Environmental, health and safety officer Andrew Spencer TechIOSH hopes his journey will inspire young people from less affluent backgrounds to invest their efforts in STEM subjects.
What led you to join a pharmaceutical company?
It was by accident, to be honest. In school, I started doing AS levels in all three sciences and maths. My chemistry teacher could see I wasn’t really enjoying doing AS levels and as I reached the point of exams it was clear I wasn’t doing very well. He knew somebody who worked at Piramal and had heard through the grapevine that there were apprenticeships going in the labs.
My teacher knew that I loved doing the practical side of chemistry but I wasn’t so good on the theory side, so he asked if I wanted to give an apprenticeship a go. I applied, went for the interview, and didn’t really think anything of it until one day – it was actually the same day that I got my exam results – I was told that I had got the job.
How did you go from there to health and safety?
I was working in quality control in the lab, but I also somehow fell into the role of being the safety rep. Then I got involved in doing risk assessments, and I received a bit of extra training that other people didn’t.
The opportunity arose to be seconded into our health and safety team to do some data gathering around chemical substance classification. I did that and, about six months later, when I had realised I enjoyed the role, I started taking on more work and getting more actively involved in health and safety. Then I took my NEBOSH, and it’s grown and grown. I was officially made a health and safety officer two years ago.
We’ve spoken to quite a few people who have gone from quality control (QC) to health and safety. Do you think there is a particular link between the two disciplines?
No, but there is a link between a science background and health and safety. Often the ideas and practices that we follow in OSH have a scientific basis. My line manager comes a QC background, as did my previous manager. I also think it’s very much an industry-specific phenomenon – certainly in pharmaceuticals at the moment – that the majority of OSH advisers and managers I speak to have a science or engineering background.
What have been the greatest challenges along your career journey to date?
When my previous manager left the company. We had a group of people who moved elsewhere and recruitment was taking a little longer than expected. I was basically thrown in at the deep end. Thankfully I had some very good consultants to guide me, but it was very much the case that the company needed somebody to steer the boat for a little bit.
I recognised that I didn’t have that much experience but understood what I didn’t know. Managing that and not getting to a point where my mental health might have deteriorated was a challenge. But I felt that I managed it really well, as much from a personal as a professional perspective.
What has working in the pharmaceutical sector taught you about the OSH profession?
From speaking with other Future Leaders and other people in the industry, I think there are some universal areas of focus. People tend to be very good with the safety aspects of OSH, but when it comes to the health effects of, say, prolonged exposure to chemical substances or stress, people are only just coming around and dealing with them more now.
You’ll see the subject of health is raised and focused on much more now at things like conferences, and the issues posed by health are probably now greater than the issues we face in terms of safety incidents. For example, in pharmaceuticals we’re handling chemicals and there is the issue of occupational exposure. Our internal limits operate at the nanogram level, but if you were to look at UK Health and Safety Executive standards, that only goes down to the microgram level.
You joined IOSH in early 2020 and are currently a Technical Member. What value do you get from IOSH membership?
The area I’ve got most out of is the Future Leaders Programme. Because of COVID, I haven’t had the chance to go to any branch meetings or get involved at a local level – which I hope to do in the future. But the Future Leaders Programme has allowed me to interact with people and get an outside perspective. It lets me see how others have dealt with problems and how I might be able to translate that to my industry or the issues that I’m facing. There’s people there that I can connect with and say, ‘I have a bit of an issue, do you have any advice?’ That’s been the best bit of it.
You describe yourself as ‘an engaged STEM ambassador who enjoys working with young people to explore futures in STEM careers’. What makes you so passionate about this?
It comes from my pathway to the industry – having a teacher figure who was passionate and who wanted to see me get into a career that I wanted. Science was always my go-to career when I was younger. Science, engineering and all the STEM careers are a massive part of OSH and if you work in OSH, you’ll have some involvement with each one of them.
The reason I’m so passionate about it is that the region I come from, the north-east of England, isn’t as affluent as other parts of the UK and you see far fewer technical jobs come up. Most school leavers here tend to go into labouring or manual work – they don’t go to university in the same numbers as other more affluent areas. By trying to encourage young people to embrace STEM subjects and helping them to understand that they could follow a similar career to mine, I’m just trying to give something back, because I’ve managed to get into a position of doing something I really love.
In what ways have you encouraged young people to consider a career in STEM?
I’ve done quite a few careers days, which are always great, getting a chance to talk to people who are doing their A levels or younger. I always find Year 6 and 7 pupils tend to be most engaged when you start talking because they think, ‘Wow, this person has come from the outside world.’ The older pupils can be harder to engage with.
I did an activity with a school down in London where they needed somebody to talk about OSH for one of their modules around working safety in the lab. I connected with them through the ambassadors programme that I’m part of and joined in one of their lessons for an hour or so while they asked me some questions. As a health and safety professional, I’m always asked which are the worst injuries I’ve seen.
Before COVID-19, we would do school exchanges where we’d get students in for a full day so they could have a look at our manufacturing and quality control areas and get them to do a little project around what it’s like to work in an industrial lab. There’s a massive difference between a teacher sitting in the classroom saying, ‘This is what it’s like to work in a lab’, and seeing the people – who are just ordinary people like your parents or siblings – actually doing the job. You’re bound to be far more engaged when you see it in real. It’s what I’m most proud of.
Your employer supported you to complete a degree in analytical chemistry. How important was this to you and your career?
When I started working at Piramal, the apprenticeship I was put on was applied science level three. Once I completed it and came to the end of my apprenticeship, I decided I wanted a degree. The majority of the people I worked with had at least an advanced apprenticeship, and many of them had a degree.
So I had a chat with my company and set out how a degree could benefit the company, how much it would cost and how I would only need to do it one day a week – and they said yes.
Five years later I had my degree, the first person in my family to have achieved one. My grandfathers both worked in the mines, my grandmothers were both clerks for the mines, my dad’s an electrician and my mum is in social care. They didn’t have the same chance or opportunity to have a degree, so from a personal perspective, getting one myself was very important. It also shows the younger members of my family they can do it as well.
How has the pandemic affected your role and your view of the health and safety profession? How does COVID affect work in the lab?
Because I work in health and safety across the entire operational range, my responsibilities aren’t just lab-based – we’re a full chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing site. But it also depends on the type of lab you’re working in. We have facilities that have sterile labs, so they have to use aseptic techniques; while you might think that COVID wouldn’t pose a problem in those conditions, it is actually more of an issue. If you get any kind of contamination on the product, you’re putting the patient at risk. That’s the reason why we have so many quality control checks to make sure everything we produce is safe for the patient.
More generally, COVID has posed a massive challenge. We are an industry that has kept working throughout the pandemic, but we’ve had to put in place a lot of new controls on ways of working. For me, it even means I have to think about whether I can go down to look at both the labs and the production areas on the same day. I could potentially infect both departments. So there is a lot more planning needed. Our policy on site has been, if you have any symptoms at all, stay at home. But getting people to follow that has naturally been quite hard.
Where do you see your current role taking you? What are your ambitions?
I’d like to be in a senior leadership position in OSH – although that won’t be for many years yet. In the nearer term, I’d like to get my Chartered membership before I’m 30, and then maybe move to a management role in the next 10 years. But, right now, I enjoy the experience of being on the shop floor, fielding problems. Being on the front line of manufacturing is what I find most rewarding at the moment.
What do you wish you’d known before joining the OSH profession?
How interesting it really is – much more so than people in the wider world make out. People seem to see health and safety as a dull subject, when it’s really not.
Also, people seem to see health and safety as one job, but for me there are so many different aspects you can specialise in. I think the way we silo health and safety officers is probably the wrong way to do it – you have COSHH specialists, manual handling specialists, OSH managers. Yes, we all fit under the umbrella OSH but there are a lot more job roles. People should be more aware of that: when you come into the job, you don’t have to do everything under the sun to do with health and safety – you can specialise in areas that particularly interest you.
What lies ahead for Future Leaders in OSH?
I think we’re moving towards a far more safe and healthy working environment. For Future Leaders, I think the skill-set of an OSH adviser is changing rapidly, especially in light of the pandemic. COVID has focused us as OSH professionals on the health aspect. As a profession we need to make sure we ‘build back better’ and ensure we build in a focus on health. In other industries the health focus was far behind ours in the first place.
One day we’ll get to a point where there will be a separation of subjects: we’ll have safety people and we’ll have health people, although they will all work as one team. In some larger companies this is already the case so there may be a more universal acceptance of these discrete roles across a wider range of business sizes as that need is accepted.
In addition, people’s ability to source information through the internet about their working conditions is getting easier. One of the increasingly important aspects to our role will be fielding questions from people finding this information and putting it all in context.
Learn more about IOSH's Future Leaders Committee here.
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What do you wish you’d known before joining the OSH profession?
- How interesting OSH really is – much more so than people in the wider world make out. People see health and safety as a dull subject, when it’s really not.
- People often see health and safety as one role, but for me there are so many different aspects to it.
- When you come into the job, you don’t have to do everything under the sun to do with health and safety. Yes, you can be a general OSH professional – but you can also choose to follow the areas that particularly interest you.