Leader Interview: Lawrence Webb, Costain

The infrastructure group’s strategy director is tasked with the “forward-looking stuff”

“The business is changing in terms of the scope of work we get involved in,” says Lawrence Webb. “We are in a unique spot. We have experience of seeing everything from day one to day X, not just construction and maintenance, but also project management, contract management, design, decommissioning. All the different disciplines you need for a big infrastructure project, we have capability in.”

Webb is talking about the changing profile of Costain, the family-owned business that celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2017 but has come a long way from its roots as a housebuilder. 

Now it is developing again, capitalising, as Webb says, on its long experience of building and maintaining rail, road and utilities networks to offer “smart” infrastructure services, helping them cope with forecast increased demands on our water and transport networks.

This evolution in the company contributed to the creation of the post Webb now holds, that of group safety, health and environment (SHE) strategy director.

Before 2016, the senior structure comprised a SHE director with a deputy responsible for divisional operations – Webb filled that latter role until he left the company for a period in 2008.

“As the group grew and the scope of our work became more varied and complex, it became clear that there was too much for one role,” says Webb.

When Gavin Bye took over the top job of SHE director in 2017, he split the deputy role into an operational director – managing day-to-day safety and health for Costain’s 3,700 employees – and the strategy director post. The latter involves “doing the look-ahead aspect”, as Webb puts it, informing OSH improvements, as well as overseeing SHE systems 

and assurance.

Webb says supporting Costain’s new direction tasks him with looking outside the business: “You need to spend a lot of time researching, increasing your network, seeing what the great and good are up to and what is coming over the horizon.”

Some of his most valuable conversations are with OSH and wellbeing professionals outside the construction and engineering sectors and he is building a network of such people in pharmaceuticals and aviation to provide insight and expertise in different methods of safety management.

One innovation this wide reach helped inspire was the development of new incident investigation training, drawing on specialists from Cranfield University. “They have world-leading experts in marine and aviation disasters,” says Webb. “[We thought], why don’t we speak to them?”

The course employs investigation methods used in high-hazard sectors and by the police to help discover root causes of incidents. 

“Though the principles of incident investigation are the same, they are going into a different level of detail,” says Webb, citing the advice from police investigators to take careful note of the interviewees’ behaviour during an investigation. 

More than 40 investigators in the SHE team have trialled the three-day course and in 2020 it will be extended to managers from the operations teams and to quality managers.

“We have put something together that the whole business could use to challenge itself,” he says.

In every solution that designs out a hazard, you can bet that there will be something else [hazardous] that comes with that


Tech talk

Costain’s reinvention as a smart infrastructure provider inevitably entails a heavy investment in new technology. As well as increasing efficiency – sensors allow better infrastructure monitoring – some of the technology has the potential to reduce human exposure to risk through automation. Examples include using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to carry out inspections at height and exoskeletons to reduce manual handling strains. 

Webb says he is excited about the risk-reduction potential of automation. “But you need to understand what the technology is and what it can and can’t do. In every solution that designs out a hazard, you can bet your life that there will be something else [hazardous] that comes with that change and we must be cognisant of that.”

In exploring the potential for UAVs to move materials on a construction site, “what happens if the drone falls out of the sky? You don’t want to sound like someone trying to dismiss these opportunities but as a SHE team we are challenging those ideas in a constructive way. We want them to go forward but safely with us acting as enablers.”

This constructive approach has resulted in the SHE team’s involvement in technology projects from the early stages, he says.

The SHE team also works with equipment manufacturers to ensure their designs minimise risk. He offers as an example a new forward-tipping dump truck, a notoriously hazardous piece of plant in the past. The latest iteration developed by Wacker Neuson not only has an enclosed cab to protect the driver from dust and noise but also removes the need for them to dismount during loading. “We have been involved in that since the beginning,” he says of the new model.

Costain’s horizon-scanning work, whether in seeking to improve the services it offers, or the safety and health of its employees, is increasingly valued by customers, he says.

“We are able to positively influence clients in Network Rail and Highways England and the water sector,” he says. “They come to us for advice and assistance rather than simple provision; that’s a noticeable change. They ask, ‘What are the things you think we need to think about in 20 or 30 years’ time?’”

In future, he says, the company wants to offer clients a “one stop shop”. “We are looking at what we need in our internal capabilities to achieve that […] that makes it an exciting time.”


In the scheme of things

As safety, health and environment (SHE) strategy director at Costain, Lawrence Webb reports to the group SHE director who reports, in turn, to the chief operating officer.

Webb’s job was created when the post of deputy to group SHE director was split into two, the other covering operational safety management. 

His strategy team is made up of one manager overseeing plant and vehicle standards, one in charge of strategy planning and the assurance programme, one managing SHE systems and one in occupational health and the group carbon manager, with a total of nine in the strategy function.

“We are all focused on forward looking and on assurance […] The bulk of our SHE team, which is about 160-strong, report into the operational side, because that’s their role,” he says. “But on a day-to-day basis you wouldn’t know, because we all act together.”

As in many construction companies, responsibility for managing OSH risks rests with operational management rather than the SHE team.

Webb’s function’s audit and assurance responsibilities include ensuring projects conform to the company’s suite of safety standards, coordinating with BSI which certifies Costain for a range of SHE management standards.


Eliminating harm

Costain’s previous three-year SHE strategy, which ended in 2018, was headed Halving Harm. “We achieved that,” notes Webb, of the promised 50% reduction in accident rates and occupational illness. The new goal, rather than achieving another statistical reduction, is to eliminate harm wherever possible. “That’s doable if you are prepared to think differently,” he says. 

The senior managers on every one of Costain’s contracts have been tasked with contributing a substantial example of how they have worked towards eliminating harm. 

These initiatives should have a virtuous local effect but that can be multiplied by promulgating them across the other contracts. The case studies are being uploaded to a “digital showcase” on an intranet portal where they are available to everyone.

“People need to get recognition for challenging the norm and for putting them together,” he says of the case studies. “So we will be looking through the top ones from each month and recognising them in our awards next year.”

Group-wide efforts to minimise harm include a recent announcement that all new Costain subcontracts will be required to use only workplace transport whose engines meet the European Stage IIIB emission standards, which limit the amount of toxic nitrogen oxide and particulate carbon they put out. 

Another strand in the harm elimination strategy is the introduction of periodic “hold points” in the design of processes or facilities, at which the designers are required to pause and sign off to say they have done everything necessary to reduce the potential for harm to as low as reasonably practicable and to check that no technological advances since they last checked have made a further reduction feasible. They are supported by a new bespoke training package.

The scope of this risk reduction approach isn’t limited to construction and commissioning but stretches into the operational phase. “It could be one of our clients who benefits from that elimination of harm, it could be the general public, it could be the user of an asset we have put in place benefiting in 30 years’ time.”

The logic of starting harm elimination as early as possible in processes has led to some radical thinking,  even to the point of questioning whether clients really need the work they have asked Costain to bid on.

“Often what they have got could just be enhanced. In the case of the water companies we have said, ‘If you don’t need to build something new but could take what you’ve got and make it better with some of the technology we have available, why would you not want to do that?’”

Promoting reuse and enhancement of existing assets over replacement has obvious environmental benefits as well as reducing construction risk, he notes.

Know your limitations and have some humility. Without that you can get yourself into a right pickle


Sustained achievement

As with many organisations that make sustainability a corporate value, Costain has built its current strategy, which runs till 2025, on ongoing research into the issues that its senior managers and the organisation’s other stakeholders – employees and customers and the public – believe are “material” to its sustainable operation. In the materiality matrix that was derived from the research, safety polled in the top position and employee health came not far behind.

Webb says he feeds into the materiality assessment with views from his network of SHE practitioners in other organisations.

The SHE strategy has put more emphasis on employee wellbeing than before and led to more visible commitment by the company’s board. At the start of last year Costain’s finance director, Tony Bickerstaff, asked to take on the role of board sponsor for employee wellbeing. (In June 2018, Bickerstaff contributed a column to IOSH Magazine on the business benefits of investing in employee wellbeing, bit.ly/2OmKC33.)

The company’s aim is to reduce its sickness absence rate to 20% below the UK private sector average by 2025. Does achieving that goal fall more under Webb’s strategic remit or that of his operational oppo?

“We are doing it together,” he says, “and HR is involved as well. It’s in my area in terms of monitoring and improving. From the operational side of things, it’s more about ensuring we have the process to get the data. We are now focusing on leading indicators to get results, not historical data.”

He has been working with his peers in other organisations under the auspices of Business in the Community (BITC), the charity promoting responsible corporations, to learn what Costain can do to reduce absence, beyond its existing initiatives. (The company was awarded with the highest ranking in BITC’s Corporate Responsibility Index in 2013 and was highly commended for health and wellbeing in its 2019 awards.)

He gives the example of return-to-work interviews after absence. “Speaking to people in the finance sector, they have done a lot of work on this.” Costain’s questions on reasons for absence during the interviews will be improved to provide better data that the OSH and HR teams can act on.

“How that data is presented is important as well,” he says. “If it’s leading [indicators] rather than lagging, it will tend to drive change.”

Mental health support has – rightly – become a “me-too” area of provision for construction companies, but Costain was an early adopter. It provides mental health awareness training for all its managers and one in 15 are trained in mental health first aid.

“But the key thing is that everyone is willing to have a conversation,” notes Webb, “and not let it get to the point where you feel you are on your own.”

The company’s wellness and eliminating harm strategies overlap in its efforts to plan work, ensuring there are enough people to meet targets and foreseeing pinch points, so employees are not placed under excessive stress or unduly fatigued to complete projects on time.

“Over the past couple of years the fact that virtually all of industry has had that same realisation has made it easier,” says Webb. “Clients and organisations we work with have gone from a place where it was a difficult conversation that gave you problems you would struggle to manage to the point where it is an expectation. [Clients will ask], ‘Where is your fatigue-management plan?’”

“It’s just good management for everybody to have the skills to recognise when anyone working under them or even around them is heading to the point where they are going to be ill.”

The company’s focus on psychological wellbeing grew out of the appointment of general health champions four years ago, which was an employee-led initiative concentrating on occupational health. “It very quickly became about mental health,” says Webb.

Another aspect of wellbeing Costain has concentrated on in the past 12 months is the facility for employees to ask for altered working patterns to suit other aspects of their lives. Webb says this kind of flexibility has traditionally been the preserve of white-collar service-sector businesses, but Costain sees giving valued staff a chance to fulfil a non-work ambition while retaining their skills as advantageous to both parties.

“There’s one chap, a driver, who, because he’s on the tools on a site, never wanted to speak up about the fact he’d love to do a degree,” he says. “As soon as we had the conversation, he’s now signing up for a degree and his team are flexing their work to support him.”

This informal flexibility is promoted as dynamic working. Managers are encouraged to judge workers on outputs, not inputs, to allow for the temporal flexibility. “We are trying to use words that people can relate to positively,” says Webb.

Fellow feeling

Between his current and previous stints at Costain, Webb spent eight years as a consultant, initially working through consultancies Woodland Grange and Sypol, latterly as director of his own company. I ask if that experience has helped him now he is back in the corporate world.

“Empathy is one thing that’s essential in consultancy,” he says. “You need to be able to understand your client, not to just give them what you think they need but to stop and listen, then provide a solution that meets their needs. Someone once said to me an ideal consultant is one who will design themselves out of a business, not keep themselves there. If you are doing a good job you are making things better and refining them to the point where they can say, ‘Thanks very much, we are in a good place’.”

“The other interesting thing about consultancy is the huge exposure it gives you,” he adds. “I’ve worked in so many sectors, in so many organisations with different cultures, standards, approaches to things; that places me ideally to understand, in the changes we are going through here, what the next generation of Costain will look like as our own consultancy offering continues to grow.”

I wrap up by asking what the most valuable thing is he has learned as an OSH leader.

“Know your limitations and have some humility,” he says, firmly. “Without that you can get yourself into a right pickle. As hard as you try, not all your ideas are the best ones. So a bit of humility is key. I’ve always been willing to step back and say, ‘Is this right? Let’s ask some people’, and if it isn’t right, let’s get those same people to help come up with the way forward.

“A good leader is someone who can put their hand up and say, ‘I need a bit of help with this, and I have the people who can give me that help’. I’ve always been as much a part of the team as its leader. I’ve found that brings good people with you because they like that approach.” 



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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