Home >NEBOSH HSE leadership session: What is good health and safety leadership?

NEBOSH HSE leadership session: What is good health and safety leadership?

09 April 2019

The UK’s health and safety regulator and its leading qualifications body in the field took questions from delegates at the HSM Knowledge Exchange at the NEC today (9 April) on the topic of achieving health and safety leadership in the workplace.

Ed Corbett, from the HSE’s Science Directorate, and Matthew Powell-Howard, from NEBOSH, gave plenty of advice on interventions practitioners can introduce in their workplaces to get leaders and employees to accept and adopt health and safety messages.

The interactive discussion was held to mark the first anniversary of the Certificate in Health and Safety Leadership Excellence qualification jointly developed by NEBOSH and the HSE. Both Matthew and Ed said they were “extremely pleased” at the take-up of the qualification so far and indicated that candidates were hailing from “a broad range of industries”.

Kicking off by answering the key question “what makes good health and safety leadership?” Ed said it revolves around understanding and communication. He explained: “Leaders need to understand their organisation’s risk profile, otherwise they won’t know how to resource health and safety properly. It’s also important that they understand the potential for failure – that there is openness and honesty regarding where incidents might occur.

“Secondly, their individual styles and way they communicate with others are important. The things you do and say will create either a positive or negative view of health and safety.”

Asked what the key characteristics of a good leader are, Ed replied: “The ability to set goals and objectives, and share them effectively across the organisation. Measuring incidents only is not a good reflection. You need to know your risk profile and engage with the workforce. Also, the ability to build and enable trust, which is something many leaders struggle with. Emotional intelligence and effectiveness in communication are key skillsets.”

A member of the audience asked if managers who do the NEBOSH/HSE course are often surprised at the level of responsibility they have. Said Matthew: “Yes, in the sense that it gives them the time to reflect and ask themselves if they are really listening to people.” Matthew added: “Most leaders devote a lot of time to productivity and performance, so health and safety can be neglected. They might do safety walkabouts, but these are often just about box-ticking. The question is: how can we shift to a more qualitative conversation?”

A number of audience members wanted to know how to challenge the leadership of their organisation and/or change the safety culture. Ed explained that this is actually the aim of the course: to enhance understanding at board level of the business benefits of good health and safety and the consequences of the alternative. “It’s about educating them in how improving health and safety can also improve the business.”

The final question of the session was specifically for Ed, as the representative of the regulator, and it concerned the HSE’s view of “zero harm”.  He replied: “As an ambition, ‘zero harm’ is a good one but it becomes a problem when converted into targets. Yes, you might see numbers going down but that is often because people are fudging them to make them look good, so there’s no learning.

“It’s also stating the obvious, that you’re aiming for zero harm. Isn’t everyone, as a matter of course?  Because the alternative would be that you want to harm people!”