In the past 12 months Graham Parker has often found himself working into the early hours. His work as head of health and safety at one of the UK’s biggest property companies has been overlaid with duties representing his professional institution as its president.
From giving keynotes at IOSH sector conferences and chairing its council to serving on awards juries and attending international conferences from Slovenia to Singapore, as well as branch and group events inside and outside the UK, since taking office in November 2016 he had dedicated 112 days to presidential duties up to late September, when IOSH Magazine interviewed him.
The other two-thirds of the year, when not formally representing IOSH, “I’d still be working on IOSH duties during the day, then doing the day job till 2 or 3am,” he says. “The understanding with my employer is that they will support me but I still have to do the job. I have had some very long hours as a result but I’ve managed it with the support of the team around me because I don’t have to spoon-feed them.”
Graham Parker career file
2007-present, Head of health and safety, Mapeley Estates
2001–2007, Group health and safety manager, Yell Group (now Hibu)
1999–2001, Group safety and quality manager, ADI Group (now G4S Aviation)
1996–1999, Health and safety officer, The Boots Company
1986–1996, Retail management, Boots the Chemist, Texas Homecare and CMS
He has no doubts that the overtime was worth it: “It’s the figurehead of IOSH and the pinnacle of any safety practitioner’s career. It’s an experience that money couldn’t buy. I couldn’t do it for two years – physically and mentally I wouldn’t be able to because it is so full-on – but I wouldn’t change a thing.”
He says his term has almost too many high points to list but lights on a recent one, heading an IOSH team advising the Barbadian government.
“We sat down with the minister [of labour] and talked about where the islands’ safety culture is now. The minister said they want to do better but don’t know how, so I’ve been able to facilitate some of the inspectors going to work in blue-chip organisations for a couple of months to get experience. Also we are trying to arrange IOSH leadership training for the ministers.
“With the support of our local members and talking to organisations such as Barbados Light and Power Company which have mature systems, they can act as mentors for other organisations or the government. So it becomes a self-sustaining model.”
I thought I had a good understanding of how my board operated but it’s far better now
Other highlights, he notes, were representing IOSH at a Buckingham Palace garden party to mark the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents’ centenary and at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations awards, where IOSH’s No Time to Lose campaign on occupational cancer was shortlisted for an excellence prize.
“Recognising we have a campaign that is world-leading, that’s fantastic,” he says, adding that he is proud IOSH’s case studies have been posted on the international carcinogen roadmap website set up by organisations including the European Commission and employers’ body Business Europe (bit.ly/2hAOXMx).
Parker’s late nights were not just spent catching up with his work for Mapeley Estates. They also reflected the fact that the institution’s members, many in other time zones, have used him as a conduit for queries and comments.
“You become a reference point for inquiries and for offloading,” he says. “Some you can redirect, some you can answer easily, some you have to say, ‘This is your issue, you need to be dealing with it’.”
This pastoral element surprised him. Sometimes, he says, he has felt like he was human resources manager for 47,000 IOSH members: “That’s the bit they don’t tell you.”
Before taking over full duties, Parker spent another busy period in 2015-16 as president-elect when the institution was going through a major change programme. The previous president, Ian Harper, had left mid-term to be replaced by past president Tim Briggs, before Karen McDonnell took over in November 2015.
“We went through dramatic cultural and structural change. We had lost our president, we had lost our chairman, so the presidential team had to work together. We hired a new chair of trustees, we hired a new chief exec, we looked at the opportunity to cleanse some of the bureaucracy.”
He worked closely with Cyril Barrett - who was temporary chair of trustees and acting chief executive until the appointment of Bev Messinger - and McDonnell and Briggs. During this period the groundwork for the current WORK 2022 strategy was carried out in preparation for the appointment of Bill Gunnyeon as head of trustees: “We had to be the leaders of the organisation.”
Parker believes theirs was the first presidential team to work so closely together. He said: “We had to do that to drive things forward. As practitioners and IOSH members, we were looking at longevity.
“This year, although I’ve been very busy we agreed we needed to maintain this co-operative approach with Karen and Craig [Foyle, who succeeds Parker as president this month]. We have very clear functions but we work together. The six-strong vice-presidential (VP) team meetings are held quarterly so it is a true team of nine.
“It’s the president-elect who runs the VP team so I handed that over to Craig last year and this year he’s been able to corral what they do and take it one step further.”
We went through dramatic cultural and structural change. We had lost our president, we had lost our chairman
The vice-presidents play an increasingly critical role as IOSH expands, Parker says, so that they can deputise for the president in the 130-plus countries where it now has members.
He is keen to stress that this ambassadorial function extends beyond the presidential team. “I want my institution to be in a position to help those who are coming into the profession but also those who are coming to retirement because they also have a role to play,” he says.
“They will have management skills they could use to mentor others. As a profession, those who are towards the end have a lot to give, whether it is through IOSH branches or speaking at colleges and schools to encourage youngsters to come in as a first career.”
Down to earth
What will it be like returning to relative normality after the presidency?
“It will be hard because the whole year has been spent on adrenaline. It will also be quite weird being in the board meeting during the day in person rather than at the end of a phone line on the other side of the world. So I’ll be getting back into a regular pattern.”
If he finds he misses the adrenaline, he says he might substitute some of it by volunteering as a first responder or to ride a blood bike (see IOSH Magazine s November 2017 Off Duty).
The year has also given him a new insight into the challenges of running a business.
“You see a side of the organisation you’ve never seen before because you are in the senior management team, you are that facilitator and it’s an experience you don’t necessarily get in a commercial organisation, where your role is very well defined.
“I thought I had a good understanding of how my board operated but it’s far better now. It’s a better perspective; I can see where things fit in.”
I couldn’t do it for two years, I physically and mentally wouldn’t be able to because it is so full on. But I wouldn’t change a thing
Parker’s 12 months centre stage may be over but he has duties to fulfil as immediate past president. He says the role is to be “grandfather of the presidential team. You are a sounding board for the new president and the president-elect. They can say, ‘This is happening, did it happen to you?’.”
There are also times when he will deputise for the president at official functions, when the latter is already engaged. “I might find myself doing 50 days international travel again, I might find myself only doing two,” he says. “But I’m there to support the president.”
In the scheme of things
As head of health and safety at Mapeley Estates, Graham Parker’s primary function is to ensure statutory compliance at the company’s properties and to guide the executive board on OSH strategy.
He reports to the finance director on safety and health matters but is line-managed by the head of the commercial team for government estates.
“We are a small team so my role is very much contract management,” he says. “Ensuring contractors are doing what they are meant to be doing.”
His direct report is a compliance audit manager who samples the estate to check standards are maintained, supported by a team of 12 auditors.
The performance metrics the company sets him are all compliance-focused, he says. “But I take government statistics and then look at how we can improve on them. So for our CDM [construction and maintenance] projects we have the latest Health and Safety Executive numbers for lost-time injuries. I’ll set a figure for our supply chain that is normally a 90% improvement on those. So I am realistic that something might happen but we will do everything we can to minimise it.”
Apart from the ceremonial function and supporting IOSH in a time of change, Parker says he has tried to promote some broader OSH priorities.
“Health has always played second fiddle [to safety] but the work we have done in the past 18 months in the institution and within the profession is great. The difficulty has been how we deal with the small enterprise. That small organisation without a health and safety manager even on a part-time basis. They don’t have that knowledge. How do we deal with the sole trader? When they did their bricklaying apprenticeship they were told how many bricks they could get on the hod carrier and how to mix the mortar. They weren’t told that if you cut a brick in half there will be silica dust and this is the effect of the silica. That’s our stumbling block.
“That’s the challenge. They still see it as health and safety getting in the way rather than it will give them another 20 years in the trade.”
He has worked with the Association for Project Safety, the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS), the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management, and the Health and Safety Executive on ways to convey information to small businesses.
“We are looking at the insurance industry,” he says, “because every organisation has to have insurance. It’s not reinventing the wheel. BOHS has the Breathe Freely campaign [on preventing lung disease] – we can include that information. And IOSH has the No Time to Lose information – we can put that in.
“We are working with a couple of insurance organisations, asking how we can incentivise the insurance industry to get that information out to their clients, so the brokers say, ‘Here’s information that will help you work safely’.”
Another route to tradespeople, he believes, is through the tax system. “They all have to pay income tax,” he says, trustingly, “so, within the mechanism of the tax return, is there a way of incentivising them to do things properly or just getting information to them?” He suggests that, in the section of the tax return where self-employed individuals and companies can note deductible expenses, there could be notes about offsetting safety equipment spending.
“As a group we have agreed to go for the insurance route first,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to come back to the tax idea.”
Another priority during his presidential year was to support the public challenges of over-prescription in the name of safety and health and to promote acceptance of acceptable risk.
He echoes Lawrence Waterman’s recent column in IOSH Magazine (bit.ly/2gooGV7) that fulminated against the UK chief inspector of schools when she complained about children being asked to wear hi-vis jackets on outings. “That’s not a safety issue, it’s a control issue so the teachers can see where the kids are,” agrees Parker. “That was the response I went back to the media with: stop blaming safety.
“I say, if you want to jump out of an aeroplane go ahead. Check your control measures. After you have those it’s up to you. If you want to take a speedboat up the Thames as a teambuilding exercise, great, enjoy it. Check all your team can swim. If they can’t, are they happy to wear lifejackets and be on that boat?
“Within my area of property management I have areas where I will accept certain levels of risk.” He says he often has to challenge contractors who insist on edge protection on any roof on which they have to work on.
“If I have a roof that is 14 storeys high but there is no edge protection and the plant is in the middle of the roof and it’s 15 m to the edge, I’m not going to insist on edge protection round the whole thing. It’s not needed because you are working in the centre.”
This brings us to Parker’s continuing work as OSH head at Mapeley Estates, whose nationwide portfolio totals 1 million sq m and houses 250 tenants, among them the Spanish-owned banking group Santander, HM’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) offices and the Crown Prosecution Service.
What are the main hazards he manages for Mapeley?
“Asbestos is one of our biggest issues,” he says, “as 95% of our estate has it in some form. So it’s about making sure our management surveys and our database are up to date and that we control access to our sites.”
This control extends beyond Mapeley’s own contractors to those of its tenants. “We have written into our lease agreements that they must come to us so we can give them approval for what they want to do. If they want to remove asbestos, we use our contractors so we can control the data and the risk.”
He says there have been a couple of occasions when the company has found out after the event that tenants have had work done that disturbed asbestos. “We have had to go in and make that safe,” he says. “Then you are checking who has been exposed and monitoring and trying to minimise the worry that people have as soon as you mention the word asbestos.”
His job is to help to ensure the company’s surveyors who carry out compliance checks understand the different risks associated with diverse tenant activities.
“We have [burger chain] Five Guys frying burgers and chips in some of our retail units, through to residential properties,” he says.
He relies on the surveyors to monitor OSH standards. “With a thousand properties I would have drowned so I had to use the resources around me and that was the surveyors.”
He has devised an OSH management system that fits with the surveyors’ existing practices.
“I learned early in my career when I was at [UK pharmacy chain] Boots that, if you create a system that is a bolt-on to the business, there is friction. So I spent my first couple of years at Mapeley looking at how the surveyors work and then giving them tools linked to what they do so that safety supports their role.
“Over the first five years I went on a journey with them so they could understand that, while doing a rent review with a tenant, there are certain questions to ask.”
He was keen not to overburden those visiting the tenants with paperwork: “I’m not asking them to fill out a 20-page questionnaire; I’m saying, ‘Depending on what you find we go this route or that route’.”
Maintenance of Mapeley’s properties is contracted out to a facilities management provider “but we are still liable”, he notes, so the company has to be sure that all the lifts have their certification up to date and that the engineers working on them are competent.
“There’s also Legionella; we have eight cooling towers on our estate. Do we have the right technicians going into the sites to do the sampling? If we get a raised reading, what do we do?” [For more on Legionella management see IOSH Magazine's November 2017 process safety feature.]
He also liaises about these issues with the estates management teams of major tenants such as HMRC.
“With an estate that’s ageing you always have challenges. Do you spend £16m on changing doors because the British Standard has changed or do you mitigate the risk by other means? You have to work with the tenants because you need their co-operation to be able to run the estate.”
Mapeley ensures contractors working on its estate are competent using a two-pronged approach.
“When we put in the current CDM [Construction (Design and Management)] contractors we interviewed 90 CDM co-ordinators and assessed their level of competence. So we go to the extent of sitting down with the subcontractors to check competence.”
The task of monitoring who is on the premises is made easier in the case of the government tenants since all contractors have to be security checked to gain admittance.
The site sample visits by Mapeley’s auditing team verify this competence is maintained in practice.
People take shortcuts because it’s easiest. So you develop an approach that people will find easy to follow, without losing sight of your standards
“In a water risk assessment [for Legionella] the auditor will check the Legionella log book to see not only that my finance director is listed as the responsible person, with his certification, but that the guy taking the sample has qualifications of a recognised standard.”
When an audit reveals a contractor is fielding staff who fall short of competence standards, they will be refused entry to Mapeley’s sites.
This zero-tolerance approach is necessary, he says, because the UK courts now sentence cases severely on the potential for harm rather than simply actual harm. He cites the case of security firm G4S Cash Solutions, fined £1.8m in 2016 for Legionella failings at its Essex head office even though no link was proved to ill health.
“I can’t afford that kind of exposure for the Mapeley board,” he says.
He takes a flexible approach to refurbishment and maintenance projects that fall under CDM, appointing people to the various statutory roles on a case-by-case basis. “Sometimes we will even make the tenant the principal designer because of the influence they have on the process. We’d have that discussion beforehand and appoint a designer to support them.”
I ask what he finds most challenging about the work. “Balancing the volume. You have over 250 tenants and they will all have their own ways of doing things. The supply chain involves national contractors and regional contractors and local FMs that are managing those buildings on your behalf. So you can’t sit back and say ‘It’s done’. Every month I am asking suppliers, ‘Where are we?, What’s happening?, What are the issues and risks?”
His career began in retail management in the 1980s.
“I became the youngest store manager for Boots at 21,” he says. “I was very ambitious, I wanted to be CEO of Boots at that stage. I also became the youngest area manager.”
He moved to the retailer’s logistics division and when the “six pack” regulations were introduced in 1992, adding detailed requirements to manage issues such as machinery and personal protective equipment and workplace maintenance, he took on the role of health and safety officer, developing safety management systems with the transport and manufacturing operation.
“It was a fantastic learning curve and one I wish I had been exposed to 20 years earlier,” he says. “On day one I thought I had found my nirvana. It was no longer a job, it was a vocation; it was instant.
“I loved it, I loved the empowerment it gave me to help people. I could say, ‘You’ve been using those knives to open pallets in the receiving area but look at your hand injuries. We can switch over to this style of knife and it will keep you safer and help you do the work’.
“I was very hands-on. In the warehouse I got a licence for every type of forklift and crane so I understood what was going on, so I understood how the machinery worked. I knew when [injury reports] were genuine and when people were just taking a couple of extra days off on sick pay.
“The unions were very strong then. When I started, their approach [to any disagreement] was ‘Stop work!’. But I built relationships so that by the time I moved on we were working together and you could hardly tell the difference between management and union because we were aligned on safety.”
He says that, as with his current post, he saw that success depended on encouraging others to take on responsibility for safety and health.
“I have always made things simple enough that you almost work yourself out of a position because that way you know it has been embedded in what they do on the shopfloor. You can then sample and make sure that what they are doing is right rather than firefighting problems all the time.”
That transfer of responsibilities, which meant that not every night was filled with work during his presidential year, works only if the OSH management is fitted closely to the culture of the organisation, he says, returning to his earlier theme. This adaptation is one of the components of good leadership.
“You have to understand the heartbeat of the organisation and how to complement its culture. So my style of leadership is a bit chameleon-like. I know what I want to do and where I need to get to, but I have to use their processes and their system.
“Human nature is to go the laziest way. People take shortcuts because it’s easiest. So you develop an approach that people will find easy to follow without losing sight of your standards.”
Leadership also relies on understanding your limitations and strengths, he observes, and working with both. “It’s about knowing when you need to ask for guidance; knowing when you need a mentor and that you can be mentored by your peer group.”
I finish by asking whether, after a year at the head of his professional body, he has any unachieved ambitions.
“I still want to help people,” he says. “This year has been an epiphany. I’ve enjoyed the unofficial mentoring and guiding and having an impact on people’s lives. I could see myself leading an organisation that is there to help people, members of a profession to get the best out of them. I still have career ambition but I’ve had time to reflect on it and want to do more.”