IOSH 2016

IOSH conference report

ISO 45001, the rise in OSH penalties and managing the media in a crisis all featured when members met in east London in June. 


Words: Louis Wustemann, Mark Glover, Keeley Downey

IOSH 2016, the third in the institution’s cycle of conferences on the OSH leadership theme, was headed “influential leadership”. The characteristics of good leaders and of those they depend on was a recurring topic over the event’s two days at ExCel London.

Navigating a media storm

“Serial killer loose in hospital”; “‘Devil’ nurse guilty of murdering patients”. Alicia Custis presented IOSH 2016 delegates with a masterclass in coping with a major organisational crisis that played out in national and international media headlines for years.

Custis was head of communications at Stockport NHS Foundation Trust in 2011 when two patients died and 20 others were poisoned at Stepping Hill Hospital in Greater Manchester, after receiving saline solution that had been deliberately contaminated with insulin.

She described a media vortex that involved trust staff being doorstepped and phoned at 5am by journalists.

“A good plan was essential,” she said. “We needed to show ourselves as an organisation with nothing to hide.” The plan included briefing staff and media training, scenario planning for foreseeable developments and a social media strategy.

The social media strategy was important, Custis said, because of the speed new communications channels will spread developments in a case – “Twitter will win every time,” she said – and the organisation monitored all the tweets and Facebook comments that were shared widely, responding with its key messages if necessary. 

The link between traditional media and social media is a strong one, she said, noting that journalists were tweeting minute-by-minute from the trial of nurse Victorino Chua, who was convicted of poisoning the patients, and that the BBC News UK Twitter account has almost seven million followers. 

Critical to the plan was agreeing the trust’s key messages and ensuring they were repeated consistently. These included the fact that the crisis was the result of a deliberate, isolated act of sabotage and did not reflect on the work of the hospital’s dedicated, skilled staff. It was thanks to the vigilance of those staff that the sabotage was stopped. The trust had an excellent safety record otherwise. “We were like a broken record,” she said. “Whenever we did briefings or media interviews we just kept going through these points.”

Custis had advice for anyone managing a crisis covered in the media: trust your staff, have an effective communications plan; be open and honest – “the truth will come out,” she said; analyse the media output and respond selectively with consistent messages; and maintain good relationships with journalists and other stakeholders such as local MPs.

In a plenary session on 22 June, Gary Booton, head of health, safety and environment, supply chain, at Rolls-Royce, told delegates that the manufacturer’s previous CEO had used a model for leadership developed by management psychologist Dr David Pendleton. “It’s a really simple model,” Booton said. “Rather than leadership being that solitary, excellent, charismatic, forceful person, the contention is that leadership is a team game and, certainly in a business, that is more real, more doable and something that we in the health, safety and environment profession can influence.”

A leader, he said, could be defined as someone who created the conditions for people to thrive individually and collectively to achieve significant goals: “It is a composite role delivered by a team. Sometimes leaders are a product of their own environment as they are leaders in their own right. And a great leader of a business in turnaround may not be so brilliant at the time of developing new markets.”

He asked his audience to define the difference between management and leadership and neatly paraphrased one delegate’s answer as “leaders configure the context, managers surrender to it”.

Booton detailed Rolls-Royce’s use of Pendleton’s “primary colours” model of leadership, which sets out strategic, operational and interpersonal functions as overlapping areas and then places other characteristics such as planning and team working in the intersections. “It gives us a way of having conversations up and down the business with a common language without inventing something special for HS and E,” he said.

Booton pointed out that leaders who explored new paths were no more than isolated individuals if no one joined them: “Leaders get all the credit but it’s the first followers who show everyone else the way.”

The theme of “followership” was developed in another session by Dr Shaun Lundy of the University of Greenwich, who asked delegates whether they believed they were leaders or followers. When most opted for the former, Lundy observed that a world full of leaders would be impractical.  The stigma we attach to serving rather than being served was misplaced, he argued, and early followers were “wonderful assets” to a project.

In his keynote session, former coach of the England rugby team, Sir Clive Woodward, (see page 18) promoted the idea of “teamship” which he said he had never read about in any book on leadership. A core component in teamship was the practice of the leader absenting themselves and allowing the team to reach a consensus on an approach before presenting it for the leader’s approval. “You as the leader can still say yes or no,” he noted,“... if I don’t agree I’ll bat it back and say why I don’t think it will work.”

Leaders have to be able to reconcile contradictory goals and set the tone in embracing and managing complexity, said Peter Oeij in his session on lessons from successful OSH management in high-reliability organisations that succeed in controlling complex risks, such as air traffic control and the nuclear industry.

Oeij, a consultant at Dutch research body TNO, coined the term “mindful infrastructure” (MI) for teams that manage such risks. Apart from leaders who deal well with complexity, he said teams that displayed MI generated confidence among their members that, if they spoke up, their views would be respected. The teams also learned continuously, asking questions, seeking feedback and reflecting on it. 

Standard setting

“It will no longer be acceptable to have an OSH management system as an appendage,” warned IOSH policy and public affairs head Richard Jones. “Health and safety requirements have to be integrated into business processes.” Jones was setting out the distinguishing requirements of the new international OSH standard ISO 45001, which is expected to be published in mid-2017. He led a roundtable session on the standard on the conference’s second afternoon and said ISO 45001 auditors would interview senior managers and expect them to show more OSH understanding and commitment. 

“All senior managers have to be seen to take an interest in OSH,” he said. “They can’t say ‘I just leave it to the health and safety manager’.”

This marks a “dramatic change” from the lower level of executive commitment demanded by the current BS OHSAS 18001 standard.

“If you are briefing leaders it is essential they understand their new role,” he added. “It’s a great opportunity for OSH practitioners to talk to CEOs.”

David Smith, consultant at iMS Risk Solutions and member of the committee developing the standard, told delegates that auditors would ask leading questions about an organisation’s work and the main risks it faced. Trevor Dodd, British standards body BSI Group’s product technical manager, added that the standard would bring more explicit requirements on managing contractors and outsourcing services and, in the case of direct workforces, for controlling hazards such as stress. The “context of the organisation” component in the new structure that links ISO 45001 with other revamped ISO standards on quality and environment meant audits would be more concerned with “establishing where in the food chain your organisation is and who are your interested parties”.

Smith observed in an aside that the development of international standards had started with tools and equipment and gradually worked round to business systems, such as quality management and risk control. “It’s the wrong way round,” he said. “We should have started at the top and worked down.”

On their minds

Promoting good mental health at work was one of the conference’s themes. Reminding delegates in a plenary session that work was self-rated as the most stressful factor in people’s lives, Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the charity Mind, announced that her organisation planned to publish a Workplace Wellbeing Index this autumn. This would help employers assess where the gaps lay between their intentions on mental health policy and practice and staff perceptions.

In a session summarising the work of the Health Leaders in Construction Group, Martin Coyd, European safety and health head at builder Lend Lease, announced that Australia’s Mates in Construction scheme was likely to launch soon in the UK under the same name. This initiative has trained more than 100,000 Australian workers in awareness of stress symptoms and mental distress in their co-workers (see feature on page 38). Coyd said peer support was overdue since a construction worker was six times more likely to take their own life as to die falling from height. The insecure nature of construction work – “people don’t know where they will be working week to week” – militated against calmness and resilience. 

Persuading men to talk about their feelings took patience and would not be achieved with closed questions such as “Are you OK?” If the average male worker was asked how they felt, Coyd said, “They’ll say ‘fine’ for the first six months of conversations”, but would open up eventually.

An example of good practice in mental health support came in a presentation by Tracey Ayton Harding, head of health and safety at public service trade union Unison. She cited an organisation that had collaborated with Mind after a survey organised with Unison and the GMB and Ucatt unions flagged stress as a problem. The response was to organise monthly “Time to Talk” days for staff to address the stigma attached to mental health.

Ayton Harding said: “There are designated people who are the listeners and staff can go and book a time to talk to them. Management agreed that people can have a certain amount of paid time off to go and see these counsellors and the wellbeing of the employees is much better.”

A fine outlook

At another of the conference’s roundtable discussions on 22 June, lawyer Hilary Ross of DWF Law threw into stark relief the impact of the new sentencing guidelines for safety and health penalties in England and Wales. She said there was no set level in the guidelines to distinguish “very large” organisations, which may be liable for penalties above the £10m ceiling for large employers. “But what we think the courts will look at as a very large organisation is a turnover of over £900m.” 

In the 30 years to 2015 there were 28 penalties for health and safety offences that exceeded £1m; since January 2016 there have already been ten fines of £1m and over. 

As evidence of the new stringency applied by courts since the new guidance took effect, Ross pointed to ConocoPhillips’ £3m fine in February for a gas leak in which no one was injured and building products retailer Travis Perkins’ £2.6m penalty in May for the death of a customer run over by a lorry in a store car park. “You are getting into eye-watering stuff,” she said. 

Tunnel vision

Day one of IOSH 2016 ended with a bang, as a worker on the Thames Tideway Tunnel drilling into some concrete at a worksite in east London struck a cable and collapsed in flames. The action took place partly on the conference stage and partly on screen; it was an excerpt from the tunnelling project’s day-long safety induction, named Epic, which dramatises events leading up to the cable strike and those after, including police and Health and Safety Executive interviews and the consequences of the worker’s death on his family. Employees who walk through the dramatisation then have the chance to examine what could have been done to prevent the accident.

Delegates at the conference were invited to question the dead worker Michael Clark’s supervisor, who admitted he only “assumed” Clark had cable avoidance training and that his priority had been just to “get the job done” rather than checking whether his charges were likely to carry on beyond the limits of their permit to work, and had ignored their obvious signs of fatigue.

The courts were beginning to familiarise themselves with the new regime, she cautioned, and the average £12,000 fine for OSH offences in previous years was gone for good. “As they get used to talking in the millions we see that going into the upper millions, we believe.”

She asked members whether their boards had reacted to the higher penalties. “The challenge is how you turn board concern into actual change,” said one delegate, to prevent accidents in the first place. “My experience is that, when things go wrong, it’s not because of lack of board commitment.” 

Another said: “The danger is that [the penalties are] going to make companies more risk averse, which is the very thing this government is trying to prevent.” Ross added: “In the past, boards have pretty much left things to the health and safety teams, and maybe counsel, to run. They will take an interest if it’s a fatal accident. But with fines at this level it’s opening their eyes to how the law is quite weighted in favour of the prosecution.”

In response to a member who suggested organisations faced with massive potential penalties would become much more careful about how they investigated incidents that could be the subject of prosecution, she said policies had to be drafted to account for legal privilege of documentation. It was important not to withhold primary information from the authorities. “But where you tend to get hung, drawn and quartered is in your root analysis, saying ‘we should have done this or that better’.” 

Governance at scale

How to run a company with 25,000 people in four countries was a question posed in a breakfast session by Vincent Ho, international business safety manager at Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation. 

MTR, which will operate London’s Crossrail network, already runs mass transit systems in Australia, China (including Hong Kong) and Sweden, and has a property development arm.

Ho set out MTR’s governance structure, which he summarised as the system that assures the chief executive sitting in Hong Kong that the standards he sets for safety and health are applied 5,000 miles away.

“It’s very difficult for a board of directors in a company of 25,000 to set prescriptive directives for shopfloor level,” said Ho. “The heavy-handed culture would not work for us.” However, he conceded it could work for small, centralised organisations. Instead there were different operating models for different countries and divisions to suit their make-up and local regulatory frameworks.

He said it was the job of the MTR executive to ensure the vision was clear and resources were available to maintain safety standards. The executive sets the corporate safety policy that applies to all divisions, underpinned by four-year safety plans. Governance was executed through a set of checks and balances to maintain standards ranging from audits and policy reviews to management tours of workplaces. The checks would be more frequent in new operations, he said, and would scale back as the MTR safety culture became better established, with a normal cycle of alternating audits and reviews every two years.

The company operates integrated safety and operational reviews. “We don’t look at safety by itself, we look at it with asset management and engineering,” said Ho. Each operation picks three peer reviewers to visit another operation and these groups work together to look for improvements for good practice and take them back to their own division. MTR also shares information about significant accidents across its divisions and has fixed June as its annual safety and health month.

Ho said the major challenge MTR faced was rapid expansion and rapid turnover of staff – up to 20% a year – in the Chinese operations because of the volatile labour markets and demand for talent. In times of major change in a division the group becomes much more prescriptive, reflecting the altered level of risk, but local autonomy is resumed when normality returns.

These overarching structures allow each operation to be run locally with its own style while maintaining corporate standards, said Ho. “Effective health and safety governance doesn’t have to be rigid and it doesn’t have to be painful.”  

Next year members will gather in Birmingham at the ICC for  IOSH 2017 on 20 and 21 November. 


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