Leader interview

Graeme Collinson, Siemens

The engineering giant’s UK OSH head talks about learning from international incidents and keeping an eye on the risk thermostat. 


Risk perception and how it varies between individuals, companies and states is a preoccupation for Graeme Collinson. It started long before his current post as UK director of environmental protection, health and safety at the German-owned engineering group Siemens (See our In the scheme of things box further down the page). 

As international safety manager at the chemicals manufacturer AstraZeneca in the mid-1990s, he travelled widely and became interested in the variations in risk management between states and within regions, including India, Japan and South America. 

Graeme Collinson career history

2015-present:  Director of environmental protection, health and safety, Siemens
2014:  Adviser, risk and infrastructure, UK government
2008-2013:  Group director, health, safety, environment and security, Centrica
2003-2008:  Head of UK safety health and environment, AstraZeneca
1998-2003:  Director of infrastructure and engineering, AstraZeneca
1992-1998:  International safety manager, Zeneca Pharmaceuticals
1978–1992:  Civil, structural and offshore engineer, project manager, and senior engineering manager, ICI and others

“There were such different approaches and views on risk even though it was the same organisation,” Collinson says. He began to look beyond the national divisions’ approaches to the circumstances that shaped them. “Inevitably there were different environments that led to those perceptions. In South Africa the incidence of HIV and hepatitis were the big risk issues, not trapping a finger in machinery in a packing plant.”

Leaving aside these local influences, he began to focus on why lessons in controlling the risks that were prevalent across national borders were not always learned in all jurisdictions. This was the genesis of his doctorate, completed in 2010.

“It was a purely selfish thing,” he says of the PhD, though he completed it in his own time while at energy supplier Centrica. “I wanted to put some structure around the reading I was doing. Having said that, I learned things about risk pathways and how countries learned from incidents in other countries.”

Warning shocks

The Bhopal gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh in 1984 proved to be a tragic prompt for strengthening safety regulation in the US and beyond, he says, and gave rise to the Responsible Care programme to improve chemical industry safety and health, which now operates in 52 countries. 

“More recently, Texas City [the explosion and fire at a BP refinery in the US in 2005] has had a huge impact across the oil industry.”

Though he believes people learn best from their own experiences, these landmark events can substitute in focusing leaders’ minds: “The Macondo explosion [on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig off Louisiana operated by BP in 2010] sent shockwaves through boardrooms. Their interest was already great but that really catalysed it.”

His thesis noted that the risk learning pathways could also be reversed; the “risk thermostat”, a term coined by Professor John Adams of University College London to reflect the way individuals adapt their risk-taking behaviour according to experience, can be lowered as well as raised.

“Countries forget. If they have a very good record and economic times have been good then worsen, they can get a wake-up call.” On this point he chimes with former Health and Safety Executive chief executive Geoffrey Podger, who has warned of a national regulatory cycle in which a major accident is followed by tighter controls, which prove effective and are then relaxed in a deregulatory phase or withdrawal of resources because there seems no obvious need for them. The deregulation paves the way for another serious incident and the cycle begins again.

The Macondo explosion sent shockwaves through boardrooms

“I think you can apply that at a company level as well as country,” he adds.

Does recognising the danger of relaxing vigilance make him guard against it strongly in his own operations?  

“I like to think so. Where we feel we have done a good job we can never be complacent. So you need to have that process of reminders and raising consciousness.”

He says raising the potential impact of near-misses at the highest level is one way he tries to keep the salience of the safety message. “[Saying] ‘yes we have a good record but do you realise this happened and it could have been much worse?’”

His interest in risk studies led to him chairing IOSH’s research group until he took up the post with Siemens. He also serves on the health and safety committee of manufacturers’ association EEF.

Public interest

In 2014, Collinson made a sideways move into government for a year. During his previous six years at energy supplier Centrica, he had overseen a drop in accident rates by 90%. He says it was difficult to see where to go next. 

“The government at the time were looking to strengthen links with industry and it was suggested I go on to a secondment.”

He went to the Government Office for Science for most of the year, working for the chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir Mark Walport, who was preparing a major report on innovation, risk and regulation (bit.ly/1z7JfRp). Collinson’s doctorate studies made it a natural fit. As a safety professional he brought a practical understanding of the topic to the research collated for the report.

“We were talking to so many people,” he says. “We were running workshops, talking to leading academics and practitioners. There were people working in law, the arts, geography, anthropology and history, all with comments on innovation and risk which you wouldn’t think at first.”

The report embraces a huge range of risk-related issues, from the effect of neonicitinoid pesticides on bee populations to nuclear energy. Collinson liaised with authors including risk academic David Spiegelhalter and Professor Nicholas Stern, who wrote the government’s landmark report on the economic effects of climate change.

He says it reinforced his sense that risk has a radically different meaning to different people. 

“We had chapters on communicating risk,” he says, “but we also had chapters on different perspectives on risk. Mark was very keen to get those different perspectives into the report, so some of the NGOs [non-governmental organisations] were invited to write case studies as part of the evidence.

“There may be scientific views on fracking or GM [genetically modified] crops, but there is also the social view. And the government has to consider those as well.”

I observe that, though the report – as he says – embraces multiple viewpoints, it leans towards the conclusion that if innovation is to be allowed to flourish, governments cannot always observe the precautionary principle – that precludes novel products and processes when their risk level is disputed. (There is a clue in its title: Innovation: managing risk, not avoiding it.)

Collinson agrees. “There’s nothing wrong with the precautionary principle; it’s how it’s sometimes applied.

“It’s inevitable in the cycle of government that there is an element of short-termism and the [stated] benefits for making decisions are too limited. They don’t consider the benefits in the future as strongly as the potential negatives in the short term, so they tend to side with precaution.

“If I think back to when I started my career, we exposed people to more risk. I was a civil engineer but the chemical engineers who came into the organisation were running high-hazard plants very early in their careers. Straight from university I was managing a team of 50 doing civil and building work on a chemicals site. Nowadays we tend to be more cautious about how we put people into those roles.”

That lack of exposure can deny future business leaders the opportunity to develop an early understanding of the importance of safety and health. “I noticed that when Zeneca [later AstraZeneca] demerged from ICI. There was a view that they could dispense with health and safety bureaucracy, but a lot of those procedures were because ICI really cared about its people. Many of the strong leaders in the health and safety world had worked on the high hazard plants and built up that experience and knowledge. That’s harder to get now.”

I see the health and safety fraternity as trying to do the same thing as the HSE

For a few years at AstraZeneca, he moved out of the OSH function, serving as director of engineering. “Because I was responsible for apprentice and graduate schemes I was thinking ‘how can we build into these programmes a growing understanding of health and safety?’ Because it’s got to start early in people’s careers rather than be seen as an add-on.”

Current affairs

As an engineer by training, he is proud to be working for one of the world’s leading companies in the sector. In the UK, Siemens’ nine divisions sell and maintain machines ranging from trains to gas turbines and from MRI scanners to wind energy systems – its turbines supply 50% of the UK’s wind energy.

In the scheme of things

Graeme Collinson reports to Siemens’ UK chief executive, Jürgen Maier. He is a member of the UK executive management forum, which comprises the senior managers in the UK. His own team of 17 people provides advice to the company’s divisions on technical safety, health and wellbeing management and product safety, along with environmental guidance and fire warden and first aider training. It audits divisional management systems and compliance for the plc board.
At supranational level, Collinson also functions as “country EHS [environment, health and safety] officer” for the UK with a duty to ensure the UK operations conform to Siemens’ global OSH standards.
The company has nine divisions in the UK. These report through divisional lines to Germany rather than to the UK plc’s chief executive. To help ensure consistency in EHS policy and practice in the divisions, Collinson chairs an EHS board, which includes the safety heads. Its monthly meetings discuss strategy and initiatives such as the health and wellbeing programme launched this year (see box on p48). He also reports monthly to the managing directors of the businesses in an executive management board that considers the programmes proposed by the EHS board.
In addition, Siemens has a zero harm steering committee, chaired by the managing director of the wind energy division comprising senior managers from the divisions. “It’s trying to get line support for things we want to do,” says Collinson, “whether it’s minimum standards for signage or changing behaviours for driver safety. It’s trying to achieve consistency.”

Wind turbine manufacture and servicing, in particular, brings “a huge amount of risk”, often working offshore, at height with electricity, and in confined spaces. “And they are getting further and further offshore,” he notes.

The company has been working hard in these higher-hazard areas recently to improve standards. 

The speed of growth in wind turbine technology has left scope for product safety standards to reach the levels set elsewhere in Siemens with more mature products.

The company was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in December 2015, after an employee was killed when he came into contact with an unguarded gearshaft in a wind turbine while carrying out maintenance in 2009.

Collinson says there has been extensive work to improve guarding and access on the machines and instructions for operation and maintenance of what are highly complex products. On the latter, Siemens organised a workshop with the HSE and its research arm, the Health and Safety Laboratory, to simplify technical documents.

At the top of the control hierarchy, he says, the company’s designers are trying to reduce the frequency of maintenance visits, separating engineers from the need to work so often at height in confined spaces beside powerful machinery. “It makes good business sense. Visits cost money as well as bring risk.”

Having come from pharmaceuticals and energy industries, the exposure to product safety is new to Collinson. “We are selling products into the market and we need to ensure they are safe.

“The executive in the UK and the plc board have taken this hugely seriously and that’s why we are introducing much stronger governance and oversight for risk in businesses.

“Particularly in wind, where we have a steering committee, which is not just [composed of] the plc board but also managing directors from the global businesses. The plc board has been to Denmark and visited the factories and worked with global leaders. By working collaboratively across those boundaries we have driven improvements forward.”

Like most of the OSH leaders interviewed for this magazine, asked what he has most had to work on to feel comfortable in the role, he says developing the confidence to deal with top executives as peers. “Gradually I have become more acclimatised to that. And it’s so important. Treating people, senior as they may be, as people is vital.”

Rate control

The 0.61 global lost time injury rate per 200,000 hours worked quoted in the Siemens annual report conceals variations by industry and country. Overall Collinson says rates are “on a par” with competitors: “In some areas we are very good, but we could be better in others”.

However, he adds: “I’m not a great lover of accident rates as targets. I think they are indicators, but it comes back to what I was saying earlier: leaders should really understand risks in an organisation and have the confidence they are being controlled. But they should also have a questioning attitude and be dissatisfied when things aren’t right.

“So at the executive we don’t pore over statistics for hours. We have real debates with managing directors about incidents, be they actual harm or near-misses.”

He says when there are serious incidents involving Siemens workers or contractors elsewhere in the world he uses them to test controls in the UK. “We can all learn, that’s a key part of this job.”

Siemens’ 2015 annual report makes note of a programme to improve standards by vetting contractors through environment, health and safety audits by the group’s internal audit department, potentially excluding those that were below par.

If you convince enough cabbies, maybe they will spread the message


A healthy appeal

Siemens launched an initiative this year to improve mental health and wellbeing among its 15,000 UK employees.
Graeme Collinson says the springboard was a workshop last November at Siemens’ annual leadership forum, which brings together the UK’s top 200 managers. Christina Butterworth, occupational health specialist at the London Crossrail rail line – for which Siemens is providing the signalling and train control systems – was invited as a guest presenter to explain the company’s work in safeguarding mental health among the line’s construction teams.
“It really captured the imagination of the leaders there and consequently we are rolling out a major programme,” says Collinson.
The issue of mental health had been on his and others’ agendas in the organisation but the forum focused minds and helped break a taboo about discussing the issue.
The staff engagement survey results also served as a catalyst for the forum’s discussions: “It was not so much the quantitative but the qualitative data; the words of employees which indicated in the current pressurised world that we need to help them build resilience.
“In the forum we had leaders talking about it at their tables and the room had gone from being very vibrant and dynamic to quiet. Everybody was talking but in low voices and listening to compelling stories. It was remarkable how many people had encountered some of these issues.”
The company is now running workshops for managers and all staff on building resilience and spotting stress warning signs, including a self-assessment tool. It has also launched an online training course. Siemens is planning a follow-up session at November’s leadership forum to review progress and next steps.

Collinson says the standards set by the major construction contractors in the UK have not necessitated as many exclusions here.

“We have a programme in the wind power business working with the HSE because we are helping develop approaches for the industry at the moment.”

However, he worries about the unintended consequences of the UK’s new sentencing guidelines for safety and health offences and the substantial increases in penalties they have ushered in for larger organisations.

“While I believe it is right that companies are fined appropriately – and there have been some pretty paltry fines in the past – I just wonder if the way it is structured, in terms of looking at companies’ records, could lead to lack of [accident] reporting.

“I think if something goes wrong at a company that is really striving to do the right thing and working collaboratively with the HSE all people will hear about is the big fine, which could give the wrong impression.”

At AstraZeneca, Centrica and Siemens, Collinson has collaborated closely with the HSE. He sees it as a strong partner and will fight to preserve that approach. “I see the health and safety fraternity as trying to do the same thing as the HSE. We are trying to save lives, minimise injuries and maximise health, so I think we should work together closely.”

Starting point

We end by going back to the beginning of Collinson’s formal OSH career, when he was working for ICI at Grangemouth in the east of Scotland, managing a team of engineers overhauling the chemical plant. He was involved in following up serious incidents and seeing through safety programmes involving contractors and the unions to improve standards. 

“Then the international safety role in pharmaceuticals came up and I applied for it,” he recalls.

The shift to a corporate role was a big change from the hustle and bustle of site operations. “It was wonderful though. You had the chance to go out and talk to line managers, and, having been a line manager, I understood the issues they faced.”

He has never regretted the move. “It is an honourable profession. But we still have too many deaths and injuries in this country and globally.”

This focus on the personal cost of injury and the moral imperative to prevent it is something he believes needs restating.

“Coming from a high-hazard industry and working for ICI, the ethic of caring for people was built into the organisation and I think, as we have increased focus on the legal and financial side, we may have lost sight a little of the fact that caring for individuals is what it’s all about. To me it’s not about the legal side or the financial side. Yes, they are factors but it’s about preventing injury.”

It’s a view he is rightly happy to preach to the unconverted: “When you are in a taxi in London and the driver asks you what line of business you are in and you say ‘health and safety’ you often get that [negative] reaction. But I see that as a challenge. I have that journey to try to convince them of the importance of the job. That it’s not about the nanny state cosseting people, it’s a really important profession. If you convince enough cabbies, maybe they will spread the message.”



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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