Unusually among the leaders interviewed for this magazine, Derran Williams CMIOSH has no one reporting to him. Yet he is responsible for overseeing the safety and health of hundreds of thousands of workers in massive infrastructure projects from road schemes to power stations across eastern Europe and beyond.
As associate director and senior health and safety adviser at the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), Williams has to verify that the standards of protection are acceptable on the schemes the bank funds.
“I’m the only safety specialist in a team of 50,” he says, cheerfully.
As the EBRD assesses up to 300 new projects a year, Williams has to manage his time carefully to pick proposals that need OSH oversight.
“I tend to triage them to focus on countries I know are problematic,” he says.
Derran Williams career file
2017-present, Associate director, senior health and safety adviser, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development
2008-2017, Principal health and safety specialist, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development
2009, Lead safety engineer, Worley Parsons, Kuwait
2008-2009, Health, safety and environment consultant, BP Exploration
2007-2008, Health and safety consultant, St Helena government
1998-2007, Site supervisor/health and safety manager, LCM Environmental
He has been trying to document the factors that flag up a proposal as worthy of more attention, “but it’s almost like a black art; after eight years, I know straightaway whether I should be involved in a project or not.”
Projects proposed for funding are assessed to see whether they meet the EBRD’s lending criteria. Williams forms part of that process: “Every week there may be five, ten or 20 projects depending on how busy we are. At that point I can say, ‘I want to have a look at that one in more detail’, so the team will then share more information with me and let me ask questions about the project.
“I ask about things other people might not consider. I can pick up a project [proposal] and look at it, know the country, the sector and sometimes even the client and ask the questions other people might not have considered to make sure the standards are adequate or meet our policy requirements.
“People automatically think it would be the large-scale infrastructure projects, the tunnel below the Bosphorus for instance, or oil and gas [installations]. But they are not the ones that worry me. It’s the ones that are run by small and medium-sized enterprises, and where they don’t have much expertise from outside the country. An operator in Ukraine, for instance, that doesn’t have a group that’s in America or Europe, so there’s no corporate standards and no oversight.” Experience has taught him to pay such projects more attention.
He believes the Eurasia Tunnel under the Bosphorus, linking two of Istanbul’s three zones, was a good riposte to anyone who assumes safety standards are de-facto lower in major infrastructure projects in non-western countries. “The standards on that were far higher than I’ve ever seen in Turkey, so it is possible.”
Early involvement allows Williams to influence OSH specifications. “There’s a laboratory campus in Turkey. It hasn’t been built yet; the contractors haven’t even been appointed. There’s a special purpose vehicle (SPV) with just four people designing it in an office. Involvement in that early stage allows me to ensure the standards for selecting the contractors are the right ones.”
They said there was a standard that anyone working at height had to wear fall protection. I said, ‘I’ve never seen anything so stupid in my life’
If those standards are inadequate or missing it is harder to insist on them later since the bank’s relationship is primarily with the SPV rather than with the contractors.
On the ground
If the European part of the bank’s name is a misnomer – its biggest funder is the US and it is backed by 41 countries as well as the 28 states of the European Union – the reconstruction and development part is central to its work.
It was established in 1991 to help the former states of the Soviet Union – from Azerbaijan to Uzbekistan, and Russia itself – as well as ex-Yugoslavian republics, from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Slovenia, to make a stable transition to market economies. It has since expanded its client list to take in countries such as Jordan, Tunisia and Turkey. The bank lends to private sector and local and central governments for infrastructure projects and business ventures that will boost economic growth. More recently these priorities have been overlaid with strategic themes to promote gender equality, financial inclusion and transition to green economies.
The bank aims to help countries to the stage where they no longer need its investment. To date the only state that has developed beyond the need for funds is the Czech Republic.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has helped to fund the remediation of the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine, abandoned in 1986 after an explosion and fire during a routine safety test. This led to a Level 7 (highest severity) accident that released radioactive fission products into the air and set off alarms in another nuclear facility 1,000 km away in Sweden. A 30 km exclusion zone around the plant has been in effect since.
Last year a “new safe confinement” shelter was placed over the damaged reactor. The 108 m high arched concrete cover (pictured) – big enough to hold France’s Notre Dame cathedral – is designed to contain the radiation for at least 100 years and allow the facility to be dismantled safely.
Since the EBRD funds power generation schemes elsewhere in the former Soviet Union countries, it has its own nuclear safety experts who reviewed the technical aspects of the containment project.
But Derran Williams reviewed the general site safety and health arrangements for the bank.
“During the construction phase they thought it would be a good idea if I visited the project and carried out a site audit,” he says. “Our nuclear safety guy isn’t an OHS specialist.”
He found the safety controls exemplary. “The health and safety chap on the site knew his stuff and had taught the Ukrainian and Belorussian guys working on the site. There was a zero-tolerance approach and alcohol testing for everyone.”
His visit included a visit to Pripyat, the abandoned town near the plant, evacuated in haste after the disaster.
“You can imagine everyone being bussed out and being told they would be back in a few days and that was the last they saw of it.
“Just as we were leaving I said, ‘There’s a tower crane up there. What construction work are they doing?’ But it turned out there was construction work going on when the disaster happened and they just walked away from it, so the crane’s still there. I don’t know if anyone’s checking the steel for fatigue but in a high wind it might come down.”
The clients on each project must complete a form annually stating their accident rates, but also how much safety and health training they have provided.
“That’s one element of our monitoring,” Williams says. “Depending on the project – because we take a very risk-based approach – we will carry out an annual visit as well, to ‘kick the tyres’ of the project and meet the management team. It’s a chance to get in the room with them and tell them what they are doing well and where we would like to see improvements.”
Asked where he has pushed for changes, he cites recent schemes to provide clean water and sanitation to regional Romania, funded by the EU and the EBRD. “We were lending money to little municipalities. Our monitoring report showed this was something I needed to look at in more detail. I went out and identified that contractors’ standards out there were horrendous and the water operators weren’t pushing the contractors.”
He shows me a picture of an excavator operating in the central reservation of a dual carriageway, a strip of grass barely wider than the machine itself. Its back-end counterweight is slewing out into the path of the oncoming traffic.
Another site photo shows workers several metres deep in an excavation digging below the walls of an open-bottomed concrete box, with no shoring around them.
“There was a high number of fatalities due to trench collapses,” he says. “So we needed to do something about this. Though the water companies are our clients rather than the contractors, we organised three contractor workshops on excavation safety for the water companies and the key contractors.”
On top of the EBRD’s normal monitoring tours of the projects, Williams engaged a consultant to make unannounced visits, “just to work with them, not to catch them out. He was there to coach the site manager and the safety managers.”
Some of the corner-cutting and poor practice can be attributed to the fact that the contracts had been won with tenders that were too low, he believes: “The public procurement laws in Romania require that the lowest bid wins, so this sort of thing happens.”
He says the bank has lobbied the central water authority and persuaded it to modify the restriction so the clients can use the EU model and pick the best-value tender rather than just the cheapest.
The interventions have helped to reduce the number of serious accidents on the water projects.
The bank’s ultimate sanction for a client who ignored warnings to improve safety would be to require repayment of its loan immediately, effectively withdrawing funding for the project. But since the institution’s raison d’être is to invest in schemes that help grow and stabilise the economies of poorer states, that would be a last resort, says Williams: “Sometimes, though the safety is not good, we just have to push it as best we can because the impact a project has on towns and cities where there is nothing else is socially profound.”
Though he has not seen such an immediate loan repayment in his eight years with the bank, Williams says there are organisations it will not accept as clients again because their risk control was so poor.
Working with national regulatory regimes is often a challenge “at both extremes. Some countries don’t have the laws to manage the risk – Egypt for instance. But in the former Soviet Union countries where there was a really strong legislative-based, unionised culture years ago, they are crippled by laws that are very prescriptive.”
In some cases the standards these laws set are unworkable, he says. He gives the example of a project the bank is supporting in Belarus. In the EU the regulations governing explosive atmospheres allow zoning of workplaces into zones with different levels of explosive risk, but in Belarus “they don’t designate zones, they just designate the whole building Zone 0 [with a frequently explosive atmosphere]. We know just a corner of the building is Zone 0 but they are saying you can’t use anything with an ignition source anywhere in the building. It’s a massive restriction.”
The problem is compounded by the fact that workers who know the zoning is over-zealous are less likely to take care even in the hazardous parts.
I went home and thought ‘I hope I don’t get offered that one’. Lo and behold the next day they offered me the job
Williams’ frustration with over-prescription recurs during our interview. He recounts a time at consulting engineers Worley Parsons in 2009, when he was supervising a $1bn (£505m) gas booster station project in south-west Kuwait.
“We were carrying out basic foundation work for pipe racks, setting up formwork and scaffolding. The guys were on the scaffolding with full edge protection. There was no fall potential, but they were all hooked up with [fall prevention] lanyards hooked on to the scaffolding and they were getting twisted and struggling to work.
“I asked why and they said there was a standard that anyone working at height had to wear fall protection. I said, ‘I’ve never seen anything so stupid in my life’. I put myself in the position of the workers because I’ve been there.”
He combed the project safety standards and could not find the requirement – “it was just word of mouth”. With the contractor’s enthusiastic agreement, he held a site briefing the next day to tell the workers they no longer needed to use the lanyards.
When he left the company soon after, he says the project manager told him: “I’m never going to look at a safety manager in the same way again.”
In the scheme of things
Derran Williams is part of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s environment and sustainability team supporting the environmental and social specialists monitoring the projects the bank funds.
“I’m the only health and safety specialist in the department,” he says. “My role is to support the teams in environmental and social due diligence.
He reports to the environmental and social team leader and works separately from the bank’s own safety and health team of five who look after the 1,200 staff at the London headquarters and 400 in offices from Moscow to Lebanon.
As well as project support, he provides training to the other team members.
Williams collates accident data from the EBRD’s projects. In 2014 he suggested to the bank’s managing director that the fatality statistics should be included in the annual sustainability report.
“It had to go to our board of directors and they had no issue about reporting them. So we are probably the only international financial institution (IFI) that publicises this information.
“It’s not a comfortable thing to do but having it there prompted the board to say to me, ‘What are we doing about it?’ And that’s what I wanted them to do, because then I can say, ‘Give me the resources and we’ll do it’.”
The fatality total was 102 in 2013, 96 in 2014, 56 in 2015 and 80 in 2016. Williams notes it is hard to draw conclusions from the shifts year on year because so much depends on the number, scale and location of the projects underway in each 12 months. He is more interested in analysing the types of injury.
“Last year, confined spaces was one of the main causes of fatal accidents on our projects. We had one accident where five people were killed. It was the classic scenario that someone had gone into a space without the right equipment and went down, someone else went in to rescue them and went down too and so on.”
Other contributors to the total are work near electrical services and trackside accidents on rail projects. This data has influenced Williams’ due diligence on the projects that present such hazards and the training he provides to the rest of the EBRD’s social and environmental staff.
“I do short sessions on specific topics and I covered confined spaces and excavation safety years ago.
“One of the things I used to do [before managing OSH] was working in refineries, climbing in petrol tanks with full breathing apparatus. So I’ve added confined spaces work to the questionnaire we require clients to complete in the due diligence phase.”
He includes similar questions on lifting work, traffic movement, work at height; “all those things you know they need good measures in place to control”.
Road accidents are another component of the high death toll and Williams says that, though the bank’s own projects improve safety standards by funding better highways and all its clients are pushed to mandate driver training, these are not enough.
“We are doing capacity building, funding programmes and consultants in these countries. We have one in [former Soviet republic] Tajikistan at the moment working with national road safety agencies to promote seatbelt use around the regions where we are building new roads. Because what’s the first thing people want to do on a new road? Drive faster.”
The EBRD’s shareholders contribute to a fund for projects to improve conditions in client countries and Williams has drawn on this for projects such as one in Ukraine, known as the breadbasket of Europe, to raise agricultural safety standards, with support from the International Labour Organization and the EU OSHA safety agency. “We brought in ministers for a workshop to raise awareness and for the second part we brought in the safety guys and chief engineers from the companies we work with.”
As well as co-opting his colleagues’ attention on safety and health issues, he repays the favour. One of the bank’s strategic themes is promoting gender equality.
“I’m working on a project with one of our gender specialists,” he notes. “The Kyrgyz Republic restricts the jobs women can do. They can’t be carpenters or bus drivers for instance. The law says work cannot be done by women because it is hazardous.”
He says he and his colleague are working on evidence to show the Kyrgyz government that a majority of the 150 occupations listed are no more dangerous for women to perform than men, hoping to persuade the authorities to take a phased approach to changing the law: “We can show them women doing those jobs safely in similar former Soviet Union countries such as Belarus or Tajikistan. Hopefully we can get them to realise that they need to move forward.”
Williams’ solitary status as the EBRD’s OSH specialist monitoring its projects is not a poor reflection on the bank. Until recently – when the World Bank appointed someone to a similar post – he was the only OSH practitioner employed by an IFI for governance purposes. But he had regular contact with the social and environmental monitors in other institutions.
“To keep the disruption to a minimum we tend to arrange monitoring visits with other lenders, so we have a good relationship with them.”
To develop awareness of safety and health issues among these peers in institutions such as the Asian Development Bank and the International Finance Corporation arm of the World Bank, he convened a working group on safety and health to exchange good practice and foster joint initiatives. This meets annually in November and attracts around 50 people. Williams believes interest is growing among IFIs in promoting better safety standards in the schemes they fund and hopes the working group has contributed to that.
“We invest in the same projects in a lot of cases,” he says. “Our standards are virtually the same, though health and safety is a dedicated standard for us; it’s buried in other labour standards in some of the other institutions.”
Until the past two years, Williams spent half his time visiting EBRD projects, but recently a degenerative eye condition, which was diagnosed more than 20 years ago, has led him to scale down site inspections.
“I have to be very choosy where I go because it wouldn’t be the best thing a safety manager having an accident [on a site tour].”
The self-imposed limitation has pushed him to ensure that more of his colleagues going to sites are trained to spot safety problems. Two years ago he also recruited safety and health champions, whom he has trained in hazard recognition.
He can advise them remotely as well: “They can email me and send photos.”
He says the condition, choroideremia, has also made him more sensitive to safety provision for workers with disabilities on EBRD-funded projects.
“In a lot of our countries of operation, especially in the Balkans following the war there, there are an awful lot of people with mobility issues and there are laws in those countries where they have to employ a certain number of people with disabilities.”
Williams went from school into the Royal Air Force and then into demolition in the oil and gas sector with LCM Environmental, rising to site manager.
The introduction of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations in 1999 increased the pressure from the major oil companies for more structured safety management among their contractors.
“At the time Total refused to let anyone go into confined spaces,” he recalls. “I went to help Total develop a risk assessment for them to carry out confined space work because they knew it could be done [safely].”
He gravitated to being LCM’s safety manager: “They realised I knew all the activities; it was no problem writing a method statement or a risk assessment or a construction phase plan for demolition work because I had done it all.”
Ten years later and a little bored, he began looking for pastures new and ended up at an interview for a six-month posting as health and safety adviser on St Helena, the tiny British protectorate in the South Atlantic, 7,500 km from the UK, to which Napoleon was once exiled.
“I hadn’t really done my homework and thought it was [Jersey capital] St Helier. When they showed me where it was on the map, I said, ‘Really?’ I went home and thought ‘I hope I don’t get offered that one’. Lo and behold the next day they offered me the job.”
He took the job and after a three-day boat ride from Ascension Island, home to the nearest airport, he found himself on St Helena where he worked for the public health department supporting the environmental health officers.
“The British government were thinking about building an airport and were worried about the standards of construction work. I raised awareness on construction but, since most of the facilities are owned by the government, I went to visit the public works, the agri-business, the slaughterhouses.
“It was like going back to the 1950s and somewhere I’ll never forget,” he says.
I note that he holds two safety and health masters degrees, one in OSH law gained ten years ago but the other, in risk management, he completed only this year. What pushed him back towards academia?
“You want to know why?” He asks. “To keep me out of the pub.” Home is north Wales facing the Irish Sea, but the impossibility of commuting means that he comes to work in London on Monday and goes back to his family on a Thursday night, staying in a flat in East London in the week nights. To fill the evenings in the capital he started studying again.
“I did health, safety and environment law because in 2008 it was one of the few master’s degrees that offered distance learning. Over the years more [courses] have become available so, although the law master’s was a good one to have, I wanted something to demonstrate I was more of a technical person.”
As with all the leader interviewees, I ask what experience has taught him successful OSH management.
“I’ve always been a big believer in charm before compliance,” he says. “If you let your personality come through rather than waving a stick [you get further]. There seems to be a lot of safety guys who still think the policeman approach is the way to get things done because of the culture. But I think that’s all wrong.”
He says he has learned that good results often take time, especially working in countries where resources are limited and safety consciousness is still inchoate. “There are so many people who want results yesterday. If you are sensible you accept progressive steps.”
I finish by asking what he is most proud of in his career. He says it’s something he can’t be sure he has achieved. “The proudest thing would be if I have saved a life. I’d like to think I have but I can’t prove it.”
As a fallback he offers the work his current post allows him to do: engaging with ministers and senior civil servants in the bank’s client countries, promoting improvement in safety standards, has the potential for wide-reaching influence. “Getting them to think it’s the right thing to do, that makes me proud.”