Leader interview

Heather Bryant, Balfour Beatty

The resurgent infrastructure and construction services group’s OSH head is driving down accident rates with carefully phased programmes. 

Pictures: Andrew Firth

“Some people will say ‘you can’t do zero harm, that’s just ridiculous’ but how come we have sites that can go for years and years without harm? We are saying that day by day you always have to aim for zero harm and we expect those gaps to get bigger and bigger so sites go for more and more years [with no accidents].”

Heather Bryant’s commitment to zero harm is impressive. Apart from the objections she alludes to –against the whole idea of committing an organisation to something that is possibly unachievable – there is the fact that, when she took over the most senior OSH post at Balfour Beatty, she inherited zero harm as an established programme whose success had been mixed.

The infrastructure group, which turned over £6.9bn in 2017 and was previously responsible for projects such as the London Olympics Aquatics Centre and the Channel Tunnel rail link, had missed a self-imposed date to end all serious accidents by 2012 and had even sustained a tick-up in its rates for lost-time incidents.

Heather Bryant career file

2016-present, Health, safety, environment and sustainability director, Balfour Beatty Plc

2015-2016, UK health and safety director, Balfour Beatty Plc

2014-2015, Health and safety director, Balfour Beatty Construction Services

2013-2014, Chief inspector of construction, Health and Safety Executive

2008-2013, Divisional director, HSE

2005-2008, Head of operations, south-east England, HSE

2004-2005, Project manager, HSE

2001-2004, HM principal inspector, HSE

1987-2001, Various roles, HSE field inspectorate

Undaunted, Bryant, previously the Health and Safety Executive’s chief inspector of construction – in common with IOSH Magazine's May issue leader interviewee Kevin Myers – decided to double down on the programme.

“The previous definition of zero harm was that there were no permanently disabling injuries,” she explains. “We said that’s ridiculous. We aren’t just interested in people not being permanently disabled, we want them not to be harmed at all. So we very quickly changed that to say zero harm means no injuries, ill health or incidents caused by work activities.”

Pared back

Bryant’s main interventions to refocus the zero harm programme were to streamline the number of OSH objectives into a simplified set of group-wide campaigns – fitted to a revamp of the company’s business model under the banner Build to Last – and to pace the initiatives so the workforce was not overloaded.

People wanted to do the right thing, they just needed some help and support to do tha

“There were too many things going on,” she says of the period in late 2014 when she arrived.

One area of consolidation soon after she arrived was to settle on four golden safety rules for all employees in the group’s UK businesses. These are: be fit for work; always receive a briefing before starting work; report all unsafe events and conditions; and stop work if anything changes.

Heather-Bryant-Balfour-Beatty-career-file“People can remember those,” says Bryant. “Before, some would have had six [rules], some would have had ten; they were all different. There was confusion about what people should be doing and there wasn’t one leadership or plan across the UK because individual businesses were doing their own things.”

A set of disparate initiatives has been swapped for a national programme set out in a calendar of activities published at the start of the year, printed on a pocket guide and even distributed to suppliers.

“Instead of doing something every week or every month, we say we will do four safety things, four health things and a couple of others, like a group stand-down,” says Bryant. “It means people have time to digest things.”

Her central health, safety, environment and sustainability (HSES) function supports the business-level activity by providing materials, including videos and notes for toolbox talks. It also sets the framework for UK-wide initiatives such as the extension this year of the programme of directors’ site safety tours down to the next tier of senior management.

There was confusion about what people should be doing and there wasn’t one leadership or plan across the UK

“We give them a short electronic report to fill in which asks what were the main concerns [they found] and the main positives,” she says. “Who have they spoken to, what is it they have agreed to do and are there any actions that need to be followed up?”

Well observed

As well as focusing people’s minds on a manageable number of priorities at any time, Bryant stresses the importance of staging programmes, “so people are doing what you need them to do one step at a time without necessarily showing them the endpoint, which might seem scary at the start”.

In the scheme of things

As Health, safety, environment and sustainability (HSES) director, Heather Bryant heads HSES in Balfour Beatty. She describes it as an “enabling function” supporting the UK business divisions which employ between 16,000 and 20,000 people.

“Ownership [of safety and health] is with the projects and sites and with the MDs,” she says. “But we give the direction and the steering, working with the MDs.”

Her central function handles safety and health policy, programmes and communications for the UK divisions including the major projects, construction services, power, gas, water, rail and infrastructure investment businesses. Internal audit does not sit under her to ensure its independence, but the HSES team organises its own cross-audits of one division by another.

“When I joined Balfour Beatty three and-a-half years ago there was concern that health and safety professionals could be policemen,” she says, “and therefore weren’t getting as much buy-in as they could. That was one of the reasons we deliberately said audit should sit outside [my function]”.

Bryant has 110 direct reports, starting with the HSES directors of the UK divisions. There are a further 190 HSES specialists throughout the divisions under her enabling function’s umbrella.

“We have a matrix management system,” she says. “So most of those people will have two managers. They will report to the leader of the project and also to us.”

In this matrix structure Bryant reports to Balfour Beatty’s group chief executive Leo Quinn, to the human resources director and to the group safety and sustainability committee, which oversees OSH arrangements and performance for the international group.

The committee comprises the group chair and chief executive and two non-executive directors, one of whom chairs the committee. Other board members often attend.

The next layer of UK OSH governance below the safety and sustainability committee is the national safety, health and environment leadership team (SHELT), an executive committee which meets quarterly to review UK HSES performance across the divisions and businesses within them against the rest of the group, review significant incidents and to agree performance indicators.

There is a separate MD SHELT comprising the heads of the business divisions which agrees initiatives and plans that are signed off by the main executive SHELT and discusses operational implementation.

The last MD SHELT meeting before our interview agreed to move the safety stand-down day from the middle of the year, which is holiday season, to October. Analysis of incidents had revealed a small peak in October when the clocks in the UK revert to Greenwich Mean Time and the daylight hours are reduced. It also agreed to prioritise four fatal risks. Members of the MD SHELT also lead each of Balfour Beatty’s fatal risk groups.

Each member of the MD SHELT heads a SHELT for their own business.

Bryant also has a wider role advising the international Balfour Beatty group whose divisions are based mainly in the US and Hong Kong, with a workforce of around 8,000.

“Each of the countries will have their own lead,” she says. “I have a responsibility to overarch those and make sure we are all pulling together, so anything to do with reporting or group standards or communications comes through me and my team.” 

When I ask later about her leadership style she says: “One thing I put a lot of weight behind is making it simple and doable and showing people what they can achieve. Supporting people in small wins gives them the confidence to take bigger and bigger steps.”

She cites Balfour Beatty’s Make Safety Personal behavioural safety programme, launched in 2016. “We looked around at what was working elsewhere. We said in year one – 2015 – we wanted to get people used to filling in pieces of paper with their observations. We said please tell us about the good as well as the bad; we want your ideas and innovations. We didn’t say this is the first stage in our behavioural safety journey.”

“You said, we did” boards were erected on each site to report on action to respond to hazard observations. Prizes of vouchers or meals are awarded locally for particularly important observations, and at an annual group-level awards ceremony.

The paper-based system was later supplemented by a smartphone app, developed in-house, to allow instant reporting.

Every week Bryant’s team circulates a best practice and incident report to all the divisions. The report includes significant site observations with application to other projects.

The programme is also structured in modules. Making Safety Personal (MSP) 1, piloted in 2016 and introduced group-wide in 2017, is for all staff, setting the principles of teamwork and the responsibility to look after other team members and to speak up about unsafe conditions.

MSP 4, also launched in 2017, is for leaders, from senior site managers to the group executives.

This year MSP 2 was rolled out for supervisors, and MSP 3 is being piloted, offering further support to supervisors, engineers, agents and safety champions.

The rise in safety observations across the group, from a few hundred in January 2015 when the scheme was launched to more than 10,000 a month by the second half of 2016, corresponded closely with the drop in the company’s lost-time injury rate.

Pillar talk

The Build to Last programme has four themes, known as pillars, titled Lean, Expert, Trusted and Safe. It is obvious how the HSES function can contribute to making the organisation safe, but I ask Bryant how she bolsters the other objectives.

“We all have a responsibility across all of those pillars. So if you take Lean, I want to make sure our function provides value for money. I will look to see if I can do something for less and we have saved a lot of money in our function without impacting on our performance, which has improved year on year.”

I ask for examples of economies and she cites bringing training in house. “We have found some of the external training that we were provided with was not good enough.”

Asbestos awareness training was one. “It’s really important, we do need it. But what we were being sold was an all-singing, all-dancing asbestos course for demolition contractors. We need to be able to identify where the asbestos is and make sure we have the right checks and balances and that our staff can spot it and know what to do about it if they happen to come across it after all the surveys have said everything is clear. But they were being sold something they would never use.”

Heather-Bryant-Balfour-Beatty-hand-gesturingAnother was confined spaces training. Balfour Beatty’s policy, which states its employees will not carry out such high-risk work and specialists will be substituted, was made clear to the trainers. “And yet we were being sold a programme designed for much more specialised industries.”

The company has also increased its train-the-trainer programme in areas such as mental health (see "Mind matters" box below).

As a former regulator Bryant could recognise easily when training was over- or underspecified. “So we are now more of an informed customer.”

We have set ourselves a target of zero new cases of HAVS by 2020

More than 25 years in the HSE, working across industries from agriculture to manufacturing, allowed her to bring to the job a wide knowledge of what kinds of intervention work in different circumstances.

Another priority for 2018, and the subject of a month-long awareness campaign in February, is segregation between construction plant and pedestrians.

Mind matters

Looking after the mental health of Balfour Beatty’s workforce is one of Heather Bryant’s priorities – the company was a founder member of the UK’s Health in Construction Leadership Group, which spawned the Mates in Mind mental health awareness charity of which Bryant is a trustee.

Balfour Beatty’s mental health programme forms part of a wider occupational health and wellbeing plan that she has carefully phased.

“We were not going to focus on wellbeing in year one because we had not got the health bit where we wanted it and we wanted to make sure that was right,” she says. “That was why we focused on noise and vibration and things like that.”

Now the focus has expanded to include wellbeing; supporting good mental health has come to the fore.

“We recognise it’s a shared responsibility,” she says. “People [on construction sites] are away from home and away from their support mechanisms, but people are different. Some people will mix with lots of people wherever they are and be happy to travel; others will not. So it’s about building that team spirit and enabling people to talk about things, so their friends can step in and support them.”

One of the company’s safety and health key performance indicators for 2018 is that 85% of its direct employees will have attended Mates in Mind’s basic 45-minute Start the Conversation session on talking about and listening to colleagues’ concerns and fears.

The plan is for all staff eventually to receive this basic training. One in ten will then go through the supervisor level 1 training and one in 40 – at least 400 people – will complete the two-day mental health first aid course developed by Mental Health First Aid England and now run by Balfour Beatty’s own trainers.

The training has had a snowball effect, says Bryant: “People have spoken out about their individual circumstances and, when one person takes that step, others do. It then becomes less of an issue and people also understand how they can help and support people.

“We aren’t turning people into doctors or experts but into being open to listening. Then when people need it, through our mental health first aiders, we can steer them to our employee assistance programme and counselling and other services.”

She highlights the case of a subcontractor’s employee who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and who had a crisis on a Balfour Beatty site. “Both he and his employer assumed he would be asked to quit the project, because that’s what they thought a big contractor would do. But what they found was that we had a mental health first aider on the site who said, ‘This is not a problem’, and gave them help and support.”

“We lost somebody in a crushing incident in Scotland and we were devastated by that,” she says. “We said we never want that to happen again. So we made it very clear what the hierarchy of controls is.”

The controls range from fenced-off areas where machines can operate without marshalling, through marshalled areas with differing levels of pedestrian exclusion, down to areas where plant mixes with people carrying out tasks such as kerb laying, or slinging loads.

In the past, most people would have gone straight to this latter arrangement, “but we said ‘that’s not good enough, you have to start here’ [indicating complete segregation]. You can only start moving down [the hierarchy] if you have high-level sign off’.

“If you go round our sites you will see they are vastly different from a few years ago, in keeping people and vehicles segregated.”

Hygiene factors

To the Expert pillar of the Build to Last programme Bryant says her HSES team has contributed an increased expertise in occupational health and hygiene as part of its commitment to treat health like safety. She says she believes the company was one of the first contractors in the UK to employ in-house hygienists and now has three.

The hygienists have helped to improve the company’s capacity to design out health risks from noise, vibration, silica dust and even lead. “You might not use lead very often these days,” she says, “but if you are working on an old building that needs refurbishment as well as building other things you come across lead in the paint and elsewhere.”

She sees this preventive input as critical to health protection. “What you can’t have as a business is just the occupational health [provision], because that’s checking people after the event. You need to sort it out at the front end.

“We have set ourselves a target of zero new cases of HAVS by 2020 and we will only do that if we design out the use of vibrating tools. Most people will say ‘you can’t do that’, but unless you set out to do it, you won’t do it.”

She says the standard controls such as job rotation are not adequate and her team has challenged the business to come up with preventive measures further up the hierarchy of controls.

“Have designers designed in a surface that requires you to do scabbling on site [removing layers of concrete with vibrating air-fed tools]? If they have, why are we accepting that, why aren’t we challenging it?”

Heather-Bryant-Balfour-Beatty-close-upOther solutions include precasting building elements with holes to avoid the need for drilling and using remote-controlled equipment such as concrete breakers to separate the operator from the hazard.

Setting the standard across the group should generate economies of scale in procuring new equipment such as remotely-operated plant, Bryant adds, and there is the obvious incentive for the plant suppliers that Balfour Beatty will no longer be hiring conventional vibrating tools from them in a couple of years.

The company worked with the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) to develop its one-day Certificate in Controlling Health Risks in Construction course, launched last year. One of the 2018 performance objectives is to ensure 85% of sites have a BOHS certified health champion to act as a point of enquiry for colleagues.

“We have health champions anyway,” says Bryant, “but this will mean we have somebody on each site qualified to a better standard.”

The drive for expertise shows itself in another 2018 objective, which is to put 85% of directly employed supervisors through competence interviews and give them development plans. “We recognise our supervisors as crucial to driving zero harm because they are the ones out on sites seeing it all and with influence over the local teams.”

The plans include new training commitments including the two-day Site Supervisors’ Safety Training Scheme: Site Safety Plus course and Mates in Mind sessions (see "Mind Matters" box above).

As built

Penalty provision

Announcements of half-yearly corporate results seldom draw the attention of the OSH press, but Balfour Beatty’s August 2016 report was an exception.

The statement noted a new “underlying provision” of £25m in the accounts against safety and health fines for cases working their way through the UK’s justice system. Chief executive Leo Quinn said the reserve was a response to the Sentencing Council’s new guidelines to judges in February that year mandating higher fines for large organisations. The company was anticipating a tenfold increase in penalties.

What did that escalation of penalties change for Heather Bryant’s function?

“We briefed people on that when the guidelines came in,” she says. “Perhaps it was a lever for those who weren’t as convinced as others but I believe I work for a company that cares. They don’t do [safety and health] for the sake of avoiding the cost of a prosecution. They do what they do to look after people and to grow the business.

“Yes, the sentencing guidelines provision was us sensibly saying that, for big organisations such as ours, occasionally things go wrong. Nobody wants that. Yes, the regulator has more bite now but we would feel concerned about any prosecutions, as would any company. We would much rather spend the money sorting it out for our people.”

Build to Last, which underpins Balfour Beatty’s OSH work and its whole business model, was launched in February 2015 by the new chief executive Leo Quinn, who arrived when the company was struggling, plagued by narrow margins that had led to a string of profit warnings over the previous two years.

(Under Quinn’s stewardship the group returned to the black in 2016 and profits tripled in 2017 to £196m across the group in 2017 on revenues of £6.9bn.)

Bryant joined months before Quinn, in autumn 2014 while the company’s future was the subject of much debate.

I ask why she moved from one of the HSE’s most senior posts into a position that looked far from secure to outside observers. There were two reasons, she says.

“One was for the people, because I saw something in Balfour Beatty I admired; people who wanted to do the right thing. They just needed some help and support to do that. The other was that there was a job to do and I thought I could help make a difference, and that was what I was asked to do.”

She says that after Quinn arrived and created Build to Last, which mixed financial retrenchment with efficiency, she felt able to stand four-square behind the programme. The Build to Last principles mandate a more business-like approach and group-wide systems rather than siloed activity.

“There wasn’t the leadership and the direction,” she says of the time before the programme. “There were lots of different things going on. There wasn’t a structure. The governance structure with the executive committee and SHELTS (see box on p 39) weren’t there with those specific titles; it was more diluted. Each business was doing its own thing.”

Now, “Though we have different business units and they will still have different things they want to do, they are all focused on the same strategy.”

Heather-Bryant-Balfour-Beatty-in-thoughtThe commonality promotes the exchange of good practice between the divisions: “We learn across the group. We have taken a lot from our Gammon joint venture in Hong Kong where they are experimenting with exoskeletons [IOSH Magazine, May 2018 issue] and robotics and virtual reality modelling.”

Just as the business-wide discipline imposed by Build to Last seems to have had a virtuous effect on Balfour Beatty’s accounts, so the refocused zero harm programme is showing its effects on the OSH metrics. The lost-time incident rate (excluding the international joint venture companies), which rose to 0.24 per 100,000 hours in 2015, fell to 0.22 in 2016 and to 0.17 last year. The all-accident frequency rate fell from 0.15 to 0.11 over the four years and the major injury rate, which had risen to 0.05 per 100,000 in 2014, was level on 2016 at 0.03.

“We’ve made it simple, we’ve communicated it in a coherent way, we’ve given people the tools they need, we’ve educated and trained them, we’ve held their hands, we’ve celebrated success,” says Bryant. “We’ve built layer on layer to bring us to zero harm. As a result of that, since the beginning of 2015 we’ve seen year-on-year improvements. That’s not just by chance.”

In the light of all these positive indicators I ask whether anything worries her.

“It worries me that we are talking about an industry that is not low hazard, low risk. We have big bits of kit out there, we are building multistorey premises, we have great big excavations, we are digging up services or around services all the time. So if I and the people I am supporting get it wrong we could lose somebody. It’s that serious. What worries me is when is that phone call going to come in the middle of the night? Am I making sure I am doing enough to support the organisation so that phone call never comes?

“I’ve still got a journey to go on with zero harm and you can never sit back and rest on your laurels because there is always more to do. I want to be able to walk away at some point in my career and know I have left good people doing the right thing who will carry on doing that and keeping people safe.”



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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