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Leader interview

Lucy Fell, Highways England

The motorway network operator’s health, safety and wellbeing director is trying out creative risk management ideas in a time of rapid change. 

Lucy-Fell-Highways-England
Image credits: Andrew Firth

Highways England (HE) is responsible for only 2% of the nation’s road network, but it’s an important 2%. The 7,000 km of roads the government-owned company is tasked with operating, maintaining and improving includes the motorways and major A roads that carry a third of the nation’s traffic and two-thirds of all heavy goods traffic.

This “strategic road network” is vital to the UK’s economy and it is in the middle of a major modernisation drive. HE grew out of the former Highways Agency in 2015, to oversee a £15bn road improvement programme that stretches to 2020. More than £11bn is hypothecated to capital projects, including 112 improvement schemes such as the £6bn Lower Thames Crossing which will link Essex to Kent with a tunnel under the Thames estuary and 15 “smart” motorway sections, where the hard shoulders will be turned into additional lanes to create extra capacity – effectively adding 400 km of roadway – and the speed limit will be varied to reduce congestion.

Lucy Fell career file

2014-present, Health, safety and wellbeing director, Highways England
2013-2014, Safety, health, environment & quality director, EM Highways Services (now Kier Highways)
2011-2013, Group health and safety development manager, Galliford Try
2009-2011, HM inspector, field operations, construction, Health and Safety Executive
2005-2009, HM inspector, hazardous installations, chemicals, Health and Safety Executive
2004-2005, HM inspector, field operations, general, Health and Safety Executive

“These are huge projects,” says Lucy Fell, CFIOSH. “The spend is unprecedented.” As HE’s health, safety and wellbeing director, Fell oversees the safety of the company’s 4,600-strong direct workforce and 50,000 contractors undertaking £100m worth of construction work a month.

To service the upgrade projects HE has grown – and is still growing – fast; its workforce has expanded by 25% in two years. Fell, a former Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector, believes the growth has been managed smoothly so far: “We are two years into this journey and we prepared everyone for the change. We’ve built the skills and capabilities we need and supported people.”

The change in the organisation’s structure and individual roles has been widely communicated by internal media and through mentoring and coaching programmes.

Lucy-Fell-Highways-England-career-file “One thing we have really been promoting is immediate feedback,” she says, “saying, ‘If you don’t understand something, don’t leave it, have a chat then and there’.”

Carriageway crossings have reduced from 3.7 million to 5,500. That’s a 99% reduction in exposure to the risk

The scale of the work in hand has made the organisation much more outcome-focused, she says. “We are much clearer on our values and our imperatives. So we ask, ‘Are we thinking about safety? Are we thinking about our customers?’ It has also given a lot more clarity to people’s roles and what they are responsible for.”

Her team has cut bureaucracy too. From the safety management system they removed 60 standards and procedures that were redundant or duplicating other guidance and reorganised the remainder into a logical hierarchy, then consolidated it in a web portal accessible to all staff.

She says the organisation’s attitude towards the road users who are the HE’s main customers has changed. Though the priority was always to serve them, before it might have thought that duty was fulfilled just by building a better road rather than anticipating and reducing the inconvenience associated with the associated diversions and delays. Now it tries harder to foresee how changes will affect customers.

“When there are roadworks we are communicating with them a lot more so they know what to expect and can plan their journeys,” Fell says. “We are also explaining why we are doing what we are doing, because the communities that live nearby don’t always understand how important that section of road is or that there have been a lot of incidents there, for instance.”

Well provided for

The inclusion of wellbeing in Lucy Fell’s job title suggests Highways England is looking beyond its occupational health duties to promote fitter, happier employees and she is keen to list the organisation’s programmes to support mental and physical health.
These range from “weigh-in Wednesdays” for staff trying to lose excess weight to a Be Active campaign for sedentary staff in offices, who can group together to form lunch-hour walking groups. The intranet hosts a Zest blog, on which employees will volunteer their thoughts on anything from slimming to bereavement.
HE has worked with charity Mind and the National Health Service to tailor support and make reasonable adjustments for those returning to work after mental ill-health episodes. It has trained mental health first aiders to direct those who need help to external services.
Fell says the will to reduce stress extends to a positive attitude to work flexibility more generally: “We recognise that being flexible is about looking at that individual at that time and what works for them so if you need to work at home a little bit more we are really positive about that.
“It’s not just about putting a bowl of fruit in the office; it’s about how we work together and how we encourage honest conversations. In one-to-ones the first question we ask is, ‘How are you feeling?’
“I think we’ve always been good at that, but I think our supply chain are definitely taking note and know it is important to us.” She cites Balfour Beatty’s work to train supervisors in softer skills to equip them to have more open conversations with operatives.
HE’s five-year health and safety plan (bit.ly/2eUgLuz) notes that employees take on average one day’s stress-related sick leave a year. That average hides wide variations. Traffic officers who attend the scenes of serious road accidents may need time off and counselling.
“There is a lot of work going on to analyse sickness data to help us structure [wellbeing] programmes,” Fell says. “It obviously ties in [to reducing absence], but we are doing it because we want to do the right thing.” 

Lane changing

HE’s efforts to alert drivers to upcoming roadworks is not merely a matter of improving customer service. They also help reduce one of the most significant risks to the company’s traffic officers and contractors. That is drivers slowing down or – bizarrely on the motorway – stopping to enquire about the works’ progress or, at worst, veering into coned areas, hitting pedestrian workers or plant.

Removing the cause of these vehicle incursions through better information is part of a wider effort to reduce risk among road users. HE has collaborated in outreach work with organisations, including the Roadsafe charitable partnership, on a campaign titled Driving for Better Business (www.drivingforbetterbusiness.com) which aims to influence work drivers via their employers. (At least one road collision in three in the UK involves someone who is driving for work or commuting.)

Fell says the campaign messages include the importance of daily vehicle roadworthiness checks: “Some 27% of breakdowns attended by our traffic officer service are to do with [faulty] tyres.”

The 940 road traffic officers are HSE’s frontline workers, who travel the network in 4x4 vehicles and attend 7,000 incidents a month.

“We decided we needed to refresh their hazard awareness,” says Fell. “We’ve done a lot of coaching and mentoring with them about owning their own safety, because a lot of their incidents were slips and trips and manual handling and easily avoidable.”

When traffic officers are on foot by the motorways they climb over the crash barriers to provide extra protection from moving vehicles, “but they sometimes end up slipping or tripping”. Cutting the grass around the barriers goes some way to reducing the risk, “but still people need to look and undertake a dynamic risk assessment when stepping over the barrier.

“We call it adult-to-adult conversations. We aren’t going to say there is a procedure for every bit of the motorway. I think a lot of our colleagues respect the fact that we aren’t treating them like they’ve just landed.”

Cross cut

“It’s an open network,” Fell says. “It’s open 24/7 and we just have to accept that and work on it more safely. If we have to close the motorway we will, and we do night working, but that brings problems for the workers with fatigue.”

Closing a stretch of motorway also displaces traffic onto smaller roads in the vicinity, increasing risk there.

Sometimes hazards can be removed by more basic means. She offers the example of the signs put up on either side of the road and on the central reservation to warn drivers of roadworks. Workers have to cross the carriageway, dodging traffic, to erect the signs.

“They have to make a number of trips, because you have the A-frame, the sign and sandbags [to anchor the frame],” she explains. “Since 2014 we’ve been working with our supply chain and the Roadworker Safety Forum [a group that brings together the HE, regional governments, contractors and the police] and we have relaxed the requirement for offsite signage for short-duration works, and carriageway crossings have reduced from 3.7 million to 5,500. That’s a 99% reduction in exposure to the risk.”

Motorists are now warned of works using other means, such as the variable message signs (VMSs), the digital displays beside or over the carriageways.

If collisions with road users’ vehicles is one major risk to those refurbishing and maintaining the highways, another is working around site vehicles and plant, a perennial in construction and transport (see our feature on segregation (IOSH Magazine, October 2017 issue).

In the scheme of things

As health, safety and wellbeing director, Lucy Fell reports to Highways England’s (HE) safety, engineering and standards director who sits on the executive board and is responsible for the safety of road users as well as workers.
Fell is part of the executive safety committee, which meets monthly, and of a separate non-executive safety committee to oversee performance and nurture the organisation’s safety culture. The committee adds another layer to the executive board’s safety monitoring which focuses more on implementation of initiatives and learning from incidents.
“They bring a huge wealth of experience,” Fell says of the committee members. “The chair used to be the chief exec of Heathrow [Airport] and our chief exec has worked at Severn Trent Water and National Grid, so it’s a real blend of backgrounds. They challenge and say, ‘Why are we doing things this way?’ It’s very easy to say, ‘This is what we do on a construction site’, but why don’t we look at what they do in the utilities sector?”
Fell manages three heads of department responsible for OSH policy and compliance, health and safety delivery and planning and innovation. Three safety and health business partners in HE’s operations and major projects directorates also report to her.
There are 56 OSH posts in the organisation, not all of them filled yet, as some were created to keep pace with HE’s rapid expansion.
“At its most basic my role is about compliance,” says Fell. “It’s about making sure my team is providing competent advice. But it’s also about bringing safety maturity. To ask how things work in practice and to bring an extra dimension of challenge and asking how safety feels in this organisation. Does it feel right? It’s about opening a dialogue.”

HE is working to reduce risks associated with common pieces of plant. Fell says they are experimenting with forward-tipping dump-trucks, which are implicated in a third of construction workplace transport incidents. It is trialling various controls such as enclosed cabs, 360-degree cameras and vehicles with the skip at the back, to see which gives the best results.

One means of protecting roadworkers and their vehicles from shunts by rogue road users is to deploy impact protection vehicles (IPVs) located 50 m to 100 m behind the works vehicles. Though they safeguard the rest of the works, IPV drivers sometimes suffer injuries from the impacts their vehicles absorb; there were 149 serious incidents involving the drivers between 2007 and 2012 on HE’s network. One of its contractors, Colas, is testing driverless IPVs.

“We facilitated the trial on a closed section of the M3,” says Fell. “By moving the driver of the IPV into a leading vehicle you are removing the risk to the driver but still providing that protection.”

The IPV is linked to the lead vehicle it protects by an “electronic towbar”, the software maintaining a fixed distance between the two.

This issue of autonomous vehicles on the motorway leads us naturally to “platooning”, the proposal for convoys of HGVs to travel the major roads with a driver in the lead vehicle only. HE and the Department for Transport have announced trials on the arrangement, attracting extensive coverage in the UK’s press.

Fell says she has not been involved in the project directly – it is driven by the HE’s innovation hub – but she says that, like all advances on the network, even down to changes to road signage, the proposal has been subject to extensive risk assessment for potential impact on road workers as well as road users.

Chain reaction

In a previous leader interview (see March 2016’s IOSH Magazine, bit.ly/2w4ZxBA), Andy Sneddon, then health, safety and environment director at major contractor Vinci Construction, singled out HE, along with Network Rail, as an example of a major client that tried to impose its standards on supply chain members with their own mature safety systems.

Lucy-Fell-Highways-in-conversationFell says she was surprised by the comments. “That’s not something we have heard anywhere else,” she says. “I think we are one of the most collaborative clients there are.”

She says safety is “baked in” to all of HE’s contracting and procurement procedures but it consults contractors on improvements at an engagement council and a collaboration board involving directors from the supply chain. Guidance on issues such as minimum supervision levels and use of barriers, issued under the HE’s “Raising the bar” safety programme (bit.ly/2jmijlO), was written by the supply chain. “What we do is facilitate that,” says Fell. “We don’t impose things because we know that wouldn’t work … We have brought in contractors who are competent and who know what works for them. What we might do is set goals, we might look at the outcomes we want to achieve, but we wouldn’t say how they have to do it.”

She notes that OSH professionals from contractors such as Kier, Carillion and Balfour Beatty have been seconded to HE to work on safety improvement projects.

The reportable accident frequency rate in the supply chain has reduced from 0.16 to 0.08 per 100,000 hours in the past two years. “To get an AFR [accident frequency rate] below 0.1 is an achievement,” she says. The severity rate of accidents among road traffic officers also halved.

HE plans to convene a large infrastructure clients forum, involving the other major procurers of construction work such as High Speed 2 (HS2), the rail project to cut train times between London and the North of England, so they can compare notes, share best practice and avoid duplication of effort.

Passport please

On 1 October HE launched a “passport” card scheme for employees and contractors. The smartcard, developed with contractors Amey, Connect Plus and Aone+ is now required for entry to any HE site and ensures the holder has been through a general safety induction, which can be supplemented by shorter site-specific briefings. It can also carry the bearer’s training and competence record and medical details.

“It helps reduce duplication and red tape,” says Fell. “It will stop long inductions on site, which a lot of people moan about. And other clients, like HS2, can use it. It can even remind supervisors when someone’s training expires.”

The card, which can be read by mobile phones, cutting entry time to work sites, also has the capacity for HE and its suppliers to monitor working and commuting hours.

Fell says eventually this data could be supplemented by information from phone apps that show individuals’ sleep patterns before they start their working days to provide richer information on fatigue and alertness than has been available to date.

“With fatigue, people think it’s the hours worked and the amount of sleep,” she says. “But it’s the quality of your sleep. If you have been up in the night several times so you have never got into the deep sleep that makes you properly rested, that’s important too.”

She recognises that this level of surveillance will depend on acceptance by those who are monitored but says convincing workers of the value of adequate sound sleep is a priority of HE’s wellbeing programme as it helps ensure employees are “work ready” (see the “Well provided for” box above).

Executive track

When Fell left university soon after the Millennium, she was offered the opportunity to train as an accountant. “But I didn’t want to be stuck in an office; I wanted to be out and about meeting people.”

She saw a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) advertisement calling for people to train as inspectors. “It said you could be in an engineering workshop one day and a hospital or nuclear site the next. So I applied and joined HSE as one of the youngest inspectors and never looked back.” (She recently repeated the achievement by becoming the youngest member to achieve IOSH chartered fellow status.)

She started in the HSE’s Field Operations Directorate inspecting a variety of workplaces, then moved to the Hazardous Installations Directorate which regulates major accident hazard sites such as oil and gas installations and finally to the Construction Inspectorate.

Later, “I decided I wanted to be a practitioner, not just to regulate and I wanted to work in construction,” so she moved to construction company Galliford Try.

Having worked for the regulator gives her a useful perspective because she understands inspectors’ priorities and why the regulations are written in a particular way and what can go wrong when people fail to comply with them.

“I think it gives you a real breadth and depth of experience that you wouldn’t get as a practitioner in one organisation.”

She says this experience put her in a position to reach her present senior role in her 30s: “I started in health and safety at 22, when most people approach it as a second career.”

She supports IOSH’s work to encourage more people to take the same path and to make OSH a first choice of profession: “I went into my old school, a girl’s grammar school, because they were promoting science, technology and engineering careers for women. The girls didn’t even know health and safety was a job; they didn’t know people could have life-changing accidents. I think a lot of them were encouraged about looking at it as a career.”

Lucy-Fell-Highways-England-in-thoughtEmpathic reach

What does she think is the most important characteristic of a safety and health leader? “You have to have a lot of empathy for people who do the job. It’s no good for me to write a 100-page document for road traffic officers that advises on climbing over the [motorway] barrier, for example. That’s not going to work at 2am in the rain is it? I have to think about how it will work and ask the people doing the job and work with them and be pragmatic.

“I think it’s also influencing others to secure their commitment. I know people think with the HSE you go round saying, ‘You’ve got to do that because I’ve got a warrant’, but there’s a lot of influencing that goes on beside enforcement and [a lot of] translating the law into understandable language.”

Another priority is to ensure that the team supporting a leader has a variety of skills and aptitudes. “We are very different in our backgrounds and experiences,” she says of her team.

Wherever she has worked she has embraced continuing professional development opportunities and sought to plug gaps in her understanding, latterly aided by IOSH’s Blueprint framework. Finance and budgeting is one example. “It’s quite complicated in HE when we are looking at project financing. You are looking at huge figures and we are not for profit, so it was an area I needed to improve in.”

She has also accepted offers of mentoring and coaching, including from HE non-executive director Elaine Holt who chairs the safety committee (see box on p 46). Fell says mentors in each of her jobs have helped her develop confidence and gravitas and learn how to influence executive boards. In turn, she now mentors those coming through the ranks.

“I think it’s really important people have reflective practice and look at what they need to develop, not just technical skills. I think that’s been key to my success.”

What is she most proud of professionally? “I was going to say our AFR,” she says, “but what I am really proud of is that with the help of the suppliers and the exec and colleagues we have raised the profile of health and safety in our organisation and the supply chain. People in the supply chain say in the last ten years it’s never been higher than it is at the moment. The AFR is one indicator; we are having less accidents and doing a lot more work. We’ve challenged ourselves and our supply chain to do better, and we’ve done better.”  

Louis Wustemann is 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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