Leader interview

Marie Chandler, NATS

Personal experience has taught the air traffic controller’s OSH head the importance of managing stress and wellbeing.

Image credit: Andrew Firth
Image credit: Andrew Firth

References to safety management in corporate annual reports rarely run to more than a couple of paragraphs buried two-thirds in. NATS – formerly National Air Traffic Services – is an exception. In the company’s 2018 annual review, the first reference to safety performance appears in line five of the chairman’s report and the topic runs through the document like letters through a stick of seaside rock.

But to NATS, which manages the transit of planes through the UK’s airspace and the arrival and departure of flights at 13 UK airports, the safety its chairman and others refer to is primarily that of the 250 million air passengers a year whose journeys it directs.

We had to weigh our employees on a regular basis to check they were the right weight for the fall protection system


“NATS has a phenomenal culture of keeping the skies safe,” says Marie Chandler, head of quality, safety, health and wellbeing. “It’s in our strapline [‘Advancing aviation, keeping the skies safe’]; it’s what we do.” 

But when Chandler joined NATS from wind turbine manufacturer Siemens Gamesa in November 2017 she found that essential emphasis on passenger safety left occupational safety and health wanting.

Maria Chandler career file

Jul 2018-present, Head of quality, safety, health and wellbeing, NATS

Nov 2017-Jul 2018, Head of safety, health and wellbeing, NATS

Apr 2017-Nov 2017, Senior quality management and EHS specialist, Siemens Gamesa

Jul 2015-Mar 2017, Head of quality management and EHS site execution, EMEA, Siemens Wind Power

Apr 2008-Jun 2015, Head of quality and EHS onshore UK and Ireland; previously head of strategy, business excellence and quality; previously business excellence manager, Siemens Wind Power UK

Feb 2007-Apr 2008, Business improvement adviser, Balfour Beatty Infrastructure Services

Jan 2001-Jan 2007, Export market specialist/six sigma project manager; previously marketing assistant, Eli Lilly

Part of the problem was that most OSH effort was focused on the substantial proportion of NATS’ 4,300 staff grouped at the technology centre at Whiteley, near Portsmouth – where Chandler is based – and two control centres at Swanwick, a suburb of Southampton in Hampshire, and Prestwick in Scotland that manage traffic overflying the UK. Less attention was paid to employees at the UK airports, plus those at the overseas operations in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore and Spain, and 900 engineers looking after isolated radar and very-high-frequency radio installations.

“Having come from a site background myself, I saw where the gaps were and said there were some serious risks we needed to look at,” Chandler says.

Staff are encouraged now to think about their own and colleagues’ safety as a matter of routine throughout the working day, “so safety is not just about what happens in the ops room”.

In the case of the remote staff, there is more emphasis on dynamic risk assessment. She gives the example of engineers visiting the Snaefell radio communications station 630 m up the highest mountain on the Isle of Man.

“We are talking to them about how urgent is urgent,” she says. “If we have a radar that’s out and there’s a lot of snow how do you judge the operational safety side of getting that radar back up and running against the health and safety side of going up the mountain in the snow? That’s the kind of thing we are trying to get people to think about.”

A behavioural safety campaign, Think Act Be Safe, emphasises safety awareness outside work as well as in the workplace, focusing on risks such as fire in the home and safe driving.

NATS123-SmallVoice of experience

NATS is involved in the Single European Sky programme to co-ordinate national traffic control systems and reduce inefficiencies in the use of airspace, partly to create capacity for a massive growth in air travel that is forecast; passenger journeys in Europe are expected to double to 8.2 billion a year by 2037. 

The air traffic controller is also committed to reduce the charges it levies on UK customers for its services by 20% by the end of the current four-year planning period in December, with no fall in safety or customer service levels.

There are multiple technological initiatives under way (see “Screen test”, below), most of which have to be implemented without any interruption in NATS’ 24-hour service. In such a period of change, employee wellbeing was enough of a priority for NATS that it was in Chandler’s role title when she joined the organisation. But she says ensuring the general good health and mental wellbeing of staff was focused particularly on the 1,700 air traffic controllers, on whose alertness and attention the safety of the travelling public depends.

In the scheme of things

As head of quality, safety, health and wellbeing, Marie Chandler reports to NATS’ safety director, who has overall responsibility for passenger safety and sits on the executive board. The number of people who report to Chandler is 16, two-thirds of whom are safety, health and wellbeing specialists and the remainder quality experts.

When she arrived at NATS in 2017, her post was located in the human resources function. When the new safety director was recruited in April 2018 he brought together the passenger and employee safety teams.

Of her team’s role, Chandler says: “We set the framework for how we want things to be done, the management system, the policies, the procedures, the methods in which we want them to work, the regulation checks.

“A big part of our role is independent oversight. Are you following that framework? Are there any gaps?”

Along with a mixture of formal and informal audits, her team ensures the technical skills and competence of managers and operational staff in the business units to manage safety day to day. “Making sure we have the right people in the right place.”

Her role did not encompass quality management when she took the post, but she was later asked to revamp the function.

“I truly believe they complement each other,” she says of OSH and quality assurance. Each business unit now has a quality specialist and an OSH expert from her group.

“They work together,” she says. “One ensures we have all the processes and procedures we need and the health and safety person can give expert knowledge on regulation and so on.”

Air traffic control is heavily process driven, says Chandler, since the safety of air passengers relies on controllers following strict written routines with no unnecessary deviation. NATS’ other processes have not always been marked by the same consistency, she admits. The quality team is tasked with introducing a similar rigour across the organisation, teaching standard models for project management that will ensure good results are repeatable and staff are not wasting time developing processes.

“We need to focus on the whole company,” she says, “and what it needs to deliver is the huge amount of change that is on our radar – excuse the pun.”

The health and wellbeing component of the job had a particular resonance for her.

“I brought something personal to it,” she says. 

“I had a brain tumour three years ago which had been misdiagnosed.”  

Three weeks after the eventual correct diagnosis she had surgery and returned to work as soon as possible, without facing up to the magnitude of what had happened to her.

“Then I wondered why in November of that year I had a breakdown with depression and anxiety.”

During the seven-month absence from work that followed she took stock, reviewed her life and decided to change jobs.

“I was very honest when I came here and said, ‘The thing I can offer is a personal aspect on this and how I would want a company to treat me’,” she says.

“In my first three months I shared my story in our internal magazine, just to say that I had been through it and empathised with people and that you can bounce back. I feel stronger than I did before.”

Peer to peer

In devising a wellbeing programme, Chandler drew on data from a 2017 staff survey using the Health and Safety Executive’s Stress Management Standards Indicator Tool, which drew responses from 1,800 NATS employees, 43% of the workforce. “From that we were able to devise a NATS-wide action plan of things we needed to look at.”

The plan included raising awareness about the risks of working excessive hours and providing support for employees in stressful situations.

NATS already offered immediate support for the 1,700 air traffic controllers if they experienced stressful incidents such as a breach in the safe minimum distance between two aircraft – known as “loss of separation”.

“There were ‘diffusers’,” says Chandler. “Colleagues who would talk to the person, calm them down, check they were fit to get back to work.

“We have expanded that so now we have a proper peer support programme that covers everyone.”

This initiative instructs employees in this role, 90 of whom have also trained in mental health first aid.

The wellbeing programme has four pillars:

  • Prevention – attempting to reduce the instance of stress-related absence and mental ill health. This includes roadshows at the company’s sites to explain the programme and training for senior managers. Chandler says NATS executive team mandated four-hour mental health awareness sessions for around 90 of the company’s senior leadership team and the training has since been extended to a further 140 managers.

Screen test

NATS is in the middle of a major programme to upgrade its systems to take advantage of new technology and prepare the service for the forecast increase in air travel in the decades ahead.

One innovation is “digital towers”. Under this, the familiar towers at the edge of airports are emptied of controllers and monitoring of flights will be carried out remotely. Such a system is being trialled at London City Airport. From early next year NATS expects to control the 200 planes that fly into and out of the airport daily from its centre 130 km away in Swanwick, Hampshire.

The runways and airspace in east London will be covered by 14 high-definition cameras streamed live to a panorama of video screens in the control centre, says Marie Chandler. “So, what you see on the screens is exactly what you would see out of the window at the airport. It’s the same number of people [controlling the traffic], but remote.”

In the event of any technology problems, there are back up systems in place for additional safety assurance.

Another development is the introduction of electronic flight strips. Most control centres still use a system of handwritten paper strips, each carrying information about a plane in the air, such as its height, point of origin and destination, which are handed from one controller to another as the flight moves between air sectors.

Last year NATS’ London Terminal Control Centre moved to a screen-based system of virtual strips represented on tablet computers. The controllers tap or swipe the strips to move them or hand them to a colleague. The system’s introduction follows a long development process involving the company’s specialist human factors team who looked at all aspects of the new interface, from font sizes and background colours in the software to optimum screen angles to minimise glare.

  • Intervention – this includes the expansion of the peer support system to all staff.
  • Rehabilitation and resilience – employees going back to work after extended sickness absence are allocated “return-to-work buddies” to help them to readjust. The occupational health team at the Swanwick centre liaises with Chandler’s staff and local managers about reasonable adjustments to duties and the workplace for staff returning after long-term absence.
  • Measurement – Chandler’s team analyses the absence figures and peer support data to identify any hotspots for attention.

Chandler says NATS does not try to measure the benefits of its health and wellbeing support in terms of financial return on investment. “It’s just the right thing to do,” she says of the programme.

One metric she regards as a positive indicator is that 9% of employees contact NATS’ employee assistance programme each year, above the take-up for many organisations. Otherwise she focuses on leading indicators such as the number of peer supporters trained and refresher sessions completed.

Currently, Chandler is working on a master’s degree in workplace health and wellbeing, inspired by her own health challenges.

“It’s been fascinating,” she says.

Starting point

Chandler’s first jobs were in sales and marketing in the pharmaceuticals sector, but she shifted to disaster recovery planning. She ran her own company merchandising for a few years before returning to pharmaceuticals to work in quality management.

She joined Siemens Wind Power – later Siemens Gamesa – and was crisis manager when the company suffered a series of serious safety incidents. Her background in business improvement and quality led the company to call on Chandler to troubleshoot its safety and health management.

She took an OSH qualification and ran Siemens Wind Power’s safety and quality teams for seven years. “It’s always been about operational excellence and fixing things that are broken,” she says of her career so far.

I suggest managing the safety of wind turbine technicians may be one of the most stressful OSH jobs there is. Anyone in the nacelle of a turbine collects an unusually complete set of serious hazards: working at height in a confined space near heavy machinery, often hours from the nearest rescue team.

ISO 45001: getting engaged

Marie Chandler is preparing for NATS’ OSH system, currently certified to BS OHSAS 18001, to go through its first audit against the new ISO 45001 management systems standard in August.

I ask what the gap analysis exercise revealed. As in so many organisations the consultant highlighted room for improvement in the company’s employee involvement.

“We need to build strong relationships with the trade unions to make sure they are on board,” says Chandler. “It’s something we need to do more of. They have direct access to their members, so we need stronger relationships with them and involve them more.”

She now attends monthly meetings with representatives of trade unions ATSS, PCS and Prospect to discuss the health and safety performance data. The reps are also invited to Chandler’s team’s awayday meetings.

“They are very supportive of what we are doing, which is great,” she says. “It was just understanding how best to use them and how to bring them into our team.”

She agrees and adds that moving the massive turbines to their destinations and erecting them also requires rigorous planning and risk assessment. “We had 18-wheel trailers coming through small towns where we had to remove street furniture just to make the roads big enough. It was a [logistical] minefield.”

There were health management challenges too. Though turbines have internal lifts to carry workers to the top, before these are commissioned the installers have to climb 100 m up the shafts.

“We had to weigh our employees on a regular basis to check they were the right weight for the fall-protection system,” Chandler says. “That didn’t go down too well.”

I finish by asking what qualities she believes make a good OSH leader. “It’s got to be listening,” she says. “I can’t do my job without feedback from others.”

Knowing one’s limits is another important attribute. “The big thing coming out of what I’ve been through is understanding and looking after my own wellbeing and knowing when I need to take a break and not feeling guilty about it. I’ve found that when I do that my team does the same. There are times when we need to put the hours in but that’s not all the time.”



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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