Leader interview

Dylan Roberts, Skanska

The Swedish construction giant’s UK OSH director talks about creating injury-free environments one day at a time. 

Image credits: Andrew Firth

Dylan Roberts is concerned about remotely operated plant. In the week before our interview a small remote-controlled piling rig used to install fenceposts on the A14 road upgrade project in East Anglia had toppled over. Nobody was within striking distance but Roberts says: “Had somebody been adjacent to it, it could have been fatal, so we class it as a potentially fatal incident. We are looking at what really happened and asking, ‘What are the learning points’?”

He notes that a Balfour Beatty subcontractor on the M3 motorway was fatally injured in 2015 by a remotely controlled vacuum excavator’s boom. In Skanska’s rail infrastructure division, a remotely operated Brokk demolition robot also recently tipped over into a void, pulling on its power cable which struck its operator on the back of the legs. “Have we got a trend here with remotely operated plant?” he asks. “We believe we have.”

He says the safety benefits – and health advantages in terms of distance from noise and vibration – that remote operation brings may also introduce an element of complacency. “Is there a risk here that people say, ‘Well it’s remotely operated, we’ve removed a risk from somebody falling off it or being crushed by it because we’re a bit further away’?”

Dylan Roberts career file

2008-present: Director, health and safety, Skanska UK
1999-2006: Health and safety director, McNicholas
1996-1999: Project team member, Jubilee Line Extension, London Underground

Roberts offers the example of spotting emerging hazards as an important part of his role as director, health and safety for the 6,000 employees and thousands more contractors working for the UK division of the Swedish-owned construction contractor, whose 2015 global revenue was £13.7bn.

The UK’s nine business divisions range over many aspects of development, construction and buildings engineering, from hospital building to mechanical and electrical installation and facilities contracting. A central function has the role of watching for group-wide risk patterns and planning to mitigate them.

Dylan-Roberts-Skanska-career-fileAnother part of Roberts’ role is to make sure that group-wide and division-specific initiatives resonate with the workforce. A campaign to reduce underground service strikes, for example, is important to the utilities business but not to the facilities management division “because they very rarely break ground. So it’s being able to choose priorities and help the leadership team select areas where we can focus our time and attention so what we do works broadly across the organisation.”

The risk of group-wide initiatives that have less relevance in some areas than others is that some employees become disengaged from OSH messages.  “That’s one of the reasons why wellbeing is so important to the organisation,” he says. “It applies to everybody, as does occupational health.”

Another example of a cross-cutting campaign is one on pre-task planning and pre-task briefing now under way to make sure tasks are carefully thought-out and everyone is prepared before work starts: “That applies broadly across the whole organisation whether you are in facilities or utilities, whether you are on the A14 project or whether you’re cleaning out a drain somewhere.”

Map reading

Skanska’s businesses follow a global safety and health roadmap, intended to lead them from compliance with regulations to best in class. The businesses assess their progress annually against the markers in the roadmap and draw up action plans to reach more advanced stages, much in the way professionals use competency frameworks to drive their individual development.

The roadmap has five measures of safety and health performance, known as the “five Cs”: culture; communication; competency; controls; and contracting. Roberts says each business division in each country will determine its own priorities according to its level of maturity in each of the five categories.

“It gives us a consistent framework from the group but in terms of the ownership it means that the managing director and his or her business own that plan. Otherwise it would be Dylan Roberts saying, ‘Here’s a plan, how can you move to the next level in communication?’ If one of those businesses has fantastic communication, that’s not going to work.”

Have we got a trend here with remotely operated plant? We believe we have

Instead, Roberts and the leadership team, made up of senior representatives of the UK divisions (see box above), discuss and approve each business’s action plans, encouraging more ambitious targets where they think they are achievable.

The metrics used to measure progress against the action plans and on the roadmap are leading indicators as well as lagging ones, such as accident rates. In the competency element, he says, the measures include whether all of the business’s directors have completed the IOSH Leading Safely course for senior executives, whether all field managers have completed the five-day Site Safety Plus course accredited by the Site Management Safety Training Scheme, and whether suppliers’ managing directors have been through Skanska’s orientation session on creating injury-free environments.

The team also agrees the cross-cutting OSH priorities for all nine UK business divisions. These currently include loading and offloading operations as well as the pre-task planning and briefing.

“We’ve had some potential fatalities last year in the UK with offloading of equipment and plant,” he says. “And there were five fatalities globally in the past eight years involving offloading operations. That needs a very technical sort of solution. How do you ensure the load’s safe when it arrives? How do you ensure you have all the [offloading] equipment?”

The data that drives these country-wide campaigns and initiatives comes from accident and near-miss reports, audits and inspections. But Roberts wants to go further: “We’re not making enough use today of the data in terms of really mining it.”

In the scheme of things

“My role is very much one of influence and advice,” says Dylan Roberts. “And being very selective on where we should put our attention and focus because we’re a very complex organisation in terms of structure.”
Roberts is responsible for steering safety and health in Skanska’s nine UK business divisions, which range from utilities and civil contracting to facilities services and mechanical and electrical installations.
Roberts reports to Skanska’s UK chief executive. Previously he reported to executive vice-president Greg Craig but when Craig moved up to the top job in April he decided to retain direct responsibility for safety and health.
He has 13 direct reports, including senior safety managers in each of the divisions plus three heads of “enabling functions”: occupational health, OSH education and training, and the company’s injury-free environment programme, which promotes cultural change. The divisional senior OSH staff report directly up to Roberts but work day to day with the managing directors in their businesses.
Below these reports there are 130 staff in the UK businesses working on safety, health and wellbeing.
He also sits on Skanska’s global leadership team with 12 of his peers from other countries, working to align safety and health standards across the group.
“The other thing we have in the UK is a health and safety steering group,” he says. “That’s chaired by my boss and that has operational representatives from each group within the operating units.” These 11 senior managers represent activities rather than divisions, including subcontracting, managing contractor and joint venture work and facilities and maintenance. “I’m the only health and safety person in the group – others are either heads of functions,” he says. The group steers the UK businesses’ policies, procedures and systems.
Finally, Roberts sits on the UK Injury-Free Environment Leadership Team, “which tends to talk about the culture of the organisation and the behaviour of people”. He says the injury-free group and the OSH steering group have similar status but mostly different members.

Heading off

He aims to develop the use of predictive analysis. “Can we spot in advance where the next incident is coming from? Where the trend is heading, rather than having an event involving remote control operation of the plant and saying, ‘Goodness, we need to do something about this now’.”

Cross-referencing the potentially serious near-misses and weighting by significance the OSH data the centre receives is the next step: “We’ve got that data, but what we’re not doing enough of now is trending it and aligning that with our incident reports, near-miss reports, our inspections and our audits. They’re tending to sit rather in isolation.”

The emphasis in the safety teams over the past 18 months on the concept of “potential fatalities”, rating incidents on what could have happened rather than the actual outcome, is a step towards the ability to predict and head off serious accidents, he says. “It’s also creating a huge amount of energy in the business and a great deal of concern.”

The new concept has reduced the UK arm’s focus on Skanska’s global accident metric: lost-time accidents. “It isn’t the right measure for us,” Roberts says, “because I believe we have a very good reporting culture in the UK. So we have people who walk across what appears to be a perfectly level piece of tarmac. They trip up, twist an ankle and are unable to work the following day. That’s a lost-time accident. If you have six of those in the first quarter of the year, is that the right place to put your attention? You might have one potential fatality but, because it didn’t result in injury, it’s not a lost-time accident. As much as you want to prevent the trips, it’s not necessarily the right place to be spending your time.”

Another area in which he believes the company still has work to do is in its use of visualisation technology, such as that offered by computerised building information modelling (BIM) systems, to help to reduce risk at the planning stage. “Many more clients are demanding that we build the job in BIM before they will sign off the contract,” he says, offering Anglian Water and Thames Water as examples.

“I can show you some amazing things the guys are doing regarding [modelling] trenches and virtual reality, so you actually feel as though you’re in an excavation.”

Dylan-Roberts-Skanska-scheme-of-thingsHe would like to see such technology used more consistently to visualise and control risk before jobs start: “If you said now, ‘Dylan, this sounds amazing. Can you show me an example?’ I can show you one. But if you asked for an example in every one of our businesses, that’s a bit tougher. So it’s getting it used consistently [that’s the challenge].”

Collective responsibility

I note that the company’s 2016 annual report (bit.ly/2sPO7Dr) says “at all operational levels every Skanska employee should be a manager of risk”. How is that responsibility made clear to the workforce?

Roberts says the message that risk perception and control is everyone’s duty starts at induction. All Skanska’s employees and contractors go through a four-hour orientation session as part of the injury-free environments (IFE) programme. “That is geared towards treating people as equals,” he says. Each induction includes a half-hour session by a senior staff member – Roberts does his share – who explains why they are personally committed to safe workplaces. After the senior manager has left, the inductees are encouraged to discuss whether they are convinced by that person’s authenticity. “Do we really believe them? How committed do we really think they are? And that’s absolutely an open and honest conversation.”

The orientation then moves on to Skanska’s expectations of its staff or anyone working on its sites: that no work should be carried out unsafely and that everyone has the duty to challenge unsafe behaviour and to be open to challenge themselves. 

“Our head of communications had been on an IFE [induction] and she challenged somebody in the car park over not reverse-parking,” he says. “She said she was petrified. It is a reminder that it takes a lot of guts to do that.”

He says the injury-free environments programme emphasises the need for safe behaviour everywhere and that a lot of stories employees offer about improving safety relate to their home lives. Such examples are valuable, he believes, “because we need a programme that applies to people in the offices as well as people out on the tools. That’s how we try to make it personal to people.”

It’s only once you understand what’s driving them that you can argue your case with that client

I ask if he sees the injury-free campaign, launched in 2009, as working towards an achievable goal or simply an ideal that it is important to get as close to as possible. (Skanska’s global lost-time accident rate was 2.8 per million hours worked in 2016, a drop from 3.3 in 2015, after three years when it remained broadly level.)

“Will we ever get to an injury-free environment? If we started to measure at 8:00 this morning and everybody goes home safe at the end of today, we got there today.”

He notes that on a project to redevelop the Royal London Hospital in east London, the workforce came within a week of three years without a lost-time accident when a worker tripped down stairs and pulled a ligament. It is important to concentrate on the positive achievement in such cases, he says.

“We should be really pleased with everything they achieved over that period and how disappointed they were that somebody was injured. That’s the place we want to get to. And when that person comes back to work, you want to look after them, not treat them like a pariah.”

After a fatality anywhere in the group’s global operations, Skanska’s safety teams hold “stand-downs” throughout the divisions for between half an hour and an hour to discuss what happened and potential lessons.

Roberts contrasts these with “stand-ups”, briefing sessions with positive messages to sustain the momentum of the injury-free environments programme.

“The last one we had was about mindfulness,” says Roberts of the stand-ups. “How can we maintain presence in mind? What techniques do we have to catch ourselves and think, ‘Actually I’m getting a bit complacent about this now’?” Employees were encouraged to be conscious of the habits and distractions that accumulate at work. “All those influences that make us have lapses of concentration, sometimes with terrible consequences.”

Dylan-Roberts-Skanska-profile-viewStarting point

Roberts’ first job was a swift baptism in hazardous work. In the mid-1980s he became an apprentice overhead linesman for Merseyside and North Wales Electricity Board, climbing 12 m poles in all weathers to fix electricity supply lines. “When it’s blowing a gale and raining everybody wants to have their electricity on. They don’t really care about the linesman up the pole outside with the electricity literally running around the back of their neck,” he says.

He was one of a team of six apprentices seconded from Wales to East Anglia to help restore power supplies in the aftermath of the major storm that struck England with hurricane-force winds in October 1987. “One of my fellow apprentices, a man called Ian Price, fell from a pole and died,” he says. “He was 18. That was one of the things that really drew me to safety.”

Another was an incident away from work on a bank holiday weekend, when he was first on the scene at a road accident and gave first aid to a young passenger, who later died, and to the driver, who survived.

“I managed to convince the driver to not get up because he’d been thrown out of the vehicle. That saved him in terms of [avoiding] spinal injuries, I was told … Those kinds of events shape you.”  

He took unpaid leave to study for two years on day release for a Higher National Certificate in electrical engineering.

When he married, his wife was keen to return to her native south-east England, so in 1996 he went to work on London Underground’s Jubilee Line Extension installing the power distribution system at the new stations. After a move to civil construction contractor McNicholas, he asked to switch to OSH management. It was a natural move, he says: “Risk assessments and safe systems were bread and butter to me; I’d always been involved in writing them or following them.”

The shift to a health and safety adviser job came with a £10,000-a-year pay cut, “which, when you’re fairly newly married, with a young child and moving down south, was quite an ask”.

He studied for an OSH diploma and was promoted rapidly there to health and safety manager and then to McNicholas’s director of safety. Skanska acquired McNicholas in 2006. “So I came across to here and was appointed director of health and safety for their utilities business.”

I observe it was a relatively fast ascent from becoming a practitioner to a senior job in a major contractor.

“I suppose I had an easier passage in that it was familiar territory because they were both utilities,” he says, “so that helped. But I’d been working with [electricity network operator] National Grid as a client for many years, so I was used to high-risk environments and demanding blue-chip clients.”

High maintenance

On the subject of demanding clients, I note that in these pages last year Andy Sneddon, then OSH head at Vinci, another major construction contractor, bemoaned the fact that some organisations try to insist their suppliers conform to safety initiatives and standards that overlay poorly on the contractors’ own sophisticated programmes. Does Roberts share Sneddon’s frustration?

“I think it is hard,” he says. “But you have to go into it with the mindset that you don’t know everything, and there may be merits in looking at and understanding others’ approaches. It’s only once you understand what’s driving them that you can argue your case with that client and say, ‘Have you really thought about this?’”

There is scope to learn from good clients, he says. On London’s Crossrail project to build an east-west train line, all the contractors were required earlier in the decade to sign up to the construction logistics and cycle safety (CLOCS) scheme, which requires heavy vehicles to be fitted with safety aids.

Dylan-Roberts-Skanska-in-conversation“I don’t think anyone took that seriously until Crossrail turned around and said, ‘Unless you’ve got to the standard you’re not coming on to our site’. And on a Monday morning they turned away lorry after lorry. They really stood their ground. We all looked at that and said, ‘You know what? You’re absolutely right. We should all be doing this properly and not paying lip service to it’. And that’s what we did.”

Joint ventures between contractors can present the opportunity for contractors to influence each other and raise standards under the aegis of an enlightened client. He cites the Eight2O consortium of contractors undertaking major works for the water utility Thames Water under its OSH director, Karl Simons. “Karl’s view was, ‘I want this to be the best-performing alliance there is. I have chosen the best contractors. I want you guys to work out how you can do this but we’re going to do it one way and you will all be consistent’.”

That framework allowed each of the contractors to promote their own areas of particular concern, which in Roberts’ case was the Fleet Operator Recognition Scheme (FORS), which encourages safer vehicle operation, and the CLOCS standard “which we’ve done a huge amount of work on now”. Thames Water and the other contractors agreed to adopt the FORS and CLOCS standards across the project.

Leading indicators

What are the most important lessons he has learned about leadership? “To be humble and to work on relationships.”

Trying to understand others’ perspectives is vital, he believes, and maintaining a flexibility and openness to new ideas. He relates the story of Winston Churchill who once sent a telegram to the economist John Maynard Keynes saying, “Am coming round to your point of view.” Keynes replied, “Sorry to hear it. Have started to change mine.”

Being decisive when needed and able to point to concrete achievements is also important to inspire confidence as a leader, Roberts says. He cites Skanska’s development and mandating on his watch of anti-entrapment devices on mobile elevating work platforms after a fatality in which an operator was crushed as the elevating cage hit an overhead obstacle.

“You need things people can anchor to in terms of having made a difference. It’s a bit like being a Premier League football manager. If you haven’t any trophies in the cabinet, it’s hard to say you’ve done a fantastic job.”

Does anything worry him? “The inability to prevent injuries. The amount of time, effort, planning and resources you can put in and still not guarantee that nothing’s going to happen.

“But that is what drives me, I suppose. Can I sleep at night feeling I’ve done as much as I possibly could? Did I put the effort into the right areas today to prevent something happening? If I’ve done that, it’s probably as much as I can do.”



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.

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