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Boardrooms should drive safety culture

05 December, 2012

Company boards have a powerful role to play in influencing the safety outcomes of the organisations they govern beyond pure compliance with relevant workplace safety legislation, according to experienced company director and QUT PhD researcher Kirstin Ferguson.

Ms Ferguson, who is on the listed board of Dart Energy Ltd and is also the first female non-executive director of the Queensland Rugby Union Board, is undertaking an Australian-first study investigating the role of boards in driving safety outcomes within organisations.

For her research, Ms Ferguson has recently been awarded the Colin Brain Governance Fellowship, through the QUT Business School, in recognition of the research importance of her study into corporate governance.

She said the responsibility and liability of directors had been catapulted into the spotlight following the new Workplace Health and Safety Acts, as well as a number of high-profile safety disasters including last year's Pike River mine explosion in New Zealand and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2011, where the role of the board was specifically addressed.

"Safety governance has serious implications for boards and directors," Ms Ferguson said.

"Rather than looking to rely on further regulation which is already extensive, this research is focused on the role that boards can play in driving the safety culture and ultimately the safety outcomes of the organisations they govern through good governance and the genuine interest boards have in the welfare of their workers.

"I am currently conducting case studies with the boards of a number of ASX200 organisations, across a range of sectors, to understand the role that the chairman, directors, CEO and senior management of these organisations see their boards having in respect of safety.

"One of the outcomes of this research will be to create a governance framework for best practice in terms of safety governance.

"A safety governance framework can include such things as type and quality of internal safety reporting being received from management, the potential inclusion of safety within board charters and sub-committees, the communications and messages, actual or implied, coming from the board in respect to safety, the inclusion of safety within key performance indicators (KPIs) and the public disclosures boards make about safety performance, whether in annual reports or in other corporate material such as websites."

Ms Ferguson graduated with a QUT Bachelor of Laws degree with Honours in 2001, before working as the CEO of global workplace, health and safety company, Sentis.

With more than 20 years' experience as a senior executive, Ms Ferguson is currently an independent non-executive director and has been recognised by the Australian Institute of Company Directors with a number of awards.

The two-year fellowship in honour of Colin Brain encourages research and education in the area of corporate governance, business ethics and integrity of the financial management of an organisation.

Mr Brain, who worked with the Ferriscorp Group for 35 years, was a devoted campaigner for ethics and good corporate governance in successful business. Upon his retirement in 2007, it was his wish to see solid education in good corporate governance supported.

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