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Leadership strikes to reach goals. Leadership can be described as the goal-oriented design of working conditions. In this process, different tasks of leadership can be distinguished: leadership regarding tasks, organisation and control; and leadership related to social aspects and other resources within the company[1]. Zimber differentiates between the reduction of existing work load due to organisational and environmental aspects and the enhancement of resources[2]. Bad leadership can result to occupational safety and health risks that can lead to work accidents. However, there is also evidence that leadership behaviour is associated with sick leave and employees´ wellbeing[3]. It has been shown that the number of staff getting ill also depends on the manager. When managers are transferred to another unit, the average sick leave of the staff the manager is responsible for does not change even if the staff has changed[3][4].

The role of health and safety policies

Health and safety culture is regarded as the key factor when it comes to determining the effectiveness of a safety system[5]. Culture is rather based on behaviour, every day actions and decisions and goes far beyond health and safety policies even though it is of major importance to integrate core values based on a policy into the whole process of implementing and maintaining good health and safety behaviour[6]. Health and safety policy is just the starting point of the whole process[6].

According to Petersen (1998), certain criteria are the foundation for a positive safety culture led by a management that constitutes a credible example for the behaviour and values they are promoting. Daily pro-active supervisory is as important as visible commitment to the high priority of safety within the organisation. It is only an elementary key issue that top management behaves congruently with the policy[6]. Management commitment and support to the policy are the basic factors ensuring that a policy is lived and taken serious by everyone within the company [5]. It is the leadership´s emphasis and action that demonstrates to employees which policies are important and which are not [5].

However, the system in place must actively support and ensure any middle management action for maintaining and promoting safety and health at work. The involvement of all workers that choose to become active in any health and safety related issue should be possible. Moreover, workplace health and safety should provoke positive associations within the workforce.

Management tasks and behaviour

Some authors state that middle and low level managers, in particular, influence safety at work as well as health and wellbeing of their subordinates [7]. However, the role of chief executive officers and board members is crucial as well. “Failure to include health and safety as a key business risk in board decisions can have catastrophic results. Many high profile safety cases over the years have been rooted from failures of leadership. Members of the board have both collective and individual responsibility for health and safety"[8].

The priority a company and senior managers are giving to health and safety at work and the extent to which managers use their authority to promote compliance with occupational health and safety rules and the respective policy within the company motivates the individuals to orient their behaviour on the standards set by management. HSE proposes some examples on how managers can easily and visibly show their commitment to occupational health and safety within their company[8]:

  • Shop floor visits with the target to praise good occupational health and safety approaches and to address unsafe behaviour by encouraging changes and looking at the causes for failure to follow the occupational health and safety rules. These visits can also be useful in providing opportunities for employees to raise any health and safety issues.
  • Regular attendance of health and safety committee meetings as well as regularly including the health and safety representative in management meetings
  • Starting with the topic occupational health and safety during team meetings
  • Active involvement in the investigation of accidents, near misses, incidents and ill health

These clear actions showing visible commitment and general leadership behaviour in every day work notably contribute to better occupational health and safety behaviour. In reference to the leadership models demonstrated in the article onThe importance of good leadership in occupational safety and health, it becomes clear that more positive and proactive styles of leadership are able to influence safety and health behaviour within organisations [9]. The democratic leadership style ensuring employee participation by taking their decisions and opinions into account supports good leadership influence on health and safety aspects at work. Furthermore, the transformational leadership style based on the leader giving a good example via his behaviour and encouraging employees to take over the leader´s ideals and copy the leader´s behaviour also positively contribute to a healthy culture within a company.

Top managers are the ones responsible in giving a structure and facilitating the setup of a health and safety culture. Simard (1998) gives examples on what top managers preferably should have in mind when setting up the basics for a safety culture. He emphasises that upper management should take into account the existing general company culture. A bureaucratic culture should for example be based on the reorientation of the existing safety and health committee in a way that it supports the role of supervisors and work teams´ safety involvement. A less structured culture should in the contrary put a major emphasis on the individual's responsibility in every day working situations and encourage employees to actively take part in prevention by for example being attentive and reporting near misses.

The priority that is given to health and safety depends however to a major part on the behaviour of managers. According to Petersen[5], “a good leader makes it clear what will and will not work in the organisation´s safety efforts". The general framework for safety at work is guided by the management, having a clear definition of the respective roles of all staff and giving instructions what activities are required to comply with the safety responsibility [5]. Supervisors get unambiguous instructions from managers and are properly trained to fulfil their safety and health tasks and to give instructions to employees. Defined targets are regularly measured and controlled and feedback on necessary changes is regularly collected by managers and supervisors.

HSE has published several guidelines emphasising the importance of leadership and specifying the aspects that serve best for managers to review their health and safety behaviour [10]. The list of aspects mentioned by one of their brochures gives a good summary on the description of best management behaviour regarding OSH commitment and improvement.

  • Management knowledge on the importance of senior management behaviour for a proper occupational health and safety culture is crucial.
  • Health and Safety is mentioned to a wide range of audience by management whenever possible.
  • Health and Safety is discussed first or at least early on the agenda of every meeting. Managers concentrate in an equal manner on good and bad health and safety news, praising good behaviour and news and taking bad news as an opportunity to improve the circumstances.
  • Adequate resources are provided for health and safety aspects and employees are encouraged to be proactively involved in the setting up of strategies, policies and measures on OSH.
  • Performance measures show constantly how well the company performs in OSH aspects.
  • Long term OSH goals are set by the management and continuous improvement is fostered.
  • Managers visibly spend time with the workforce on OSH aspects.
  • Health and safety issues are not only discussed among managers and supervisors but also with clients, contractors and subcontractors.
  • Supervisors and line management staff is held accountable for OSH as well as managers.

Organisational aspects enhancing good leadership commitment to health and safety at work

Accountability for health and safety

A health and safety policy is, as stated above a basic implementation required when building, improving or maintaining good health and safety level at work. However, a policy is not sufficient and the key driver for assuring that a policy comes into life is manager behaviour. Accountability is the key to building a health and safety culture[5] and assuring that management and supervisor behaviour never loses track of the importance of health and safety issues at work. A performance appraisal system taking occupational health and safety issues into account assures compliance with the health and safety policy and assists in encouraging managers to put emphasis on health and safety aspects within their daily management practice. Accountability should include all levels from supervisors to chief executive officers. If tasks are clearly defined and a valid performance measure and reward system is established, accountability is ensuring good health and safety performance[5].

Holistic approach from management on prevention and health promotion

In order to give occupational safety and health a higher priority within the company, it is helpful for managers to change their focus from problem solving to proactive behaviour. The aim should be to provide a workplace that is not only offering safe and healthy working conditions but also going beyond legal requirements by promoting health and healthy behaviour. Such a holistic approach includes action from managers in different areas. The main idea behind this approach is to conduct organisational, environmental and individual measures enabling healthy choices and encouraging personal development[11]. Work organisation can for example be improved by providing the possibility of lifelong learning within the job. Environmental measures require the manager to conduct measures for creating a good team atmosphere and encouraging social support between colleagues. Participation of employees is an important aspect to assure good acceptance of such measures. Managers can increase involvement and acceptance by leading through examples, participating in different health measures, encouraging their employees to take part in health programmes and providing resources to enable participation. It is required that management does not only assure a smooth implementation of the measures but further demonstrates active involvement to encourage staff to participate in the creation and implementation of the programme.

The continued commitment from all sides is needed to assure that holistic prevention and promotion concepts are successful. Management commitment is crucial in this process to avoid conflicts between the health promotion measures and other organisational management practices [11].

The holistic view on health promotion within the workplace and the important role managers have within this approach has been tackled in various documents on EU level. The quality criteria for workplace health promotion set by the European Network for Workplace Health Promotion [12] point out the importance of managerial behaviour in implementing health promotion at work: “The success of workplace health promotion depends on its being perceived as vital managerial responsibility and its being integrated into existing management systems" [12]. The EU-OSHA also emphasises the importance of management commitment for the success of workplace health promotion programme[11].

Mental health promotion at work gathered special attention in the last years and is now seen as part of a holistic approach on enhancing health and wellbeing at work. Leadership comprehension of the importance of employees´ mental health and wellbeing is of crucial importance. However, some facts show that managers tend to underestimate the prevalence of mental health problems at work[13]. A study in the UK showed that more than half of managers participating stated that none of their workers suffered from any mental health problem. However, current estimates are closer to 1 in 5 workers having mental health problems[14]. The lack of awareness on psychosocial risks is one of the major barriers for occupational safety and health management to deal with such issues [15]. The main barrier is however the sensitivity of the issue and a certain respect to tackle psychosocial aspects at work. Only 25% to 30% of establishments report on having procedures in place for dealing with psychosocial risks at work. Having such procedures in place increases the probability that measures were taken in the last three years in order to deal with those risks[15]. The importance of manager’s commitment to such a sensitive topic is crucial when it comes to the question on how to best improve workplace health and wellbeing of employees.

A PAS (public available specification) on guidance on the management of psychosocial risks gives an overview of key principles on psychological risk management [16]. The main aspects concerning the leadership role with regard to the key principles are listed below.

  • Good psychosocial risk management pays off and is good business. Managers who take psychosocial aspects seriously and commit themselves to improving the workplace in a holistic way will get good business results.
  • Worker and management commitment to the topic is very important to guarantee success of the measures taken. As stated above, management commitment is having a major influence on the success of any occupational safety and health programme running in the workplace.
  • A participative approach is required. Managers should implement measures to involve workers as they are the ones with the most expertise on their own job and thus know best on how to tackle challenges that occur.
  • Managers are supposed to not examine the roots of problems instead of only taking superficial measures such as trying to change employee behaviour. Evidence-informed practice is required and underlying casual factors have to be revealed in order to find and eliminate the roots of problems.
  • Managers should make sure that psychosocial aspects at the workplace are included in the company strategy. They are the key persons for showing their commitment to the strategy by acting according to the principles laid down there.
  • Adequate knowledge of the management is required on the topic in order to assure a certain competence in management on how to deal with these partly very sensitive issues.

Benefits of leadership commitment to health and safety at work

Good leadership in OSH and consequently good occupational health and safety standards within a company help differentiate the best performing enterprises from the rest[17]. Companies showing excellent OSH leadership commitment can be recognised by safer and healthier working conditions, by employees who are confident and competent in their work, by effective OSH policies in place and followed by all staff and by individuals and teams recognised and rewarded for their success. Such healthy culture fully supported by the management on all levels leads to a continuous OSH improvement. As a result, the following pays off to the company

  • Reduced sickness absence,
  • enhanced productivity,
  • less work accidents,
  • less occupational diseases and work related health problems,
  • higher motivation and
  • lesser turnover.

For small and medium sized enterprises, in particular, an excellent OSH system and management can help when trying to find new customers. Some big companies already set high health and safety standards also for their contractors and subcontractors. For example, BASF in Germany is solely working with subcontractors being OSH certified[18].

Figure 1: Competiveness and OSH
Figure 1: Competiveness and OSH
The negative impact of outcomes of work-related problems is demonstrated by the correlation that exists between national competitiveness and the national incidence rates of occupational accidents[19]. Countries with the best records on accidents at work are the most competitive. This leads to the assumption that poor working conditions could possibly put a heavy burden on the economy and hinder economic growth (see figure 1)[19].

The assumption of effectiveness and economic benefits of occupational safety and health prevention as well as health promotion is not only based on the correlation of competitiveness and deaths due to occupational accidents. Generally, scientific literature has proven the effectiveness of OSH prevention and workplace health promotion in many studies. According to Sockoll et al[20], “there is consensus in recent scientific literature on the fact that interventions of workplace health promotion and prevention make an important contribution to the preservation of employees‘ health...[and] there is also consensus about the fact that workplace health promotion pays off for companies by reducing medical costs and decreasing sickness absenteeism from work".


[1] Zimber, A., `BGW-Projekt Führung und Gesundheit, 1, Teil: Literaturanalyse, 2006. Available at:,property=pdfDownload.pdf

[2] Zimber, A. & Gregersen, S., „Gesundheitsfördernd führen“: eine Pilotstudie in ausgewählten BGW-Mitgliedsbetrieben, 2007. Available at,property=pdfDownload.pdf

[3] Stadler, P. & Spieß, E,. Mitarbeiterorientiertes Führung und soziale Unterstützung am Arbeitsplatz, INQA/Bundesanstalt für Arbeitsschutz und Arbeitsmedizin, 2005. Available at

[4] DGUV – Deutsche Gesetzliche Unfallversicherung, Wohl fühlen ist ein Wettbewerbsfaktor, Arbeit und Gesundheit, 2003-6. Available at:

[5] Petersen, D., Safety Policy, Leadership and Culture, In: Saari, J. (ed), Safety Policy and Leadership, ILO Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety (4th edition, volume 2), 1998, pp 59.2-59.7.

[6] Simard, M., Safety Culture and Management (59.4). In: Saari, J. (ed), Safety Policy and Leadership, ILO Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety (4th edition, volume 2), 1998, pp. 59.7-59.11.

[7] Schein, E.H., Organizational Culture and Leadership. Second Ed. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1992.

[8] HSE – Health and Safety Executive, `Leading health and safety at work´, 2011. Available at:

[9] Zohar D., `Effects of leadership dimensions, safety climate, and assigned priorities on minor injuries in work groups´, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Vol. 23, No. 1, 2002, pp. 75-92.

[10] HSE – Health and Safety Executive, `Leadership for the major hazard industries´, 2004. Available at:

[11] EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, `Workplace Health Promotion for Employers´, 2010a. Available at:

[12] ENWHP – European Network for Workplace Health Promotion, ´Quality Criteria of Workplace Health Promotion´, 1999. Available at:

[13] Shaw Trust, `Mental Health: Still the Last Workplace Taboo´, 2010. Available at:

[14] EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, `Mental health promotion expert summary´, in press.

[15] EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, `European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks – ESENER, Managing Safety and Health at Work`, 2010b. Available at:

[16] PAS –Publicly Available Specification, `Guidance on the management of psychosocial risks in the workplace´, 2011.

[17] EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, `Business aspects of OSH´, 2011. Available at:

[18] EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. `Safe maintenance in practice´, 2010c. Available at:

[19] >ILO – International Labour Organisation, Occupational safety and health: synergies between security and productivity, 2006. Available at:

[20] Sockoll, I., Kramer, I. & Bödeker, W., `Effectiveness and economic benefits of workplace health promotion and prevention´, 2009. Available at:

Further reading

HSE – Health and Safety Executive Leading health and safety at work (website). Retrieved on May 2011, from:

ILO – International Labour Organisation, Guidelines on occupational safety and health management systems, 2001. Available at:

BAuA – Bundesanstalt für Arbeitsschutz und Arbeitsmedizin (Website). Retrieved on May2011, from: Arbeitsschutzmanagementsysteme:

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Klaus Kuhl