Leader interview

Emily Ramsay, Forestry Commission

The OSH head at Britain’s biggest landowner talks about logging, lone working and factoring leisure benefits into the risk control equation. 


Words: Louis Wustemann
Pictures: James Robertshaw

OSH managers spend their days trying to ensure their organisations’ controls are robust enough to prevent major accidents. For many, their worst fear is that some combination of unforeseen circumstances will combine with fatal results. For Emily Ramsay CMIOSH it’s not so much a matter of whether this will happen, but when.

Ramsay is head of safety, health, and environment at the Forestry Commission, the UK government department responsible for 700,000 hectares of land in England and Scotland. Though the commission has many more benign responsibilities, such as plant research and providing visitor attractions, its forestry management activities – logging mature trees on 32,000 hectares in England in 2015-16 and providing three million cu m of softwood from Scottish forests – make it the biggest operator in one of the most hazardous industrial sectors. Forestry has a fatality rate three times that of construction.

Emily Ramsay career file

1990-present:    Head of safety, health and environment, Forestry Commission
1982-1990:        HR adviser, Forestry Commission

I ask how knowing that serious accidents will happen conditions Ramsay’s attitude to them.

“I think it means we are more prepared for them,” she says. “You do know it is going to happen and you think ‘what am I going to do when it does?’ As a team we think about what we can do to support people when it happens – the people who are directly involved. The chances are they knew the person and you probably didn’t. That’s what you are doing immediately after. Then you are into the full investigation.

“So you are prepared for it but at the same time you are expending all your energy to stop it happening and you can’t just accept that it’s going to happen.”

Saw point

The Forestry Commission is the UK’s largest landowner and employs around 2,000 people, including wildlife rangers, plant scientists and engineers maintaining its road and off-road fleets. But it is also dependent on thousands more contractors engaged in timber harvesting and civil engineering, building and maintaining its network of roads five times the length of the UK motorway network.

It is the workers in these last two categories that face the greatest risk of major injury, and the Forestry Commission as landowner and client remains responsible for protecting them.

Increasingly, timber harvesting and woodland thinning by foresters wielding chainsaws have been replaced by mechanical harvesters that fell trees using saws at the end of crane arms, cut them into predetermined lengths, and stack them. The logs are then loaded onto tractor and trailer units known as forwarders, which extract them to the edge of the forest where they will be taken to timber mills for processing.

Only about 2% of the felling is carried out by chainsaw, on land too steep for mechanical harvesters or where trees are too large. Yet this is still where many of the most serious accidents occur. “Over the past three or four years we have had fatal and serious chainsaw accidents at the rate of three or four a year,” says Ramsay.

The saws themselves cause fewer injuries than falling tree limbs and trunks, which can drop at unexpected angles or bounce off other trees and hit the feller or other workers. “People don’t always observe the risk zones around the trees,” Ramsay says.

Chainsaw users have required certificates of competence since the early 1990s, but recently the industry added an extra layer of five-yearly training to refresh skills and update operators in new techniques.

For somebody to come along and say of a chainsaw ‘that’s a really high-risk tool’ meets resistance

The training is voluntary in most of the sector but the Forestry Commission mandates it for its own and contracted foresters. It came about as a result of the Forestry Industry Safety Accord (FISA), set up by the major businesses and the commission to lead on safety after a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) summit in 2012 intended to focus the industry’s minds on its fatality rate at the time of 10.5 per 100,000 workers.

FISA convened working groups to improve guidance and training on the major forestry hazards. 

“It’s still in its infancy,” Ramsay says, “but it’s definitely making progress.”  

She says the Forestry Commission is also looking at moving up the safety hierarchy to try to design out chainsaw work. 

“Every forest has a forest design plan, and in that plan they will design which part [of the forest] is coming out when. Decisions are made in the plan ten years before you are going to fell. And then at the three- to five-year stages you are marking the trees. By the time you start the work, the decisions about which trees are going have already been made. We are doing work with the HSE and the forest industry on forest planning. There may be areas where we could leave the trees.”

Another option would be to plan more roads into dense forest to give better access for the mechanical harvesters.

But there are cultural hurdles to overcome: “For a lot of people in forestry the chainsaw is the tool of choice. It’s not scary, it’s what they are used to. And for somebody to come along and question it and say ‘that’s a really high-risk tool’ meets resistance. It’s like the construction industry; you had roofers who thought of working at height: ‘well that’s just what we do’.”

Cable ties

In the scheme of things

The Forestry Commission is run by a board of commissioners, below which sits an executive board, then bodies which cover Scotland, England and the forest research board. Emily Ramsay is part of a shared services operation, including finance and human resources (HR), that provides support to the English, Scottish and research boards and the whole organisation. 
She reports to the HR director and sits on the HR management board. She leads on provision of safety, health and environment policy, advice, audit, incident investigation and liaison with the rest of the forestry industry on OSH matters.  
She has a team of five and-a-half, including two safety advisers with regional responsibilities for Scotland and England, plus three experts in recreation, utilities and windfarms and plant health. All have side specialisms, such as pesticides or chainsaw safety.
Her advisers are dispersed across the organisation and spend their time out at commission centres and forests, while for her it is closer to one-third , with the remainder in the office.

Another cause of the most serious accidents is employees and contractors striking electrical services. “It’s mainly overhead lines,” says Ramsay, “but also increasingly underground services because we are doing more urban forestry and there are more windfarms in forests.”

Avoiding electrical strikes is the focus of one of the FISA working groups, but Ramsay’s own team has worked hard on reducing the risk on commission-owned land. This was spurred on partly by a fatality on the Isle of Skye in 2011, when a contractor was loading timber stacks and his extended crane grab hit the 130,000V main power line between the island and the Western Isles.

Her team has encouraged more near-miss reporting from people working near electrical services, particularly where the “goalpost” gateways erected under overhead lines to demonstrate the maximum safe height for vehicles passing under are broken or missing.

As with safe work with chainsaws, the commission has found that more training does not always reduce the serious accidents.

“The audits have found that quite often people have been trained but they aren’t necessarily working in the way they were trained,” Ramsay says. “We are now trying to get under the skin of why that is.”

She believes the solution is in managers and leaders reinforcing positive behaviour rather than just picking up non-compliance. Her team will work with managers to encourage them to praise those who re-erect goalposts that have been knocked down, for example, or who report a near-miss. Encouraging good behaviour is critical “because we work in a rural environment and there aren’t lots of people. If one person walks past a fallen goalpost, there won’t be 20 more passing, so you really want that one person to pick it up”.

If we took 5% or 10% off the slips and trips total that would be a great improvement

After the Skye fatality, the commission revamped its contractor management system. In timber harvesting, the organisation follows several extraction models. These range from one in which it fells the timber and takes it out of the forest using its own resources to one that is fully contracted out, in which it sells the trees in situ and the buyer harvests and transports them. In all cases, the commission retains the safety responsibilities of the landowner and in some cases it is also the forestry works manager, analogous to a principal contractor on a construction site.

In 2014, it introduced a pre-commencement “gateway” system. This requires contractors to provide evidence of competence to pass the first gateway and an agreed risk assessment and method statement to pass the second. Before, the contractors might arrive on site still promising to provide competency documentation or other safety information. “We are very clear now that if people don’t get through the gateways they can’t start work,” says Ramsay. 

The safety team also introduced a traffic-light system for work in progress. A contract manager who sees unsafe acts on a site can pause work (amber signal) or halt it (red) until the main contractor has taken measures to make the situation safe to resume work. She says the commission consulted contractors fully about these new procedures: “We couldn’t impose them on the industry.”

Sideways move

Ramsay joined the Forestry Commission in 1982 as a graduate entrant to the civil service after taking a degree in history and politics. She served in the human resources (HR) department for ten years, gaining a postgraduate qualification in HR management. 

Leader-interview-Emily-Ramsay-Forestry-Commission-sitting-bench“For my dissertation I had worked with Hewden Stuart plant hire on the safety of mobile mechanics,” she says. “So when the [head of health and safety] job came up, I thought ‘I could do that’.”

She was the first female non-forester to gain an OSH post in forestry and was conscious of working in a male-dominated world.

“In 1993 I went to a conference of the Institution of Civil Engineers agricultural group. I was a speaker and there were 100 people and the only other woman there was the secretary to the chair.”

The balance has shifted only a little since, she says. Does that condition the way she works? 

“It makes me work harder,” she says.

On occasion it is easiest to try not to stand out: “You go to the pub and become ‘one of the boys’.”

But at other times she can use her status to question the orthodoxy. “Sometimes I think the guys have a herd mentality and I can say ‘wait a minute…’,” reflecting a willingness to challenge, which she believes is an important trait in a safety leader. Latterly she has learned that the need to show strength should not make her impervious to challenge herself. 

“If you are used to standing up for yourself a lot of the time, you are not always thinking self-reflectively and being open to challenge. That’s something I’ve worked on improving.”

Her job has been made easier over the years by a growing credibility for the OSH profession in forestry as industry leaders recognise that poor safety equals poor productivity.

She believes that leadership involves setting a good example. Three years ago, the Forestry Commission HR department started to enforce a clear-desk policy for data protection purposes.

“I said ‘I never have anything on my desk that’s confidential; what’s the problem?’ Then I had a lightbulb moment where I thought ‘Emily, you are on the HR management board, it’s not about you, it’s about how others see you’. It made me think it’s not about what people hear from leaders, it’s what they see.”

Kept busy

Parks and recreation

Apart from being the UK’s biggest landowner, the Forestry Commission has grown to be one of the country’s biggest providers of recreational facilities and visitor attractions.
“We have a huge countryside recreation function,” says Emily Ramsay. “We have walking trails, mountain bike trails, rallying, concerts – we are now the fifth largest concert promoter in Britain.” 
The commission manages some of these directly, while franchisees run others, such as the Go Ape Segway tours and zip-wire adventure rides.
Anticipating this growth two decades ago, Ramsay was a founder member of the Visitor Safety in the Countryside Group (VSCG). It began as an informal networking group where she met safety practitioners from the National Trust and British Waterways to exchange experiences and advice.
In the late 1990s the VSCG drew up guiding principles for countryside recreation and a risk matrix setting levels of expected self-reliance on the part of visitors to countryside areas and different levels of supervision.
The principles (vscg.org/guiding-principles) state that anyone tasked with assessing risk to countryside visitors should take all reasonable steps to minimise risk but should also take into account benefits “such as those arising from participation in educational, leisure and recreation activities, conservation of habitats, species, landscape and heritage”.
They also caution against introducing controls that spoil the visitor experience.
The VSCG has worked with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on incorporating allowance for the benefit of access to nature in the risk control equation.
“It’s not really there in the Health and Safety at Work Act but we have got HSE to understand we need to balance risk with societal benefit,” says Ramsay.

Ramsay’s 26 years managing safety in the same organisation have been sustained by the sheer variety of hazards the organisation’s activities present. Aside from logging, there are other dangerous aspects to managing woodlands. 

“We plant millions of trees every year and that involves chemicals to protect against insect attacks, plus all the manual handling on rough terrain associated with planting. We do a lot of wildlife management involving rangers using firearms to control the squirrels, deer and wild boar who damage the trees.”

There are also substantial quarrying operations on the Forestry Commission’s land, and the organisation has become a major organiser of concerts and outdoor events (see the Parks and recreation box).

Hazards also rise in the priority order and claim more attention. In recent years the number of cases of Lyme disease, spread by infected ticks commonly found in woodland, has doubled among Forestry Commission staff. The disease can lead to aching joints, heart palpitations and fatigue, recurring for years in some cases.

“It’s one of our big concerns now,” she says. “There are different theories for the increase. It might be climate change causing warmer, damper conditions.”

The commission has produced an information card for employees and contractors to carry, explaining the symptoms and how to deal with tick bites. The commission has also supplied data for a mapping project by Raigmore Hospital in Inverness and the University of the Highlands and Islands to chart areas of greatest concentration of the disease. 

The commission’s safety team has recently trialled tick-proof overgarments, impregnated with pyrethroid insecticide. The trials were successful and the protective clothing is now offered to all field staff. 

Rather than focus on the major hazards at the expense of everything else, she has been determined to attend also to some of the lesser ones that contribute substantially to staff absence figures.

“Around 35% of our RIDDOR [Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations] accidents are slips and trips and something like 20% are manual handling,” she notes. “People think slips and trips are part of the job on rough terrain, so how could we ever eliminate them? What we have been trying to do is to persuade them that if we took 5% or 10% off the total that would be a great improvement.”

All inclusive

After the Forestry Safety Summit in 2012, the Forestry Commission decided to examine the state of its safety culture. Psychologist Dr Tim Marsh spent half a day with the commission’s executive board discussing culture and leadership. 

The commission consulted its workforce extensively on how they believed safety should be managed, Ramsay recalls. 

“The chair of the board of commissioners worked with the trade unions and safety reps to produce a short video and we set a week aside where people had time to look at the video and have a chat over a bacon roll and suggest three things we could do better.”

The feedback from staff in the consultation fed into a new safety strategy and action plan in 2014.

The local and national health and safety committees comprised management, reps from civil servants’ union PCS and Unite and non-unionised employee representatives have become much more active in recent years, she says.

Among the areas the consultation flagged as ripe for improvement were driver safety and lone workers. Ramsay made sure these suggestions were acted on.

For lone workers the organisation had a well-established system that requires people to leave a voicemail before working alone remotely, saying where they will be and for how long. If they fail to call the contact centre at the end of the specified period, emergency procedures are triggered.

Since many lone workers visit remote forest areas with poor mobile phone coverage, and because if an injured person cannot draw attention to themselves rescuers may lose vital time finding them, the commission has now overlaid the contact arrangements with SPOT trackers using the global positioning system to pinpoint a worker’s location every five minutes.

“It leaves what we call a breadcrumb trail,” she says. “It may not be perfect, because they might lose satellite contact because of the [forest] canopy. But you can see where a person has gone. It’s given staff a lot of reassurance.”

When Peoplesafe, which operates the phone contact system, alerts a forest district team and says a worker has not logged in at the expected time, the team members can see the worker’s last satellite grid reference and the trail on a smartphone or computer.

The forest district teams have started practising lone worker emergency response either as part of their annual health and safety days or unannounced as they would carry out fire drills.

Ramsay says the commission is also looking at whether it could move up the control hierarchy, as with logging, and design out more risk: “When we restock a forest, is there more we could do to reduce the amount of time someone will have to spend remotely?” 



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.


  • Excellent article providing

    Permalink Submitted by ann holmes on 31 December 2016 - 12:53 pm

    Excellent article providing an understandable insight into practical risk management. Especially the awareness of human perception of danger influencing. Emily has made a difference.

  • Ms Ramsay has great attitude.

    Permalink Submitted by David C on 14 February 2017 - 10:32 am

    Ms Ramsay has great attitude. A complex industry, much has been achieved over time and more will flow with the sort of vision and commitment set out.
    A great leader article.


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