Conference report

IOSH 2019

Mental health promotion, leading sustainability and human capital, refining leadership and soft skills, and risk profiling were among the standouts at this year’s conference

As the subtitle of this year’s conference, “Take the next step”, implied, IOSH 2019 was focused on arming the OSH professional with new skills to extend their influence in an increasingly dynamic and fast-changing world of work. 

Attracting 725 delegates to Birmingham’s International Convention Centre on 16-17 September, the 44 sessions showcased presentations on issues such as technological innovations, behavioural safety, professional development and a greater onus on responding effectively to occupational health burdens.  

In his opening address on the first morning, Martin Temple, chair of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), reiterated the importance of looking forward and adapting, telling delegates: “We don’t have the luxury of choosing to stay in the past.” 

He added: “Are you aware, for example, that reports are suggesting 65% of children entering primary school are expected to work in jobs that do not exist yet and 35% of the skills necessary to thrive in a job will be different five years from now?”

Temple asked how ready organisations were to take on new challenges, whether they were physical safety, an ageing workforce or health issues arising from new technologies and ways of working.

Adapting and responding effectively to these growing demands ran through many of the conference presentations, including one of the morning’s parallel sessions. 

Vanessa Harwood-Whitcher, director of professional services at IOSH, chaired a debate on whether OSH professionals should be pushing their skills beyond their technical competencies and developing effective business skills and the right behaviours to wield more influence. 

Professional influence

On leadership in his own company, Gary Latta, environmental health and safety lead at PepsiCo UK and Northern Ireland, said: “What they look for is people who want to make themselves a bit more embedded in the larger organisation. We’ve recently changed our chief executive and he talks a lot about ‘PepsiCo is an organisation where we don’t hear the term that’s not my job’.”

The former soldier explained he was about to take part in a Lean Six Sigma session at PepsiCo to discuss next year’s budget. “That’s not health and safety but I have to get the different skills to allow me as a practitioner to be a part of the larger organisation.”

Latta emphasised the importance of having the skills-set to participate in strategic discussions in the wider business and why it was critical to improving the profession’s status among its peers. 

“All of us have fought for years to move away from the perception of ‘I appear with a clipboard every day walking around telling people what they should be doing rather than what they are doing’, and some people still see that,” he said.

He explained that by working at a strategic level, OSH professionals could demonstrate to executives that they were adding value and helping the wider business. “If the business grows, it can then invest more in health and safety,” he said. 

Harwood-Whitcher said IOSH had undertaken extensive research to map out the competencies of the future OSH professional. In a more competitive and complex world in which risk is changing and business expects greater value, an enhanced skill-set was indispensable. 

“We found that the balance between the technical and the leadership and soft skills had changed since the last time we’d asked employers these questions,” she said.  

“It’s shifted from 60% of the competencies being around management and leadership and soft skills and 40% being technical. It’s almost as if the employers are saying, ‘The technical is a given. I can see that you’ve got your qualification and I can see that you’ve got your experience but what really matters is how you drive value in our organisation.’”

She added that IOSH was planning to announce mandatory changes to its continuing professional development (CPD) scheme in early 2020, among them a new career hub to help members to upskill. Designed in partnership with careers specialist Abintegro, the hub will host more than 10,000 resources.   

Abintegro account manager Joe Chambers said: “There will be elements that fit into the CPD but ideally the navigation will be something you can dip into and get something from in an informal environment as well.” 

Opening one of the parallel sessions on the first afternoon, Joshua Rice, corporate lead of conventional health and safety at nuclear site Sellafield, outlined how mapping risk profiling data created a picture that could identify opportunities and areas for improvement, and also target limited resources.

Wake up, smell the coffee

On a lighter note, John Briffa, a doctor of medicine, shared some unconventional tips on how individuals can function better in the workplace, in particular in the morning. His six strategies included advice on breakfast habits, the importance of exposure to natural light and cultivating a positive mindset. 

“A lot of people who are very productive tend to do things in the morning and get the day off to very good start,” he said. “They have a forward momentum that they take throughout the day. There’s this idea that if you win the morning, you win the day’.”

To foster mental resilience, he recommended routinely taking a cold morning shower. “When we get cold, brown fat is activated to stimulate the metabolism to create heat and we do want a stimulated metabolism because to a certain degree it helps with energy production.”

Cold-water exposure had a positive impact on neural transmitters (brain chemicals), he continued, and people who took cold showers regularly “are buzzing for several hours afterwards. They definitely feel a boost in their mental and physical energy”.

Conference chair and Channel 4 journalist Cathy Newman led an afternoon panel session debate on how OSH professionals can excel at cross-functional collaboration. 

Asked to share a key point that delegates could take away to give them more influence in the boardroom, Adam Sewell-Jones, improvement adviser at the UK National Health Service, said it was important to use data to tell a story around the financial cost of getting health and safety wrong and the benefit of getting it right. 

The starting point, said IOSH’s head of health and safety, Ruth Wilkinson, was to align the OSH professionals’ competencies and skills-sets with the company strategy. She echoed the need to show the business benefits that OSH could bring: “Look at those proactive leading indicators and the outcomes that you can give back the organisation.” 

The balance between the technical and the leadership and soft skills has changed since the last time we’d asked employers


Global reach 

In one of the sessions closing the first day, Jonathan Nobbs, head of customer engagement at IOSH, outlined how OSH professionals could create and implement a strategy that protected staff and ensured suppliers met safety standards. 

He referred to IOSH’s thought-leadership report The Healthy Profit (bit.ly/2ImrA65), which outlines how investments in safety, health and wellbeing are helping businesses to drive improvements in reputation, resilience and productivity.

He said: “Review your current safety, health and wellbeing strategy in consultation with your employees, focused on the three areas of governance, culture and systems.”

He advised that safety and health procedures and programmes should be proactive as well as reactive and that delegates should decide key performance indicators for measuring and reporting to stakeholders. 

“We are suggesting that if you are not looking at the new Global Reporting Initiative standards then you should focus on that.” 

Day two examined the latest insights into leadership, strategy and innovation. Rethinking the leader-centric approach to improving OSH performance, Dr Shaun Lundy, visiting scholar at the University of Greenwich and technical director at 4site, and Toby Williams, health and safety manager at lift engineering firm Schindler, discussed the concept of “followership” – an emerging area that helps to explain outcomes. 

The duo shared a video of one man dancing in a field, who was gradually joined by others to form a crowd that created a “movement” – illustrating the important roles followers play in organisational failures and successes, which in turn fashion a blueprint to improve OSH performance.

“Leadership is over-glorified,” said Lundy. “Without followers, there is no movement, there is no leader.”

Risk profiling

Referencing Health and Safety Executive chair Martin Temple’s opening address, Joshua Rice, corporate lead of conventional health and safety at nuclear site Sellafield, said: “The HSE sell [risk profiling] as a fundamental cornerstone to successful health and safety management.”

Built into the HSE’s planning phase of the plan-do-act cycle, it was a “really powerful tool” that helped organisations to focus on the correct hazards and risks. 

The problem, Rice added, was that many tended to focus on Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) events through standard company performance measures and data. 

“These tend to identify high-frequency, low-hazard events – cuts, injuries, lost-time accidents. Organisations fall into a trap of focusing their improvements and priorities, assurance and activities around these but they need to fundamentally look at their low-frequency but high-hazard potential events.”

Rice warned that, if employers became “distracted by the noise of the day-to-day data, they won’t protect their organisation”, which is why the HSE recommends considering those risks at the planning phase.

Sellafield had devised a tool that an organisation of any size could apply to determine where it needed to prioritise its safety controls. The model includes scenarios for both managed and unmanaged hazards. 

“It’s been a useful tool for us to understand what contribution our management system is playing in preventing and reducing hazards,” he said. “Also, if you do this on an annual basis, it helps you understand how your improvements are reducing hazards and therefore trying to quantify some benefit back to the business.”

The risk profile that the tool creates was particularly beneficial for fast-paced industries, Rice said.   

“A lot of businesses are dynamic. They grow through acquisitions or new contracts and they bring risks and hazards with them. This is a tool to understand what those hazards are and how you as an organisation need to change to adopt or assimilate those and make sure they are effectively managed.”

Story of survival

The second day’s keynote was delivered by journalist and author Frank Gardner, who is paralysed after being shot six times at point-blank range by terrorists while reporting in Saudi Arabia in 2004. 

His inspirational speech described his recovery, a key part of which was returning to work. When his employers visited him in hospital, he asked for a letter guaranteeing that he still had a job when he wanted to go back. 

“When I got this, it was a huge incentive to get better and get up and out,” he told the hall.

Continuing the theme of survival, outgoing IOSH president Vincent Ho shared a video featuring Mavis and Ray Nye to underline the importance of IOSH’s No Time To Lose campaign. In 2009, Mavis was diagnosed with mesothelioma after spending years washing her husband’s asbestos-covered clothes. 

Ray worked in a dockyard and the couple had no idea about the damage that was being caused to Mavis’s health by doing such a simple household chore. Their story inspired delegates to send them a message of support. 

A brighter future

With one of the seven conference topics being “healthier workplaces”, the issue of mental health and wellbeing was prominent and was the focus of a debate featuring Duncan Spencer, head of advice and practice at IOSH, Fionuala Bonnar of Mental Health First Aid England, the HSE’s Peter Kelly, and chartered psychologist Roxane Gervais. 

Visibly shocked at learning that two construction workers take their own lives each day on average [in the UK], Newman asked what more could be done. 

“It needs to come from the leaders,” said Kelly. “If people in leadership positions said, ‘This is how I’m feeling, let’s talk about it’, it would certainly help.”

The panel discussed the benefits and pitfalls of appointing mental health first aiders, and the research that supports the intervention (bit.ly/2E31LrR). 

Asked by a delegate whether mental health first aid is “just a fad”, Bonnar responded: “We’re not saying it’s the solution by itself. MHFA was originally designed for the public; it wasn’t designed for workplaces. But what we’ve recognised is that the public is in work.”

Using artificial intelligence (AI) to save lives was the topic of a presentation given by machine learning innovator Roy Daya. He works with global organisations to implement proactive “just in time” alerts to their technologies to analyse unsafe behaviours in order to avoid near-misses or directly shut down machinery when an unsafe act is identified. 

“If you have three safety managers and 300 security cameras in a factory, we can give you 303 safety managers,” he said, highlighting the drive towards immersive technology.

Global investors are increasingly interested in human capital metrics – after all, a sustainable workforce is critical to a company’s success, including its bottom line. But “human capital” proved a controversial term during a panel debate held on the final afternoon, chaired by sustainability expert Mike Wallace.

L’Oréal’s health and safety director, Malc Staves, described the term as “cold and sterile”, explaining that he doesn’t like the words and what they represent. “I’m always interacting with other departments, including HR and finance, and I adapt my language according to whose behaviours I am trying to improve. That said, human capital is fine to use in a board meeting – if I have to use those words to keep my people safe I will.”

IOSH’s new president, Andrew Sharman, agreed: “We don’t want to start a revolution here, we want to continue the evolution of OSH. Human capital management might help with the stigma from which health and safety still suffers.”

What good looks like

One of the final sessions was given over to learnings from London’s super sewer, Tideway (bit.ly/2Gc80aw). Achieving parity between health and safety is a strategic objective for the project and understanding the specific challenges emerging during construction is imperative to its future direction. 

The programme’s head of occupational health, safety and wellbeing, Jennie Armstrong, was joined by Loughborough University’s Professor Alistair Gibb and Malcolm Shiels, who heads specialist CDM for construction consultancy Summers-Inman. Armstrong led delegates through a whistle-stop tour of how Tideway measures “what good looks like” by sharing its occupational health index (OHI) dashboard. 

“We look for things we should be doing, but we also look for things we are doing right,” she told delegates. “The next step is to upskill managers and use the OHI as a coaching tool rather than a measure of performance.”

Gibb agreed: “Thirty-five years ago you didn’t see guys walking around site with hi-vis jackets on. Look how much that’s changed. It’s the norm. We have to do that with health – it’s simply not acceptable to be in pain after a week’s work.”

As in previous years, the conference coincided with IOSH’s annual general meeting, in which Sharman was elected president. He immediately urged health and safety practitioners to ensure they respond to new risks created by the changing world of work and new technologies. By doing so, he said perspectives on health and safety could continue to change and more businesses will see the “true value of what the profession offers”.

Sharman said: “Working globally, I see significant variation in how health and safety is approached. I’d like to explore how we can raise the bar across the planet, leveraging IOSH resources and networks, and member knowledge and expertise.” 

Pictures: Steve Burden


Kellie is a freelance writer and former online editor of the Health and Safety at Work website.
Nic Warburton is acting editor, IOSH Magazine

 Nick Warburton was previously acting editor of IOSH Magazine. Before that he was editor of SHP and he has also worked on Local Authority Waste and Recycling and Environmental Health Practitioner

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