators and the delivery of incremental safety and organizational value.

The safety tone is set at the top, primarily by the care and astuteness of board-level listening both to the safety outcomes of the organization and to the upward communication from operating management about the safety climate. While organizational culture may take years to change, our experience suggests that effective listening and caring about workplace safety and health almost immediately alters the safety climate and sets the tone for hazard avoidance.

What does management need from the board to achieve safety objectives?

While “attention” may seem an obvious answer to this question, many other answers are both possible and more effective in improving workplace safety and health performance. These include:

  • Clear processes for periodic review of safety and health outcomes at the board level

  • Direct access for the senior safety officer to the members of the board, akin to the relationship of the outside auditor to the board’s audit committee

  • Inclusion of both leading and lagging safety and health indicators in the board’s periodic review of key performance indicators of the organization

  • Inclusion of safety and health results, both leading and lagging, in the performance management system for the most senior officers of the company

  • Affirmation of leading and lagging workplace safety and health goals and targets at the board level, akin to the board’s consideration and ratification of strategic initiatives.

What is essential here is a dialogue between senior leadership and the board so that a fully actionable view of the question can be formulated.

Who is driving safety in the company?

This question begs for both a “team” answer and a “chain of command” answer. But the answer is that neither is exclusively the

Boardroom Brieng: Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery

driver. Safety requires an exchange of information among peers to reveal the full iceberg of hazards. Nonetheless, the board is the principal agent for the company’s owners, and the management serves as agents of the board. So, no team organization can overcome the principal-agent chain of command whereby the fiduciary responsibility of the board is exercised effectively (or not) by the directors on behalf of the owners.

However, the location of decision- making power between the boardroom level and the shop floor differs radically from organization to organization. That means the real answer to “Who is driving safety?” may differ from one company to another. But the chain of command governing safety is only as strong as its weakest link. Each level of the organization—from the boardroom to the shop floor—must have a tangible role in the organizational mechanisms that assure the minimization of exposures to hazard. What matters most is that the decision-making process governing safety policies, practices, standards, monitoring, and accountability results in tangible steps that can be observed, verified, and modified as the organization learns how to optimize its own safety performance.

How are we protecting our people from safety and health risks originating outside the workplace?

Off-the-job injuries and absenteeism cost companies billions of dollars each year. Beyond routine off-the-job injuries and illness, roughly every


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