Why corporate boards need members with WHS expertise

Corporate boards must include at least one director with “some real health and safety knowledge” because they frequently make decisions with significant WHS implications, according to University of NSW Emeritus Professor of Management, Michael Quinlan.

For large organisations in particular, having someone with health and safety expertise on the board is “just as important as managing financial risk because they overlap; if you have major health and safety incidents, that’s a huge financial risk,” said Professor Quinlan.

He also observed that boards are rarely (if ever) faced with the risk of prosecution over a WHS incident.

Rather, senior managers are more likely to face prosecution in such circumstances, according to Professor Quinlan, who said it would take a significant prosecution for things to change for corporate boards.

“The first time a director of an organisation is dragged up through the courts and charged with industrial manslaughter will cause a sea change,” said Professor Quinlan, whose primary expertise is the field of OHS and risk, focusing on work organisation, management and regulation.

“Punitive action is not the be-all and end-all, but unfortunately, it seems like you do need it in some cases for people to be aware of their responsibilities.

“If you’re a board director, you absolutely have responsibility for the financial decisions that that organisation makes, and it should be the same with health and safety.”

Professor Michael Quinlan also took issue with the quality of annual reports and said they could be more beneficial regarding WHS insights. 

“They’re full of parenthood statements, lost time injuries and medically treated injuries, for example, but they don’t even analyse high potential incidents – which are much more important in serious events,” he said.

The mining industry, in particular, needs to measure events such as high-potential incidents and near misses, as they are a good indicator of potential fatalities or serious injuries in the workplace.

“If you get a particular type of high potential incident, you know that you’ve got to act, and that is one way to make industries such as aviation and mining safer – by reporting all of that material to boards – which should communicate this to investors and others through their annual reports.”

Professor Quinlan also spoke about the importance of organisational culture in WHS. While the term “organisational culture” can be a “very amorphous” one, he said this is the culture that’s been developed by senior management.

Notably, he said senior management may not even be aware of actual decision-making views at the workplace level.

“A colleague of mine, for example, had to inspect a series of coal mines, and before this, she was told, quite emphatically by management, that safety always overrode production,” she said.

“So she did some focus groups with frontline supervisors and workers, and what they told her was quite the reverse and that their perceptions were quite different.

“When we talk about culture, management needs to hold a mirror up to itself,” said Professor Quinlan, who added that the best managers are problem solvers who genuinely listen to others and seek the best feedback (including critical feedback) from all sources.

For senior managers, the danger with hierarchy is that “you only get told what people think you want to know,” he said, “and you don’t get told things they think you don’t want to know.”

Dictatorial management styles are “dangerous” in this respect, as he said this kind of risk increases with any concentration of power.

However, good management teams will spend a lot of time ensuring that they have feedback loops in place, which communicate everything, including the problems that are challenging ones to address or solve.

“And good managers respond – because if you don’t respond, people will stop telling you because there’s no point,” he said.

“So if you do value feedback, you need to listen and actually act on it – and with that, you get a lot more trust, and you’ll hear even more.”

Professor Quinlan recounted being in workplaces with this kind of culture, and he observed that people feel very free to raise problems because they know they’ll be talked about and dealt with effectively.

Such workplaces often have good representative structures (including health and safety representatives), and he said there is often a strong union presence.

“There’s often a lot of agreement about dealing with issues, but there is a potential for constructive dissent. And that’s important – you need to know about the things people may not want to know about,” he said.