Leader interview

Dominic Wigley, Merlin Entertainments

Two years on from the Alton Towers rollercoaster crash the operator’s most senior safety leader talks about crisis management and building a public safety brand.

Leader interview, Dominic Wigley, Merlin Entertainments
Pictures: Andrew Firth

Dominic Wigley talks about his time at Merlin Entertainments as “pre-Smiler” and “post-Smiler”. The distinction is understandable. The accident on 2 June 2015, in which a carriage full of passengers on the 14-loop Smiler rollercoaster ride at Merlin’s Alton Towers theme park in Staffordshire crashed into an empty car, was a massive inflection point for an organisation whose business is providing its customers with safe, memorable experiences.

Two young women each had a leg amputated as a result of the crash and 14 others were also injured. The story was one of the biggest covered by the UK press that summer, attracting more coverage than the Shoreham Airshow crash three months later, though the latter involved multiple fatalities.

For Merlin, which accepted responsibility for the accident early and clearly, the eventual £5m fine was compounded by a large drop in visitor numbers and revenues at the park.

Wigley had joined Merlin as group health, safety and security director late in 2014 from engineering services consultancy Amey, and spent a couple of months getting to grips with the group’s operations which employ 27,000 people in 24 countries (half of them seasonal workers) at centres ranging from Legoland and Sea Life aquariums to the London Eye big wheel and Madame Tussauds waxwork museums, as well as their more traditional theme parks.

Dominic Wigley career file

2014 - present: Group health, safety and security director, Merlin Entertainments
2009 - 2014: Health, safety and assurancce director, Amey
2006 - 2009: Health, safety and environment director, Jones Lang LaSalle
2003 - 2006: Group health and safety manager, British Sky Broadcasting
2000 - 2003: Health and safety adviser, BBC
1998 - 2000: Health and safety adviser, SAUR UK

The plans he drew up early in 2015 were not driven by any sense that the company had a deficient safety culture.

“It was clear that safety had always been and was front and centre of people’s minds,” he says. “It was absolutely an area of intense focus for the business.”

His predecessor had fulfilled a more general risk management role and Wigley’s remit from Merlin’s executive team was to adapt safety management to reflect the group’s expanding portfolio, which had grown to encompass ski resorts and even an airport in Australia.

“We’re looking to roll out 40 new Midway indoor attractions over the next four years and an extra three Legoland parks as well. So as that scale gets larger it’s about making sure that our systems and structures of safety stay commensurate to that growth as well.

“So I developed and set out a five-year programme of work, which included some changes to the organisational structure, the development of new policies and standards, and a new auditing regime. And I was starting to devise and then roll out our ‘Protecting the Magic’ brand for OSH and security. I think we had just gone live with it, and our corresponding ‘Six Spells for Safety’ [see Protecting the magic box further down in this article]. And then four weeks later, Smiler happened.”

Crisis call

On 2 June 2015, Wigley was on holiday with his family on the Spanish island of Menorca – “to leverage the last opportunity of a holiday in term time before my children started school”. Returning from an afternoon on the beach, his wife turned on the TV in their apartment and the screen was filled with BBC News helicopter footage of the Alton Towers crash scene.

“There was that cold moment of realisation that something significant had happened at the resort,” he recalls. “My phone was in the apartment safe; I turned it on and there were quite a few missed calls, as you can imagine.”

He immediately joined Merlin’s crisis management conference calls, then caught the first available flight back to the UK, arriving at the park the next lunchtime, where he would spend two weeks working with the company’s chief executive, other senior directors and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

His team was “in shock, they couldn’t quite believe what had happened”, he says, but were working professionally to manage the immediate aftermath, supporting the emergency services and investigating authorities. “At that point we were still unaware of the severity of the injuries,” he says.

The OSH staff had also started gathering and preserving information for their own and the regulators’ investigations, “quarantining records because we knew that they would need to be made available to the HSE and making sure we could take our own statements from those who were closest to the events in the hour prior to the incident. So the safety team were ready to support me as I turned up on site to help lead our investigation.”

That evidence gathering helped the company come to an early decision to offer a “fast and sincere” apology for the accident, but also to verify that guests on the hundreds of rides at Merlin’s other parks were not at risk.

From a crisis room at the resort, the response was orchestrated by Wigley, working with senior colleagues from across the company as well as those resident at Alton Towers. Major decisions were ratified by the chief executive who had chartered a helicopter from the company’s Dorset head office in the early hours of the incident to support the assembled team.

There was no disagreement over the early response. “The notion of doing the right thing was in our DNA,” he says. “That ran through everything that we decided.”

He spent two weeks at the park, co-ordinating the response and putting together the company’s interim investigation report.

“By this stage there had been a ‘Do not disturb’ notice put on the ride by the HSE, so we were dealing with CCTV that we had access to and witness statements we were able to obtain. We were trying to put all these threads together to really understand the causation chain on the day of the incident.”

I note the company attracted some criticism after an early press release said the internal enquiry had found the cause of the crash was a misunderstanding by ride staff who wrongly restarted the rollercoaster.

“I think that was a symptom of too many people involved in developing the press statement,” he says. “It had gone through a number of iterations and in the final few hours before its release there were some tweaks made to it which created an interpretation we hadn’t intended.  Parts of the wording of that press statement were picked up and amplified in the media, using the phrase ‘human error’. In hindsight, we regret the emphasis that was interpreted from the release because we certainly didn’t want it to be seen as the company diminishing its responsibility for the accident. In the days, the weeks, before that, we were very clear in offering not just our sincere apologies but our admission of liability as a corporate entity.”

The media appetite for the story seemed “insatiable”, he says. It was the third highest ranking news story of 2015. “And with that level of coverage comes the ongoing need to support our communications people, and our chief executive, helping to prepare them for media interviews and press enquiries.”

One minute you’re a lawyer, the next you’re a physicist, the next you’re an engineer; I love that breadth

When the case came to court Wigley’s photograph was published in the Daily Mail along with that of Merlin’s chief executive. It is a level of exposure few safety practitioners would expect or welcome, I suggest.

“You certainly don’t wish to attract that attention,” he says. “But I think it goes with the territory as a safety leader. We have to endeavour to do our best to prevent accidents but also, in the worst-case scenario, to help to lead the business through difficult times, and that extends to court proceedings. So it never crossed my mind that it was unfortunate, the small amount of media coverage I was getting.”

In the months before the first court hearing in April 2016, he helped the company’s lawyers prepare the company’s guilty plea and associated court submissions, and put together the mitigation case to put the failings in context of Merlin’s previous strong ride safety record.

Media storm

In the scheme of things

As group health, safety and security director, Dominic Wigley is responsible for leading and setting the direction of OSH and security systems for Merlin Entertainments’ operations worldwide, devising group strategy and programmes and obtaining the buy-in from group directors for their implementation.
He reports to the group legal counsel. His own direct reports include a head of security and one senior safety director for each of the three main operating divisions:  Midway Attractions, Legoland Parks and Resort Theme Parks. One of these divisional OSH directors also oversees the safety of the Merlin Magic Making creative division, which designs and project manages new attractions and the addition of accommodation to its theme parks. These three OSH directors manage the company’s 70 safety professionals and who have direct responsibility through the safety line with a dotted reporting line to senior management at the attractions.
Separate from this structure, Wigley has an OSH director who oversees standards and assurance. “I wanted the assurance programme set and led separately from the operating groups,” he notes.
The standards and assurance director overseas a “triple lock” assurance programme which includes structured self-audits by OSH teams, group audits by dedicated in-house auditors and external audits conducted by third party specialists.
Wigley also sits on Merlin’s health, safety and security committee which meets at least four times a year and includes the company chair, chief executive, chief financial officer, legal counsel plus non-executive directors. As well as scrutinising the company’s OSH performance on behalf of the plc board, the committee oversees the group’s policies and procedures for ensuring the safety and security of guests, employees, contractors and operating assets.

Overall, the company’s crisis response plans survived the severest test they could have encountered. Other than the need to pay closer attention to press statements, Wigley says one of the lessons they learned was to nominate deputies for key members of the crisis team to allow them some time to sleep and recuperate. Another lesson was the value of a dedicated note-taker in crisis meetings, “so you’ve got an audit trail of all the decisions taken, as you might want to reflect on them in the months ahead to help review lessons learned.”

The impact of the speed of social media transmission was unanticipated, he says. Security staff tried to clear the area around Smiler immediately after the accident, but some guests were keen to film or photograph the scene and upload the results.

“Some of the families of the injured parties were learning first of the fact that their loved ones were caught up in the incident through postings on social media, rather than in a way that we, or the authorities, would have wished for those difficult conversations to take place.”

Later in the summer of 2015, Merlin’s safety staff were kept extra busy reassuring guests at the parks concerned by anything they spotted that looked unusual on a ride – “and of course all of those [reports] required examination and investigation”.

The immediate cause of the accident was the resetting of Smiler’s computerised ride-control system which had refused to send the car full of riders into the next stretch (or “block”) of track since proximity sensors had correctly detected that another (unoccupied) car had failed to vacate the block and was stationary at the bottom of one of the ride’s loops. The engineers did not see the unoccupied car, and hadn’t properly appreciated that it had only recently been added to the track, and so assumed the control system was at fault and reset it manually.

“We have now banned block resets taking place while we have guests anywhere on a ride,” says Wigley. “So we will potentially do more evacuations from rides, taking guests out the ride vehicles prior to doing a block reset if that eventuality occurs. And then we’ll get the ride operating safely back in normal mode before loading passengers back on to the train.”

A permit-to-work system, requiring the oversight of an engineering duty manager, has also been introduced for rides that require a block reset, regardless of the fact that passengers are no longer on the ride.

I ask if he can summarise the accident’s root causes.

“There was a number of underlying causes in addition to the initiating events on the day which the business had not effectively considered. These are very subtle nuances of risk identification and risk control. Whether it was training for the engineers that perhaps could have been better, or the need for us to write our own internal procedures for the manual resetting of blocks, or more structured supervision of ride engineers in particular – those were three important underlying causal factors.”

Merlin has made presentations to other ride operators through national and international industry bodies, such as the British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions (BALPPA), to ensure the lessons from Smiler are spread throughout the sector.

There have been fundamental changes to the engineering function. Wigley says the organisation’s devolved structure had traditionally allowed a degree of management autonomy in the parks and attractions. This had been beneficial in many ways but had caused variations in competency standards.

“We’ve developed a new group-wide policy covering training and competency, both for staff involved in ride operations but also for our technicians involved in ride engineering,” Wigley says. Now, minimum standards for training and competency are set at group level, along with prescriptions for refresher training and skills assessment. Engineering departments at all the parks have recruited dedicated training and compliance managers to oversee the adherence to group policies and standards.

Their work is directed by a new group engineering function, which Wigley was instrumental in creating.

“Clearly safety and safety outcomes can be enhanced by having excellence in engineering. And this was obviously an area where we fell short on Smiler, as engineering standards were largely decentralised to our attractions. So last year we built a business case – which was approved – for another million pounds worth of cost in creating a brand new group engineering directorate.”

Focus of control

Protecting the magic

Few organisations have a public-facing safety brand but Merlin Entertainments’ Protecting the Magic is just that. The dedicated website protectingthemagic.com has quizzes and slick videos, aligned to the company’s branding and designed to convey a mixture of basic safety advice and details of Merlin’s own controls.
Dominic Wigley says that since the Smiler accident the website and Protecting the Magic brochures have assumed a public role, reassuring prospective guests that Merlin operates to the highest safety and security standards.
But the brand was developed in early 2015, before the accident, primarily as a pre-induction tool for staff and contractor engagement.
“We wanted contractors and our seasonal workers who don’t have Merlin computers to be able to access core information readily via smartphones and tablets,” says Wigley. “That was quite bold for the business, putting safety collateral that’s intended for an internal audience on an open portal.”
Employees and contractors – or anyone else who is interested – can download manuals in 13 languages summarising Merlin’s requirements on everything from child protection to chemical and electrical safety.
The site also carries the company’s safety policy statement and its golden rules, branded “Six Spells for Safety”, which include reporting unsafe acts and conditions, maintaining good housekeeping, and ensuring guests, staff and animals are kept safe at all times.
The enhanced site and materials, launched in January, accompany increased safety performance data in Merlin’s latest annual report.
“It reflects our desire to be more transparent because there are some important pieces of reassurance and information that we can communicate to our external stakeholders,” says Wigley. “In the absence of that information they may form incorrect assumptions and judgements, and of course after Smiler, and indeed probably after the M&D theme park accident in Scotland, or the recent Dreamworld accident in Australia, external stakeholders, including our investors, now have more questions and demand greater information and reassurance about our safety and security programmes.”
Extracts from these materials are posted on a new Merlin Backstage web portal for Merlin’s annual pass holders – the attractions’ super users who visit repeatedly throughout the year.
He says the extra detail on the scope of the company’s safety arrangements has been well received by staff too. “People don’t always appreciate the extent of hazards that we’re managing and the maturity of many of our safety programmes because they only see small sections of it from within their demise or work remit. So it’s good to pull it all together into a safety story board.”

As well as the restructuring and expansion of the engineering function, last January saw a shift in reporting lines for the 70 safety professionals in Merlin’s parks and attractions worldwide.

“Pre-Smiler most of these individuals were line-managed by operational leaders within the business,” says Wigley. “But after the incident I wanted greater control of the function. Rather than matrix management  I wanted direct line management.

“So now I and my senior leadership team have absolute responsibility for line managing the safety professionals across the entirety of our business.”

It is a shift that contrasts with many other organisations that are still heading in the other direction, moving safety reporting into operational divisions.

Wigley says Merlin’s safety practitioners continue to work tightly with operational management and support them, but the direct gearing between his group function and the safety managers in the parks allows for faster implementation of new OSH initiatives and programmes and promotes “objectivity and rigour” about risk control.

“But a lot of what we do is about equipping line management so they understand what they need to do and what they are responsible for. And we’re very clear and keen to make sure that it remains an integrated solution of support. So one of partnership, not one of two different departments at an attraction level with competing demands. The success of safety and of the safety function is only realised through the cooperation and efforts of line management at all of our attractions.”

The standing of the senior OSH practitioners at the company’s 14 theme parks has also been raised.

“Historically, we’d only have a safety manager at those parks, each leading a small safety department. I wanted an increased level of leadership in safety, so we have regraded these lead roles.

Each theme park now has its own safety director who sits on its leadership team. “Some people were able, through coaching and general capability, to move naturally into these higher-grade roles, and others through the process of reorganisation have either left Merlin or have moved into slightly different roles, allowing us to bring in new OSH talent.”

The new structure and reporting line sounds more like that of an oil exploration or petrochemicals company than an entertainment organisation. I ask whether it reflects the severe nature of the hazard if something goes seriously wrong with a ride, rather than, as previously, the day-to-day low level of risk, based on the safety record.

“That’s absolutely correct. It’s about further professionalising the function for the challenges and opportunities ahead. After the restructure, you want individuals who are able to also assert their knowledge and authority where that is needed and who command the respect of their colleagues around the leadership table almost automatically. But it’s important we’re not seen as a bureaucratic corporate central function, but as a valued, integrated and solutions orientated partner to the business.”

One of his priorities is to enhance safety through the design and project management processes, whether it is in the rides designed by the Merlin Magic Making creative division or in the accommodation that the company is adding to its parks to encourage guests to extend their visits. He says Merlin is developing its own standards of safety excellence at the concept and initial design stages to overlay on those of the international standards bodies (such as the European Standardisation Organisations or ASTM International) which will improve safety of assets during operation and allow the company to share a new level of best practice with other members of industry bodies such as BALPPA.

The introduction of hotel accommodation at the resorts brings a new set of challenges for Wigley’s function, adding supplementary activities for guests such as high-rope treetop walks, archery lessons or night-time music events with pyrotechnics. The safety staff must also keep up with the evolution of attractions. Merlin is developing a new attraction model which will require more adventurous and physical participation from guests: “That’s a different type of risk for us to consider.”

Before he arrived in 2014, Merlin relied on accident frequency rates, measured separately for employees and guests, as its main safety performance indicator.

“Even before Smiler we were working up a whole new balanced scorecard of leading and lagging metrics,” he says. The group’s latest annual report for 2016, published in April this year (bit.ly/2qnjQH9), is the first to carry the new measures, that supplement a new accident metric of medical treatment case rates – 0.07 per 10,000 hours worked for employees and 0.06 per 10,000 guest visits in 2016 – with five new leading indicators. These include the score of the annual employee safety culture survey, the percentage of rides with safe operating procedures and with safety inspection certificates (both 100%), and meetings of the group health, safety and security committee (see In the scheme of things box above).

“Last year was the first time we had a dedicated section on health, safety and security in the annual report,” Wigley says. “We floated on the stock exchange only three-and-a-half years ago and being part of a publicly-listed entity has led us to be more transparent about our safety programmes and performance.”

He repeats the point made by the head of the HSE’s National Fairground Inspection Team in our feature on amusement safety last year (bit.ly/2pSRVBh), that visitors to theme parks are more likely to be injured in their cars travelling to or from the park than on one of the rides.

Starting point

Most practitioners interviewed for this magazine gravitated to OSH management from another area of business; not Wigley. “I was probably one of a small handful of people that chose to do safety from the get-go,” he reflects. “I decided when I was 17 years of age that I wanted a career in it.”

What swayed him? “When I was in the final year of A-levels and choosing a university course I could have done economics, I enjoyed that. I also enjoyed geography, but the tipping point for me [towards safety and health] was the fact that the subject matter was so diverse. One minute you’re a lawyer, the next you’re a physicist, the next you’re an engineer; I love that breadth.”

He says he could also see there was change on the way in the form of the EU “six pack” of regulations on management of OSH, work equipment safety, manual handling, display screen equipment and personal protective equipment.

He sounds like an unusual 17-year-old, I observe. “I’ve always been a nerd,” he says. “No, that’s not true; I think it was the university prospectuses. I can remember that moment where I flicked the page and saw the occupational health and safety management courses and I don’t know how I became aware of the European six-pack regulations coming in, but I kind of put the two together.”

The variety of the subject and the prospect of a good job afterwards swung it. “Twenty years on, that decision was spot on. I love it. It still stimulates me every day and I continue to learn every day.”

He added a master’s degree in European law to his OSH degree. A work placement with Shell’s gas processing terminal at Bacton on the Norfolk coast provided a “starting point of learning about safety in the real world. I took away a lot in terms of what exemplary safety standards and safety governance looked like and I’ve tried to apply that to all of my roles since.”

He moved into television at the BBC in 2000, helping control the risks on drama programmes such as Casualty and 999 as well as natural history productions, including the celebrated Blue Planet and Planet Earth series, which involved filming in remote African locations “having to think through dynamic risks and situations for which there isn’t a safety rulebook.

 “Being part of TV stunts and special effects like blowing up things: boats, houses, cars, is brilliant,” he says, “but from a safety perspective it’s pretty stressful.”

After working at the BBC and then Sky TV, he moved sector to the US-owned property services company Jones Lang LaSalle to gain experience of managing engineering risks. Then, on to the engineering services firm Amey.

Taking up the most senior post in Merlin in 2014 “was a really interesting fusion of entertainment and engineering, together with the international remit”.

Lessons in leadership

What was the most important lesson he learned steering the OSH function through the aftermath of the Smiler accident? He says it was the value of having the right people doing the right jobs and then giving them the support, direction and autonomy to do their best in such challenging circumstances: “If you can do that it makes your job so much easier.”

Good talent management is the key to successful safety leadership at any time, he adds. “I’ve taken a punt on a couple of hires in the past 12 months. They have great core safety backgrounds such as divers and animal curators, and then you put them into a dedicated safety function and you give them support and a safety net around them. Seeing them flourish in that new role is just a joy.”

Understanding the organisation is another critical leadership trait. “Don’t think that you’re operating in isolation. You have to have good business acumen, because without that you’re not going be a good safety professional.

“You’ve got to have understanding and empathy with the people that you’re working with, the people you’re looking to influence. And in parallel to that you’ve got to have the courage of your convictions. So stay true to yourself. And if you believe you’re on solid ground with a particular idea or position, then make sure you follow through with friendly authority, with confidence but also with grace, to take people with you rather than being seen as dictatorial. But ultimately, stay true to yourself.”



Louis Wustemann is former editor, IOSH Magazine. He was previously editor of Health and Safety at Work magazine and Environment in Business. He has written, edited and consulted on health and safety, environmental and employment matters for more than 25 years.


  • Good piece showing how they

    Permalink Submitted by andrew cunningham on 24 May 2017 - 02:26 pm

    Good piece showing how they dealt with this tragedy, unfortunate timing though when the Drayton Manor fatality is still being investigated.

  • A really good article an

    Permalink Submitted by Tim Bird (Eddistone) on 14 June 2019 - 12:25 pm

    A really good article and interesting to read about the Crisis team, their challenges and how they managed, although learning lessons under duress is definitely the hard way. These lessons are invaluable but they are not unknown.
    I stand by my advice to my customers and other organisations about practicing a robust Crisis process regularly, as a way to remove unnecessary pressure and allow the right team members to do their jobs during a real event.
    Thankyou for sharing this Dominic


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