After 22 years in the British Army, Richard Coleman TechIOSH has swapped a life of service and duty for one of health and safety.
There might not seem to be any overarching similarities between the armed forces and health and safety. But IOSH Technical Member and former soldier Richard Coleman says the two fields have a lot in common if we look beyond the basics.
‘In terms of career paths, I actually think the two sectors are very relatable to one another,’ Richard says. ‘As a soldier you are expected to know so much, from basic infantry skills to trade skills such as driving or communications. The armed forces have numerous policies, just like any other large organisation – not least JSP 375: Management of health and safety in defence – and a compendium of mandated course training, which is in essence a list of particular skill-sets that your regiment or sub-unit should hold.
‘For example, I was trained to survey various firing ranges and create a range action safety plan. This was in essence a risk assessment and outlined what was going to happen during the firing session, who had set responsibilities – such as safety supervisor, targets and ammunition – as well as set procedures that we had to follow. It is the same thought process when writing a risk assessment or policy. So, just as in OSH, in the armed forces it’s made very clear that we need the right people with the right training in the right roles.’
Richard finished his career as a warrant officer class 1, the most senior non-commissioned officer rank in the British Army. It was time for a new challenge – but one that was inspired by a tragedy involving a friend.
‘I always wanted to serve in the armed forces from an early age and I joined the British Army at 18. But I decided to leave as I was naturally at the end of my 22-year engagement and had been working a lot of hidden hours, often with early starts and late nights, which ultimately ended up with me suffering with stress and poor mental health,’ Richard says.
'OSH professionals cannot know everything, but we do need to know where to look or who to ask'
‘Towards the end of my army career, I was thinking about what I wanted to do once I had left. I decided that health and safety was the route I wanted to follow after the tragic death of Sergeant Christopher James, with whom I had worked closely in a previous role. I will never forget seeing him the Friday before his untimely passing, saying “See you Monday” – he was off to a wedding, where he sadly fell from a window of a hotel that had no restrictors in place.
‘I started off my resettlement programme by completing the IOSH Managing Safely course in December 2016, which was my first official step to following my OSH dreams. At this point, I started to read more into the various OSH regulations – after 22 years of following rules, I realised this was the definitely the right career path for me!’
‘One of my key bugbears is when service personnel leave the armed forces and are told they haven’t got any experience in the civilian sector. The fact is, most will adapt quickly and have probably already encountered something similar in military life,’ Richard says.
‘The armed forces like to invest in their people, from basic training to trade training and beyond. I haven’t found the same level of enthusiasm in the civilian sector; there seems to be an ethos of: “What if I train them and they leave?” Personally, I think companies should say, “What if I don’t train them and they stay?”’
Back to school
Since leaving the army in 2017, Richard has worked as a health and safety officer and public services lecturer at a college, had a managerial position at the RAF Families Federation, and spent two years as the health, safety and energy manager at Oakham public school in Rutland. He recently took on a new job as health and safety trainer and consultant at Cambridge Safety.
‘My role at Oakham School involved a myriad of different duties, from the standard review of risk assessments and accident investigations to radon surveys and the management of online training. A long-term challenge was to try to change a culture in an organisation that included over 500 staff with varying levels of responsibility,’ Richard says.
‘Another challenge was that simply abiding by all the relevant regulations on a site the size of Oakham is not cheap. While we always tried to do most things in-house, when you take into account fire risk assessments across 38 buildings, an external health and safety audit, Evac chairs and servicing, fire extinguisher servicing, online training for staff, first aid training, and general day-to-day safety concerns, it can be fairly costly. It’s not surprising that some companies cannot do everything.
‘Similarly, one of the things I have realised is that OSH professionals cannot know everything, but we do need to know where to look or who to ask. I have learned a lot from course teachers, but I have also picked up a great deal from various contractors and supporting services. Shadowing highly competent fire risk assessors when they visit the school has given me extra knowledge about why things are a certain way – for example, how far apart smoke detectors should be, how far they should be placed from a wall, and so on.’
Richard is now eager to spread what he has learned. ‘I loved the teaching aspect of my role at Oakham School, such as delivering first aid courses, or teaching my OSH apprentice, which is why I really wanted to go down the teaching route. Sometimes it is just getting a simple “thank you” for putting something right that they have been trying to sort for ages but not known how to.
‘Moving back to a teaching role with Cambridge Safety will help me carry on learning too, which is what I also love. The great thing about teaching groups is that you always learn something new from someone. Whether someone gives you a quick tip on how to make a PowerPoint slide look more aesthetically pleasing, or mentions a website that they have used to learn something new, we are never too old to learn.’