OHS Canada Magazine

C-suite leadership is the nagging gap in prevention

Avatar photo

June 8, 2020
By Maureen Shaw

Health & Safety Human Resources COVID-19 leadership

During COVID-19, the role of a CEO is more important than ever

Given the nature of COVID-19, leadership from the top is imperative within workplaces, writes Maureen Shaw. (alotofpeople/Adobe Stock)

We are currently living in a different reality.

Over the past three months, global citizens have endured a period of massive upheaval and change unlike anything seen since the Second World War.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a seismic shift in how we live, work and play. Even after the pandemic is ultimately addressed, it is unlikely we will return to what we previously thought of as normal — certainly not soon. But a new, even better, future could emerge — if leaders step up.

The Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC) tells us that 1,027 workplace fatalities were recorded in Canada in 2018, an increase of 76 lives lost over the previous year. Among these deaths were 27 young workers aged 15 to 24.

AWCBC also recorded 264,438 accepted claims (an increase from 251,508 the previous year) for lost time due to a work-related injury or disease, including 33,058 from workers aged 15 to 24.


While OH&S professionals have expressed concerns over these persistently rising statistics, the bottom-line question is: What is truly preventing the meaningful reduction or potential elimination of these needless deaths and injuries?

Some might suggest a reported reduction in the number of accepted claims is evidence of declining injury rates. In fact, there are many reasons accepted claims are down, but that trend is not solely a result of injuries and illness elimination. That’s another story!

COVID-19 driving discussion

We are working to manage the impacts of COVID-19 by having the right policies, procedures and support in place for all our workers and our communities.

At the same time, we need to ensure we keep the focus on core health and safety by having an effective health and safety management system in place.

While some organizations and their leaders are doing an excellent job, historically a lack of senior-level leadership and support for health and safety in organizations has created a critical gap that sadly persists today.

Given some of the questions, concerns and outcomes, leadership from the top — the C-suite — is imperative. Simply delegating responsibilities to OH&S professionals, managers, supervisors and workers is not leadership.

While having an effective joint health and safety committee is critical — and all levels of a workforce must be part of the process — trusted, active, resilient, caring, agile leadership is vital, especially in light of current and future events.

In some parts of our country there are evident gaps in co-ordination amongst public organizations responsible for health and safety. In addition to providing much-needed guidance on COVID-19 health and safety practices, these organizations should also support businesses by working with them to develop clear guidelines, products and services — and share them broadly.

Addressing the COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts on workplaces demands this kind of guidance and support. It also provides a rich opportunity for leadership engagement.

CEOs, executives set the tone

Transformative senior-executive leadership is needed now, more than ever. A lack of leadership will continue to see businesses lost, alongside a continuing increase in the number of ill and injured workers.

CEOs and executives are responsible for setting the tone, creating the values and maintaining a healthy workplace culture. They have the sphere of influence to ensure health and safety is integral and embedded into operations. Ensuring health and safety messages are consistently communicated firmly, with empathy and understanding, is urgent.

Health and safety professionals understand the hierarchy of controls. The upside-down pyramid that moves from top to bottom: elimination – substitution – engineering controls – administrative controls – PPE.

At the very top should be leadership from the CEO and executive team. The effectiveness of the hierarchy is dependent on leadership being strong, committed and consistent.

Health and safety concerns have never been higher in the minds of people as they are now. Carefully and properly implemented, measures to protect health and safety provide the opportunity to emphasize injury and illness prevention in our workplaces and our communities.

Those at the top of organizations must lead, inspire, and empower.

Now is the time to bridge the nagging leadership gap and truly foster a healthier and safer future for all workplaces and communities in Canada.

Maureen Shaw is the former president and CEO of the Industrial Accident Prevention Association. Living in Victoria, she is a member of the OHS Canada editorial advisory board.

This Safety Culture column was originally published in the May/June 2020 issue of OHS Canada.


Stories continue below

Print this page

Related Stories