James Pretty CMIOSH explains his journey from equipment operator to health and safety instructor, via the UK, Australia, Oman and Brunei.
James Pretty is a senior health, safety and environment (HSE) instructor and consultant who has had a hand in national-level OSH projects. But less than 15 years ago, James was operating plant equipment with only the occasional toe-dip into health and safety inspections.
‘It’s such a shame that health and safety isn’t offered more regularly as a career path at school and colleges because, if I could go back to the 16-year-old me, I would say “health and safety” to him,’ says James.
‘I spent a couple of years in Australia, where I did some plant machinery instruction. When I came back to the UK, a friend said he had an instructor role available in Oman. The problem was, I didn’t have an instructor qualification. I gambled the last £1000 in my bank account, took the course and, at the end of the two weeks, passed,’ he says.
‘I started in Oman in 2013 with lifting equipment instruction but, after eight months, my boss asked if I wanted to do my own further studies so I could start being a full HSE instructor. My career skyrocketed from there. I went from lifting instructor with no experience to in-country value [ICV] programme manager in three and a half years.’
The value of mentoring
James is a keen proponent of mentorship and has signed up as an IOSH mentor. ‘Everyone remembers their favourite coach or mentor,’ James says. ‘Not because they were necessarily the smartest person they’d met, but because they showed the most faith in them. Even now, I know that one of my old bosses, if I phoned him up, would drop everything to help if I needed it. That kind of support is invaluable.’
James’s mentoring experience meets a number of competencies within the IOSH competency framework, which is the Institution’s first step towards guiding members’ skills and career development. For example, this article relates well to IOSH’s competencies in coaching and mentoring, advocating for safety and inspiring people, and innovation and creativity.
As well as his ICV role, James was also asked to join an Omani Skills Council.
‘It was the first very high-level role I’ve had and it involved developing a national occupational standard and an accompanying apprenticeship for lifting operations. To get more Omanis into jobs, the government wanted a programme for HSE officers – taking them from graduate to HSE officer in two years. They’d come to the programme I was running and do IOSH Managing Safely to start with, then OSH qualifications, then a work placement for six months. If that all worked out, they would go into the second year and do their NVQ Level 5 diploma. Those experiences – the ICV and the Skills Council – helped me for the next stage of my career.’
That was to head east in May 2019 to Brunei, where he took the role of senior HSE instructor and consultant for Megamas Training Company, looking after the firm’s IOSH and NEBOSH training programmes. At Megamas, James has trained some of the Brunei Safety, Health and Environment National Authority’s (SHENA’s) own staff, and his skills have been used in a specialised role.
‘I’m fortunate to know the chief inspector here. He’d been emailing me draft guidance and I’d been replying with my opinions. He happened to be in our office one day and asked me if I wanted to play a more active role. I ended up joining the PPE task force within SHENA’s Industrial Health, Safety and Environment Group (iHSEg).
‘iHSEg is a volunteer task force and we’re tasked with trying to develop and build guidance and standards. Brunei has had health and safety laws for 13 years but many people don’t even know they exist, let alone what they say.’
- Don’t think you know it all
- Approach people who have done it before and get their advice
- If you don’t achieve it straight away, take a step back, accept the feedback and try again.
IOSH competency framework: iosh.com/my-iosh/competency-framework
IOSH mentoring scheme: iosh.com/mentoring
Top teaching techniques
- Learn to say the same thing in seven different ways
- Engage all the time – keep your students in the challenge zone
- Always ask your students questions
- Don’t let the same people speak constantly
- Use a range of approaches and resources – group exercises, videos, case studies
- Focus on as much real-life content as possible
- Promote the approach that working together is vital.
With experience around the globe, James knows that the guidance needed can differ from country to country, and from culture to culture. ‘In Australia, the struggle is what I call “invincibility syndrome”. The Aussies are a tough bunch, but some think they are utterly invincible until they get hurt, and then it comes as quite a shock.
‘Even from Oman to Brunei, there are big differences in the way some things happen. So, adaptability and flexibility is a big weapon in the trainer or health and safety professional’s armoury.’
Despite the exciting opportunities he has enjoyed with different national regulators and official bodies, James’s primary source of job satisfaction is still instructing.
‘Coaching people is the most enjoyable thing, especially at the moment because many of the Bruneian students we get in have been unemployed for some time and they’re desperate to work. In the large families here in south-east Asia, they need to be breadwinners.
‘When they’ve spent two weeks with me, even before they do their exams, I can see they have become different people. When they arrive, they don’t understand why we do a lot of the things we do. But as you explain the reasoning, you can see they have these lightbulb moments.
‘It’s brilliant when people come to see you months later, and not only can they talk to you about the subject, they can be your peer. I’ve got many ex-students who are now professionals in their own right, some of them senior managers in health and safety – even Chartered Members. It’s fantastic when they say that you were the spark that ignited their career.’