Sam Smith explains how his career in the fire service prepared him for looking after Beiersdorf’s potentially volatile mix of aerosols and flammable personal care products.
What prompted you to move from the fire service to skincare?
I had wanted to be a firefighter from a young age and joined the fire service when I was 19 – obviously, as a Sam, I’ve got the right name for it! I had some of the best days of my life there. In six years, I attended almost every incident you could imagine, and I had a huge range of experiences. But the job has its ups and downs and it’s limited in terms of progression. I couldn’t see myself on a fire engine for 40 years – I wanted more. So I looked at where else I could use my skills, and fire safety and health and safety go together very well.
How has your old role equipped you for your current role?
Safety was a huge part of everything we did in the fire service – you’re putting yourself in all sorts of unexpected and dangerous positions to save lives. You have to make split-second decisions, and those decisions can save or cost lives. So there are obvious transferable skills: knowledge of fire safety, emergency incident management and legislation, for example. A lot of my knowledge was fire-related, but with now with a health and safety focus.
The other skills I’ve brought along are things like problem solving – we had to solve problems daily in the fire service, and I have to do that in my current role as well. Something new crops up every day on Beiersdorf’s big and busy site.
Empowering people and being a leader is a really big part of my job too. I often use stories from my time in the fire service attending industrial accidents where they were using processes that are in use at my current site. If change is suggested, there is a tendency for people to say there’s no need or it’ll never happen. But I can tell people, in a very watered-down way, where the unexpected did happen, and how I experienced it. That has helped me to influence change.
Where I work is a hazardous site, storing a lot hazardous goods, and we have to do a lot of work to satisfy the enforcement agencies. That’s been key for me. In the fire service, I was involved in a couple of fires in warehouses similar to ours. So I’ve seen how an entire bay of forklifts can go up in flames. So when we’re working with the Health and Safety Executive on a strategy for safely charging forklifts, I can use first-hand experience.
What is your current role?
The main part of my role is at Beiersdorf’s warehouse in Birmingham, which is an upper-tier COMAH (Control of Major Accident Hazards) site because we store huge amounts of aerosols and flammable liquids for use in cosmetic products. There are tens of millions of cans or aerosols, which equates to around 800 tonnes of aerosols and 200 tonnes of flammable liquids. The primary concern is risk mitigation of a fire or an explosion at the site, because that would be a major incident.
Other than that, it’s also a fast-moving consumer goods warehouse with 24-hour operation, and products going out and coming in all day and night. So the secondary hazard is workplace traffic. We have external traffic with heavy goods vehicles in the yard, and internal traffic with maybe 25 forklift trucks driving around the place at any one time. All those employees on the trucks have a task to do, they have to do it quickly, and a lot of them may want to be in the same area at the same time. So we’ve gone on a journey over the last five years improving traffic and how things are laid out at work.
When I first started, I would walk out into the warehouse to watch the forklifts and I’d nearly have a heart attack – they were zipping around each other with just an inch to spare. So we’ve had to open up areas and work on behavioural training so that staff now give a couple of metres between forklifts.
And then there’s the combination of the two dangers: forklifts carrying pallets of aerosols. The biggest single risk of a fire starting at our site is an aerosol can being run over by a forklift truck. So it only needs one can to fall off a pallet, for a truck to drive over it, and that can be the ignition source that starts the fire that begins the chain reaction.
What daily challenges do you face and how do you overcome them?
The biggest issues are behavioural challenges and a reluctance to change. People might have worked in a job all their adult lives – 30 or 40 years – and to have a guy come in who is as young as their children, telling them how to drive a forklift or telling them how to do something, a lot of them think: ‘Well, what do you know? I’ve being doing this job longer than you’ve been alive and I’m okay.’
My greatest lesson is to involve people in change and consult people. Even if I know what I need to achieve –some kind of control measure on a machine or new working process – I will go to the operators and ask them how they think this will work, how we can make it better, and involve them in the process. At that point they will happily change things.
A lot of the time I find they have better ideas than I did in the first place. They often know how to do something better or safer but they won’t say until they’re asked, and then when you ask them, they feel empowered and will give you their knowledge and ideas. As a safety leader, that is massively important. Leaders who think they know it all won’t go anywhere in this profession. I see myself as a gatekeeper managing a team effort to get to a target.
You are also currently in your final year of study for a BEng in fire safety engineering. How do you manage studying and working full time?
It’s extremely tricky. Not only is the subject matter very, very technical and very mathematical – and I wasn’t a mathematical person when I started the course three years ago – but it’s the work/life balance that’s tricky. I thought doing the degree would mean just going to university for eight weeks a year – but it’s eight weeks in class then at least another eight weeks’ worth of work at evening and weekends doing assignments and revising for exams. It’s almost like having a second full-time job.
Luckily, Beiersdorf has been really fantastic supporting me. They understand that if they support me, I can get the qualification and that ultimately helps them. But it’s a lot of time and effort, and making sure I keep that correct balance between work and home life.
Why did you choose hazardous substances and fire safety – both some of the more high-risk areas of OSH – as your professional interests?
To be honest, I just have a love for all things fire – I’m obsessed about it and my friends and family laugh at me about it at all the time. I never switch off from it.
The in-depth knowledge that I’m now gaining while doing my degree is absolutely immense. I thought I knew a lot about explosions and fire behaviour from my time in the fire service, but when I started this degree I realised I knew nothing. We’re down to looking at the molecular structure of flames and smoke, and the level of detail in terms of the chemistry involved is just fascinating. Fire will almost certainly be the focus of my career going forwards. There have been a lot of disasters across the world, and I would like to be able to contribute to prevent such disasters in the future.
Health and safety is such a strange sector because our successes are when everybody goes home safely – the work that we do is not always seen or acknowledged.
You sit on the panel for peer review interviews for IOSH for Graduate Members wishing to progress to Chartered membership – why did you decide to do this and what do you gain from it?
I completed my peer review interview in 2017 and I really enjoyed the process – I’m probably one of the few people who wasn’t shaking when they did the interview, I really enjoyed it. The fact that I had a really good interview meant I got an email the next day to say I’d passed, but I was more chuffed that at the bottom of the email it said the panel members had recommended me to be a panel member myself. I was ecstatic at that, so I rang them back straightaway and said I really wanted to be a part of it.
I had to go and do some training with them and it’s all voluntary. I give up a couple of days a year to go and do it but it’s allowed me to network and meet new people who I would never have met otherwise, and I’ve made some friends out of it as well. The most interesting part is meeting new people from all different professions, all parts of the world and all walks of life who come into that room to be interviewed. Even before the pandemic we were holding some interviews over Zoom from Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates. It’s fascinating to hear what other people do all around the world, and some of them are absolutely exemplary. I’ve met some young people who I can tell will be occupying massive roles in the next few years.
You are also an examiner for NEBOSH for people at the very start of their OSH careers. What is your best single piece of advice for them?
Don’t try to take on too much. When I go on LinkedIn to see what people talk about, I get the impression that many people are taking on too much: they might be studying for four qualifications at once, or something like that. It’s not going to help you – you need to learn things in manageable chunks and then apply it to real-life scenarios if you can. Don’t rush things. I was lucky that I could become a chartered safety practitioner at 27 but you’ve got to be careful not to beat yourself up because you’re not at the level you want to be yet. Take it slowly, understand what you learn and apply it practically if you can – until you do something in real life you don’t know how it works properly.
What do you find most rewarding about the profession?
Positive feedback from colleagues. There can be some reluctance to change at the start – we can implement new processes or systems or controls, which may be seen as a burden initially, but to get the feedback from people afterwards is great. I’ve had a bit of feedback recently where we’ve made changes and people come up to thank me for my help and what we’ve done. When people realise you’ve made their lives not only easier, but safer, and they’re more likely to go home to their family as healthy as they arrived at work or possibly even better, that’s a great feeling. Knowing that I’ve made a difference to someone’s day, even if only in a tiny way – that’s why I do what I do.
Getting involved in things outside safety can add to your breadth and skills. What have you done to broaden your horizons?
I’m obsessed with the outdoors – climbing mountains, hiking, wild camping, anything I can do to help me clear my head and think. There’s nothing better than getting to the top of a mountain, even if it’s pelting down with rain and windy and cold – you don’t get any better sense of freedom. I’ve got a couple of things planned in the future: I’m going to do Everest base camp in the next couple of years and, after my degree is done, I want to learn Spanish.
Where do you see your current role taking you? What are your ambitions?
I want to become the health and safety manager of the site I work at. My employer has lots of similar sites around the world, so I have a great ambition to go and work at one of those too. I’d also like to manage and lead safety at the company’s manufacturing centre in Germany, where aerosols are made.
Beiersdorf is great at giving people chances – there are about 10 people from our UK office who are now living and working in Hamburg. I’m not planning to stay still, I’m constantly moving and I want to learn about safety in different cultures. We have manufacturing sites in India, South Africa and Nigeria – all three of those will be completely different places to manage health and safety.
What do you wish you’d known before joining the OSH profession?
You never switch off from it. Everything I do, everywhere I go, I’m thinking about it. For example, I was with my partner the other day in a supermarket when we getting food for a barbecue. I was looking at the store’s fire safety provisions and I noticed about four things that they weren’t compliant with in terms of legislation – my partner just wanted me to choose the burgers! I was looking into ceiling voids, and watching employees go up steps packing shelves. I felt like getting the store manager and saying, ‘I’ll give you 10 minutes of free consultation.’
But, to be honest, I wouldn’t want to switch off and I have pointed things out at shops or restaurants where I’ve noticed something really dangerous, such as locked emergency exits. I’d beat myself up if I didn’t say something in those instances.
What does the future hold for FLs in OSH?
If we talk about the timescale for my career and other Future Leaders’ careers, I think we’re going to have to adapt to change in terms of technology, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). I have seen robotics at work in the past and it can be quite scary. On one hand, we’re making the workplace safety by putting these things in place, but on the other, a robot can come along and just pick someone up and send them across the warehouse without even thinking about it. So we’re going to have to spend a long time understanding how these things work as they become more advanced.
Before I joined the fire service, I worked in a place where there was a robot that could pick up 10 or 12 bags weighing 25kg every minute and put them on a pallet. The controls we had to have in place when we went near that robot were extensive. It had the potential to take your head off and those kinds of machines have caused fatalities across the world.
AI is the new issue: I have seen videos of robots that work alongside humans and that’s a whole new ball game because you have to mitigate the risk of a potential killing machine possibly dropping something in the lap of a human standing there. It does scare me a little bit, I can’t lie, but it is something that Future Leaders are going to have to deal with in their careers as companies try to improve cost and efficiency by replacing humans.
Image credit | iStock
Top takeaways: What is your best piece of advice for people starting their OSH careers?
- Don’t try to take on too much. When I go on LinkedIn, I get the impression that many people are taking on too much: they might be studying for four qualifications at once, for example. You need to learn things in manageable chunks and then apply them to real-life scenarios if you can.
- Don’t rush things. I was lucky that I could become a Chartered safety practitioner at 27 but you’ve got to be careful not to beat yourself up if you’re not at the level you want to be at yet. Take it slowly, understand what you learn and apply it practically if you can – until you do something in real life, you don’t know how it works properly.