Growing business leaders

7 August, 2015  |  News

Health and safety professionals need leadership skills and a good understanding of how businesses operate if they are to influence OHS culture, the head of health, safety and wellbeing at Thames Water told IOSH’s recent Leadership in Action conference in London.

“The leadership that works within organisations starts at the top,” Karl Simons said. “That is the group we need to alphat to get the investment we need to shape and change things within organisations.”

To achieve this, the traditional mismatch between executives, who understand business but have limited understanding of OHS, and health and safety professionals, who have technical expertise but lack knowledge of business dynamics, is a handicap that must be addressed.

“In my role I work hard with the business leaders to enhance their learning and help them understand more of the technical side. At the same time my OHS team is going through a competency framework to ensure they understand business leadership tools such as budgeting, financing, operational development, procurement and design.”

Board-level commitment to health and safety is critical, he said, and cannot be achieved without a good level of mutual understanding.

“We are shaping the destiny of our future as [OHS] professionals, so must not lose sight of developing the business leadership and understanding of our technical professionals. A wise man once told me that finance is the international language of business, and I would argue that health and safety is its international conscience. We are the guardians of society. Modern-day professionals must be more than technical experts. To effect the changes we need they must also be business leaders.”

In a 25-year career in safety-critical industries Simons said he had learnt the importance of addressing small issues to prevent larger ones.

“The water industry is an under-estimated risk environment. We have several thousand chemical tanks, hundreds of toxic gas sites, and eight COMAH (Control of Major Accident Hazard) sites. Sellafield nuclear plant is rated as a lower-tier COMAH site. We have seven sites at that level, and one upper tier site.”

There are also 4500 places where sewers pass beneath railway lines, with potential to derail a train if a sewer collapses, and thousands of kilometres of trunk water mains which, if ruptured, could inundate a small town – or flood the London Underground – within minutes.

Management of such major risks requires careful attention to detail, he said.

“We have 2000 sheep dotted around our reservoirs, chewing grass. They keep the grass low, which enables our reservoir walkers to identify any wet patches on the reservoir banks when they make their inspections every 48 hours. A wet patch means a leak which, if unaddressed, could turn into a breach, and that could potentially drown thousands. Our ability to connect the dots between the seemingly insignificant and the catastrophic is very important.”

Physical hazards are more easily addressed than behavioural issues, however, and Simons challenged delegates to consider whether they had knowingly exceeded the motorway speed limit within the last month to demonstrate that deviation from accepted safe practice is widespread, even among safety professionals.

“Human behaviour is a primary factor in the majority of potentially catastrophic events that I’ve investigated, but changing the way people do things is difficult. A single initiative won’t do it. It takes waves of initiatives to bring about real change.”

At Thames Water multiple programmes to address a single objective has become accepted practice, he said.

“Waves are what works, and we have umpteen examples to prove it.”

As an example, a couple of years back the company found its rate of vehicle incidents was escalating. It responded by introducing a safe driving programme and permits to drive, and followed that with an e-learning driving programme, management interventions for anyone receiving demerit points, a defensive driving programme, and formation of an occupational motorists’ group.

“We then brought in essential standards, and contractual obligations across our supply chain, and finally an advanced driver qualification for everyone across the business who becomes a driver. As a result the figures for vehicle incidents and injuries have fallen out the bottom.”

Multi-faceted initiatives have also brought about significant declines in a variety of other areas, including service strikes and work-related illnesses, and a dramatic improvement in hazard reporting, he said.

Source: Alert24 10/8/15