Developing leaders through workplace health and safety

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This is a post by a guest blogger invited by the CWL to contribute to our site.

About six years ago the Queensland Workplace Health and Safety (WHSQ) Board set up a forum for CEOs called the Zero Harm at Work Leadership Program. The program was designed to engage senior managers to become leaders in safety. More than 300 CEOs have joined the program and made a personal commitment to improve health and safety in their organisations.

By 2013, the program started to plateau and Workplace Health and Safety Queensland (WHSQ) wanted to know why. We asked industry and they told us two things. The first concern was the ‘Zero Harm’ approach to the program – not everyone was able to commit to this philosophy. The second was that the hurdle of obtaining the CEOs commitment meant that many workplace and frontline leaders looking to develop could not join the program unless their CEO was ready or able to make a personal commitment to the program. In consultation with the WHSQ Board we decided to make a change these criteria and open the program to leaders at all levels of industry.

Reinvigorating the program

During this period of reflection and future planning, WHSQ became aware of the important work being undertaken by Prof Peter Gahan and the Centre for Workplace Leadership (the Centre). WHSQ invited Prof Gahan to deliver a keynote address as part of the industry launch of the revitalised industry leadership program, called ‘Safety Leadership at Work’. During his address, he made an important observation that effective workplace leadership is akin to a canary in the coal mine when it comes to workplace safety performance. In fact, many of the leadership skills critical for positive safety performance such as appropriate leadership style, quality communication and workforce engagement underpin the critical leadership skills associated with a range of positive workplace performance indicators including productivity, innovation and employee engagement to name a few.

While in Brisbane for the launch, Peter addressed our newly formed safety leadership Expert Reference Group, sharing insights into the purpose and future directions of the Centre. We were so interested in the Centre’s work and its relevance to our program, that we asked Peter to become a sitting member of the expert group.  Since that time we have developed a collaborative working relationship with the Centre and benefited greatly from their expertise and guidance.

Workplace health and safety leadership

The Safety Leadership at Work program was also informed by the Study of Australian Leadership (SAL) which investigates how leadership impacts workplace performance, innovation and employee outcomes in Australia. One of the most striking leadership gaps identified through SAL is the lack of leadership development opportunities provided to workplace and frontline leaders. The Safety Leadership at Work program is uniquely positioned to assist workplace leaders to develop by providing access to latest research and industry practices relevant to safety leadership. We aim to build industry leadership capability by holding webinars and events, sharing evidence based information products and resources, as well providing opportunities for industry to learn from each another, through case studies and films.

Recently we held our first birthday event in collaboration with the Centre, with just under 100 delegates in attendance. The event was led by the Chair of the WHSQ Board and we celebrated the achievement of the program. Over the past 12 months the program membership has more than doubled to 1500 members from 944 organisations. Members are drawn from a range of industries including construction, manufacturing and transport, health care and social assistance and has representation from both public and private sectors.

Dr Josh Healy from the Centre delivered critical insights from the final report of the SAL. Josh pointed out the critical leadership gaps to be addressed and reminded us of the importance of staying informed, seeking alternative view points and ideas and continuing to develop our workplace leaders to drive organisational performance.

We then heard from Shell Lubricants Australia, including their General Manager, a frontline leader and a contractor representative, about how they worked together to develop a safety leadership vision to support the local team through a period of business change including the sale of their operation to another company and associated job losses. Two years on, the team at Shell Pinkenba have turned their safety record around by developing an innovative approach to their pre-start safety process that has delivered significant safety and productivity improvements. The safety process has been named the ‘blue zone’ and Shell is now rolling out the Pinkenba approach across manufacturing sites in Asia and America. The best result of all was hearing that the workplace leaders who created and delivered the safety leadership vision have started securing new roles off the back of their success at Shell Pinkenba.


For more information about our workplace health and safety program, visit the WHSQ website.

For more on the Study of Australian Leadership, go here.

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