Leader interview

John Corden, Southern Water

The water utility’s long-serving OSH head talks about what a career divided between safety enforcement and big business has taught him about proportionate risk management. 

Leader interview. John Corden, Southern Water
Image credits: ©Andrew Firth

Words: Louis Wustemann
Pictures: Andrew Firth

John Corden career history

1980–1989:    Farm management from tractor driver to assistant farm manager 
1989–1993:    Inspector (specialising in agriculture and forestry), Health and Safety Executive (HSE)
1993:     Secondment to Forestry Commission
1994–1996:    Inspector (specialising in fairground safety) then acting principal inspector, HSE
1996–present:     Head of health and safety, Southern Water

For anyone tempted to try to soften up a visiting enforcement officer with the offer of tea or coffee, John Corden has a salutary warning: make sure the mug is clean. In his years with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) he says that he and his fellow inspectors would form a quick impression of the standards at any site he visited. “I used to apply the ‘bog and brew’ test,” he says. “Would I be happy to use their welfare facilities and was I prepared to use the cup they proffered? If you look at the cup and think ‘I’m not drinking out of that’, it’s probably an indication that the rest of the running of the organisation isn’t very good. So you start digging a bit deeper.”

Corden left the executive in 1996 for his current post, heading the safety function at the privately owned utility that supplies water to the south east of England.

He describes the water industry as “one of those that you don’t tend to think about unless you’ve worked in it”, but says it has a range of hazards and challenges that have kept him interested for the past 20 years.

The business provides wastewater treatment for Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight and drinking water to half the region. 

“You have a large geographical area with a workforce, many of whom are working alone and a lot of them working remotely,” he says.

This degree of lone working makes behavioural safety systems that rely on observation by colleagues of each other, unfeasible. “So you have to instil in them the belief that what they are doing is the right thing, not just to do it because they have someone watching them.”

Maintaining almost 40,000 km of sewers involves routine confined-space work, often combined with work at height and other hazards.

I don’t get too fixated on targets

“We tend to risk falling into things rather than falling off things as in construction,” he says. “But once you’ve fallen in, you could be falling into something where there’s a toxic gas.”

The water industry has always used a lot of chemicals in water treatment, particularly chlorine as a disinfectant, he explains. Bulk chlorine storage at treatment sites has been phased out wherever possible to reduce the risk of leaks and spills in favour of keeping it in inert form and producing the element at the point of need – a sound application of the control hierarchy under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations.

But wastewater treatment relies on more and more hazardous chemicals, such as ozonea and hydrochloric acid. “We are almost like a small chemicals business, but with plants situated remotely all over the countryside,” he says.

Reportable reduction

In the scheme of things

John Corden reports to Southern Water’s chief executive and provides the board with OSH information and guidance.
When he joined the company as health and safety head 20 years ago he had a team of 15 people reporting to him. “But over the years I have shed responsibility for those people, deliberately so.”
Some leaders like to gather more people around them to build their empires, he says, “but that’s not what I am about. I want to get people to own health and safety themselves. 
“My view is that all the time you have a large central health and safety department, people will inevitably think ‘health and safety, that’s Corden’s problem’,” he explains. “For the past 11 or 12 years I’ve had no one reporting to me at all. I’m a one-man band. As a leader I set the tone for the business and am key adviser to the board.”
He oversees the work of the qualified safety advisers – “either CMIOSH or working towards it” – in each of Southern Water’s directorates, which include operations and engineering construction, but each of the advisers reports directly to their directorate’s head.
Each directorate has its own annual safety plan. “The plan for operations is obviously quite a significant document, far greater than the one for the legal department,” Corden says. “So rather than have one plan for the business they are tailored for where the risks are.”
The danger of this decentralised model is that individual advisers could “go native” to their divisions but Corden’s position as a peer of the divisional directors allows him to speak to them with authority if there are any problems. He also holds a monthly meeting for all the advisers to ensure their work does not stray from corporate objectives.
“When we brought in this model 12 years ago, there were no other water companies using it and there weren’t many organisations in any sector,” he says.
To assess the OSH standards, the utility relies on an external auditor who has worked with it for many years and specialises in the water sector.
Corden also provides safety guidance to the directorate heads who own the OSH risks in their division, accompanying them on site visits and providing expertise where needed. 
He attends a quarterly forum with the construction and operations directors and senior management of the company’s major contractors, including Morrison Utility Services and Clancy Docwra, to monitor performance and agree joint initiatives and strategy. 
“I am keen for them to bring to us things they are doing around the country,” he says. “These contractors are much bigger than we are, have greater safety resources and will be interacting with major companies all over the country, so there’s a lot we can learn from them.”
For more operational matters, there is a monthly meeting between the contractors’ managers and Southern Water’s divisional safety advisers.

Southern Water’s 2015 target for accidents reportable to the HSE – those causing more than seven days’ absence – was 0.3 per 100 workers or contractors. The actual figure was half this at 0.14 (dropping to 0.09 for the company’s 2,400 direct employees). The target for this year is lower, he says, “but I don’t get too fixated on targets”.

He notes that the company has an Aim for Zero campaign with the goal of zero injuries but the campaign has been running for 15 years and it is an aspiration rather than a fixed target: “If we ever get there that will be brilliant.” 

The more important metric he wants to highlight is that the company last year ended a period of 427 days with no reportable accidents requiring more than seven days off work among its employees. 

For comparison, when he arrived at Southern Water, such injuries – though, at the time, these included any that resulted in three days’ absence – were running at five a month on average.

He is not a fan of reportable injuries as a measure but accepts that it is one that can be most readily benchmarked against other UK employers. 

“So, 427 days, if you think of all our guys out and about, was remarkable.” He says that record reportable injury-free period was not attributable to any initiative or combination of programmes. 

“We keep doing what we have always been doing: we keep safety bubbling along. We don’t have massive high-profile campaigns, because we have a good standard and we just try to keep the message refreshed with minor initiatives.”

The analogy he uses in discussions with the board is the circus trick of spinning plates on poles. Expertise is needed to get the plates moving, he says, but then “each needs only a light touch to keep it in motion”.

All good things

Corden reflects that it is not always possible to find the reasons behind a run of good or not so good performance. Since that 427-day record ended, there has been a run of minor accidents, but it is hard to see what has changed in the business to prompt the shift. 

I ask what sort of accidents broke the pattern. “We had a guy cleaning a detritor [a large piece of plant that filters grit from waste water]. It had been stopped and they have a special tool for dragging the rubbish out of the screen. The tool is a 2 m rod with a hooked umbrella-style handle at the operator’s end. Gravity made the detritor turn, catching the tool and crushing the operator’s finger between the handle and a handrail. 

“These tools have been used for decades and no one in the water industry has had that happen before,” Corden notes. 

“With hindsight we can see that we should release the [energy] potential of the detritor by lowering it to the bottom. We have talked about ensuring a big piece of plant doesn’t suddenly turn over but this wasn’t deemed to be something where someone would be caught.”

He says there are now notices on the detritors and anyone cleaning them is warned that they should be brought to rest at the bottom. The tool’s design has been changed so it has a spade handle instead of the hooked end.

“The risk assessment had led to making the tool 2 m long so you didn’t have your hands anywhere near the moving parts,” Corden says. 

Each plate needs only a light touch to keep it in motion

The water industry works to five-year plans called asset management periods (AMPs) agreed with industry regulator Ofwat. Last year was the first of AMP 6, and Southern Water’s 2015 annual report makes a point of its commitment to reduce costs by more than £200m by the end of the five-year term. 

“In AMP 6 all the water companies are challenged to save more and more,” he agrees. “Ofwat sets the prices we can charge on a five-yearly basis and there’s a constant demand for greater and greater efficiency.”

Does that affect safety funding? “No. Our board and chief executive are adamant that safety overarches all of that. So if an issue comes up regarding safety there is no debate. [The response is] ‘we have to get that fixed’.”

Health concerns

As OSH head of a substantial construction client, Corden approves of the recent push to improve health and wellbeing in the building sector. 

“At Southern we have been pushing health in our supply chain for years,” he says. “Nine or ten years ago, a national contractor wanted a big contract with us and I was asking them about hand-arm vibration [syndrome] (HAVS). They didn’t have a proactive process for it, they just waited for guys to put their hand up and say ‘I’ve got vibration white finger’. And not many people were going to volunteer that information because they know they probably wouldn’t be able to carry on the work that might have caused it. They were almost afraid to start looking because they were afraid of what they would find. 

“We wrote it into the contract that they had to have a proactive programme. Their safety people were really pleased. They started a programme and found some [HAVS] but not as much as they might have expected. And then they rolled out the programme across the rest of the country on the basis that it wasn’t as bad as they had feared. 

“I think that’s an example of where a client can really lead and influence health in a construction company.”

The new emphasis on mental health in construction and other industries (see IOSH Magazine, August) is also a long-standing concern in the water industry, he says: “We recognised this as an issue and launched our first stress policy in 1999. The challenge then was getting the board to recognise stress was an issue. There was a great reluctance. Not so much now.”

Before their launch in 2004, Southern Water helped pilot the HSE’s Stress Management Standards (www.hse.gov.uk/stress/standards), which set parameters for organisations and managers to control unproductive work-related anxiety and address excessive stress among employees.

Despite the company’s early recognition of stress as a management challenge, the problem is far from eradicated. “Time lost due to stress is still our biggest cause of absence,” Corden says. “How much of that is related to work and how much to home and how much to living in this society, I don’t know. I think that’s why so many [OSH] people are reluctant to get involved in it. There is no nice engineering solution where you can sort it out and say ‘I’ve done that’. But work, if it’s not managed properly, can certainly add to the risk of someone going off sick.”

A fresh field

Road sense

Southern Water maintains 365 treatment works, 2,375 pumping stations and 13,793 km of water mains across southern England. Unsurprisingly, John Corden cites road risk as a primary threat to employee safety. 
Ten years ago, the company installed location trackers in its fleet of more than 600 vehicles. “Interestingly, that paid for itself in a matter of months through reduced fuel costs,” he says.
The tracking systems have evolved so drivers’ line managers now receive detailed monthly reports on their performance, including speeding or excessively sharp braking. The metrics are aggregated into divisional and company-wide reports.
But Corden says these are lagging indicators. “It’s too late if you have to wait a month to get a rollicking from your manager, if they’ve had time to read the report.”
Now the company is trialling a system named Lightfoot, which gives drivers instant feedback through red lights on the vehicle dashboard for poor road technique and green lights for praiseworthy technique. Road incidents have reduced at another water company that has used the system and Southern Water hopes for the same. 
He says he understands why some organisations have banned mobile phones on the road to reduce driver distraction but he is unwilling to follow suit for two reasons. The first is practical: at Southern Water, maintenance and repair jobs are relayed to engineers via mobile phone, as are appointment changes. “Rather than have them drive halfway across the South East to an appointment that has been cancelled I think it’s sensible to have a short conversation to say they should turn around.
“Our policy is very clear that you don’t make outgoing calls from your vehicle, even with hands-free and you keep incoming calls short. If it’s going to get into an in-depth conversation about a spreadsheet you say ‘wait a minute, let me park and phone you back’.”
The second reason is one of principle. 
“There is nothing worse than having a policy you know is not going to be followed,” he says. “To me it is cloud cuckoo land to think people are not going to use their phones at all. As always, I’d rather have a pragmatic solution that takes out the obvious risk of making calls when you are driving or having demanding conversations. But to take a short call to say the job has been stopped, I think, causes less of a problem than someone driving 50 miles and finding they didn’t need to and driving back 50 miles. Those 50 miles back are probably not going to be more considered driving because they are so annoyed at having wasted a morning.”

Though Corden’s career now is rooted in health and safety, his expectations were rather different when he left school in the late 1970s. “I wanted to go into agriculture and that’s what I did,” he says. “In my pre-college year I worked on a farm in Sussex with a guy who had lost a leg in a machine ten years before. I saw every day how he used to struggle with his artificial leg, though the landowner had said he would always have a job there. As a 19-year-old it showed me it was so easily done.”

Ten years later, he was managing a farm in Lincolnshire and wondering whether he wanted to do this for the rest of his life when he saw an advertisement for HSE trainee inspectors. 

“I was applying for various other jobs in the agricultural industry. I could have become a seed salesman but the more I thought about it the more interesting I thought [safety enforcement] would be. And I thought I could do something helpful to the agricultural industry.”

So in 1989 he joined the regulator as a farm inspector and spent two years in Shropshire and Staffordshire before moving to south east England as a general inspector. In the period that followed he specialised in fairground enforcement (see our feature on amusement ride regulation).   

“You have accidents involving children, which can be quite traumatic,” he says of funfairs. “But then a lot of the farm incidents involved children because, sadly, agricultural families have their children on the ‘factory floor’ and they get pulled into things or drowned.”

In the water industry there is also occasional harm to young people, but more often to teenagers: “It’s young males drinking and then thinking they are going to have a quick swim in cold water [in a reservoir] that is the problem; the cold water shock kills them. 

“Our sites are properly fenced,” he adds. “Not like a farm, where you walk out the kitchen door and you can be straight under the combine [harvester] wheels.”

Having risen to acting principal inspector, he left the HSE for Southern Water in the mid 1990s: “I was poacher turned gamekeeper turned poacher again,” he says.

Raising barriers

His time as gamekeeper taught him to work with the regulator and not to put up barriers. “That does not mean that the HSE will look wildly differently at an organisation if you do, but there will be mutual benefit because you will get to understand where they are coming from.”

He says that open approach may be harder for organisations to sustain now the new sentencing guidelines on health and safety offences in England and Wales have raised the financial stakes so much (see our feature on the new sentencing regime). 

“Immediately defences will go up after an incident. Where before an organisation might try to work with the local inspectors to learn some lessons quickly, now I think the fences will come up and there will be a reluctance to share anything. Whether that will be a good thing for health and safety I don’t know. I already see companies around the country withdrawing from engagement with HSE because of FFI [the HSE’s fee for intervention scheme levying charges for small breaches]. That definitely has had an impact on how much companies will invite inspectors in.” 

I was poacher turned gamekeeper turned poacher again

He knows of large organisations that have eschewed any voluntary contact with the HSE because of the scheme, but also understands why funding necessities make it difficult to abandon. “Once you have opened Pandora’s box you aren’t going to get everything back in.”

He says the water industry is fortunate to have a dedicated senior inspector, but he knows that cost pressures are leading to questions about the future of the arrangement.

Evolutionary pressure

I ask Corden what is the most valuable lesson he has learned as a leader. “To get people’s respect,” he says. “Any leadership I have in Southern Water isn’t because I have a big department under me. Getting people to listen to what I say is based on a number of years of doing the job and that experience gives you respect.”

What is he most proud of? “That Southern Water has such a good health and safety record.” But he immediately caveats the statement with an acknowledgement that, as they say in the investment ads, past performance is not a guarantee of future success. 

“It’s a hostage to fortune. We all know health and safety can go wrong tomorrow. You can have all the training, the competencies and have all the systems in place and something still goes wrong. So I’m proud of the fact that Southern Water has a good record up to today.” 

On the future development of the OSH profession, Corden says it “has to become more professional”. He echoes Ruth Gallagher at Heathrow (IOSH Magazine, June), who lamented the rarity of practitioners with skills such as project management.  

“We have been trying to recruit a senior [OSH] person in Southern Water and we are struggling to find suitable candidates,” he says. “There are a lot of people out there with the piece of paper: chartered membership; great stuff. But the difficult part is finding people who can implement systems in a large organisation. That’s the bit we need to develop to succeed as a profession. It’s not just having the technical knowledge, but knowing how that knowledge can be applied in the way that is appropriate to an organisation.

“You don’t want to be seen as the old-fashioned safety person surrounded by books and a clip chart because that just doesn’t work now in big organisations.”

Outside interest

Other than his influence on the safety and wellbeing of Southern Water’s staff, Corden says he takes most professional pride in his work with the Estates Excellence initiative, launched seven years ago by Heather Bryant, then the HSE’s area director for south east England. Bryant formed a stakeholder group in 2009 and Corden, who had known her when they worked together for the regulator in the Midlands, volunteered to help.

“We had various meetings, with insurers and local authorities involved,” he says. Bryant and the group have been keen to help smaller businesses improve their OSH standards. “Of course they are scattered everywhere,” he says. “But the HSE, through their reported accident stats, will know which industrial estates will have more companies with problems. And that’s how Estates Excellence came about.” 

The programme requires the HSE training safety practitioners and council officers in the partner organisations to visit small companies on a chosen estate, answer questions, give them information and arrange training to improve standards in everything from HAVS to the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations

It’s not just having the technical knowledge, but knowing how that knowledge can be applied in the way that is appropriate to an organisation

“People get training or occupational health checks for free,” he says. “One of the things I’ve always thought was that, as a small employer, you have so many regulators that can come through your door and I was keen we draw as many together as possible, so the fire service was heavily involved and offered training. Southern Water is a regulator of waste and we could give advice on what shouldn’t go down the drain, so all these things could be covered in one go.”

The programme has spread beyond the South East as far as Dundee. Corden sits on the main board for the national programme and has involved some of Southern Water’s major contractors in the initiative.

“It fits nicely into HSE’s work of large organisations joining with the regulator and working together,” he observes.

He is also a member of the Confederation of British Industry’s Health and Safety Panel and the water industry’s OSH group. He says he brings to these groups a large employer’s perspective balanced by his HSE experience, weighing protection against the need to get the job done.

“To me, managing health and safety is trying to find a sensible compromise, where people can work reasonably safely, but where you don’t try to eliminate risk, because that’s just not possible.”


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