04th Feb, 2020 Read time 5 minutes

Health and safety leadership – could it be the difference between life and death?

When it comes to leadership within an organisation many businesses’ try and implement a system by which their employees can progress and rise to new challenges that may come up in the workplace. For many, however, this leads to a focus on financial and management areas that can be improved, while an area like safety leadership is often overlooked.

Numerous studies have been conducted that evaluate the impact good safety leadership can have on a workplace, but could improvements to the area actually be the difference between life and death?


Manager jailed following the death of a worker

Safety leadership is not only the responsibility of those at the board levels of organisations, and in 2015 the lack of proper safety implementations sadly led to the death of roofer, Kenneth Drake.

Following a thorough investigation, the courts deemed that the contracts manager at the time had not put in place proper safety necessities, like scaffolding netting which was one of the contributing factors to the incident. In addition to the lack of netting, the contracts manager was found guilty of forging the signature of Kenneth to try and form a defense in court.

Health and safety leadership is a necessity in all workplaces, and the lack of proper leadership in the case led to the death of a worker. Had the contracts manager taken a proactive leadership approach and fulfilled his obligation to provide those working under him with the right protection and care.


Lack of risk assessment led to a worker losing two fingers in Derbyshire

Part of good safety leadership is ensuring that you conduct the right compliance practices that have been proven to save lives. In 2018, the lack of a proper risk assessment conducted by William Lee Ltd was deemed to have led to severe injury of a worker who lost two fingers as a result of an industrial accident.

If a proper risk assessment and a ‘safe system of work’ had been put in place by the safety leaders within the firm, it may have prevented the life-changing injuries the worker now has to live with. In part, this may illustrate how the use of transactional leadership with a focus on promoting compliance could help prevent workplace injuries and death.


Farm business fined after the death of a long-term worker

Statistically, farming is one of the most dangerous industries to work in, and this is one of the reasons why having good safety leadership is crucial. In 2018, A worker was crushed to death while unloading beams from a trailer. The Kent farming business has since been forced to pay £35,000 on the order of Folkestone magistrates court.

A representative of the HSE Executive described the accident as easily avoidable. If a correct and safe system had been implemented alongside adequate training, the death could have been prevented. This is another example of how poor safety leadership illustrated through a lack of safety planning around the lifting operation led to the tragic death of a worker.


How transactional leadership can help keep workers safe

The style of leadership that you adopt as a senior individual within a workplace can impact on the safety performance of your staff. Transactional leadership is a style often used in health and safety which focuses on encouragement of safety compliance by a reward and punishment process. These rewards can come in the form of internal business recognition and punishments could come through informal or formal warnings.

Whilst in many instances more ‘transformational leadership’ is required to promote more higher-level autonomous safety performance, transactional safety leadership has been shown to reduce incidents.

Research by Zohar (2002) showed that positive transactional safety leadership practices helped to encourage a more conscientious attitude by employees across the board. This higher awareness of keeping the environment safe then helps to save lives by reducing the total number of dangerous incidents.


How proper safety leadership can help save lives and improve safety records

If you do not take safety leadership seriously, you could leave your business open to incidents in the future. If implemented correctly, good health and safety leadership should be present and visible throughout an organisation.

Empowering individuals no matter what level they take in the hierarchy through positive encouragement if they identify and neutralise potential hazards. Additionally, if a worker tries to influence others to take safety seriously, this is another example of good safety leadership coming from different parts of the business.

The focal point of good safety leadership is about empowering your workforce to take ownership of their own safety, and those around them. Good safety leaders are constantly thinking about how safety could be improved by changes in the practices within an organisation, beyond productivity and efficiency. This focus is how good safety leadership helps to save lives.


Zohar D. Modifying supervisory practices to improve subunit safety: a leadership-based intervention model. Journal of Applied Psychology 2002b: 87 (1); 156-163.

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