Leader interview

Neil Lennox: Sainsbury’s

The supermarket’s safety and insurance head discusses CDM uncertainties and why he talks more about trust than compliance. 

Leader interview. Neil Lennox: Sainsbury’s
Image credits: Andrew Firth

Words: Louis Wustemann
Pictures: Andrew Firth

“Ninety per cent of my job is not technical,” says Neil Lennox. “It’s about people. It’s about convincing somebody to do something. It’s about talking to a colleague and if they have a challenge about something, I need to be able to go back to them and explain really simply why it’s important they do X.”

Lennox, who is group head of safety and insurance at the UK’s second-largest supermarket chain, says he doesn’t fall back on the law very often in these persuasive discussions.

“I have to know my stuff because I have to be able talk competently but, to be honest, if you quizzed me about any set of regulations I’d probably fail because I don’t look at them that often. I’m much more likely to be talking about the reputational risk or the risk of more incidents than the rules and regulations.

Neil Lennox career file

2004-present:    Group head of safety and insurance, Sainsbury’s
2002-2004:    Head of health, safety and environment, British Gas
1998-2002:    Senior manager, ground safety, British Airways
1996-1998:    European safety, health and environment field support manager, Air Products
1993-1996:    UK Gases Group, safety health and environment manager, Air Products
1991-1993:    Training manager, Air Products
1984-1991:    Sales engineer then senior applications engineer, Air Products

“Our aspiration is to be the most trusted retailer. We can’t be the most trusted retailer if customers are injured when they come into our shops. We can’t be most trusted retailer if we are prosecuted. We can’t be the most trusted retailer if the unions are falling out with us all the time.”

This focus on corporate objectives to drive OSH performance has led him to resist adding an explicit reference to preserving employee and customer safety to the company’s written values.

“Our other corporate values such as respect for the individual, inspiring trust and making customers’ lives easier can all be brought back to safety.

“I don’t want my store managers to worry about safety. I want them to worry about running great stores. But I need them to look up and ask whether they are happy everything is OK and, if so, get on with their job, which is to serve members of the public and provide them with great food.

“I don’t want them to walk past things but I don’t want them to obsess about things either.”

Poll position

Lennox’s approach clearly resonates with the retailer’s staff. Three times a year Sainsbury’s surveys a third of its employees on their attitude to work and satisfaction with conditions in the stores, offices and depots, so the whole workforce has the chance to give their view by the year-end.

Neil-Lennox-Sainsbury's-close-upEmployees are asked whether they agree with the statement “Safety is taken seriously where I work”, but Lennox says he also tracks responses to more general questions about adequacy of training, equipment and management.

“We create a safety index from the answers,” he says. “When I joined [in 2004] that was running at 82% to 83% positive, which is pretty good. But I was set a target by my then boss, the HR director, to get to 90%. The people who run the survey tell me a half percentage point shift is quite meaningful. Around 130,000 colleagues a year answer the survey and at the most recent wave we were up at 88.9%.”

As an organisation we are past doing things because the rules tell us to do them 

He says lower scores across a whole department, branch or depot are used to draw up a risk map showing where the safety team’s attention is needed.

“It’s generally down to management, down to the manager not treating the colleagues in the way they would like, not listening to them.” Lack of consideration by managers has a marked effect on incident rates, but the reverse is also true: “A lot of our incidents, slips especially, are down to poor housekeeping. When people take pride in their workplace and look after each other [accidents] are less likely.”

He cites safety consultancy DuPont’s Bradley Curve that starts with high injury rates where workers regard safety as more a matter of luck than management. It then progresses through them needing supervision, then assuming individual responsibility for safety, to what Lennox calls the nirvana of interdependent teams protecting their members and others, with a resulting low accident frequency.

“As an organisation we are past doing things because the rules tell us to do them. We are at the stage where colleagues do it because they care. In some stores we are at the stage where they care about each other, and others where they are not quite at interdependence yet.”

Claims culture

With 163,000 staff and 27 million customers passing through its premises every week, Sainsbury’s inevitably receives civil claims for injuries to individuals in both groups.

Neil-Lennox-Sainsbury's-supermarket-shelvesBut, in common with other retailers, it has to deal with spurious claims, many from members of the public claiming to have slipped or tripped on spills or unattended stock. In the past, retailers have been accused of settling such claims too hastily.

Lennox says every incident is investigated for lessons to be learned to avoid repeats, but also to assess whether it is likely to trigger a claim.

“If we have done something wrong, we should settle as amicably, quickly and sensibly as we can. But if we haven’t done anything wrong we will fight it … We are not a pushover, so we have taken some cases which, on the face of it, you might have thought would not play out well in court but we have taken them because we thought it was the right decision for the business.”

He cites a war veteran who claimed he had slipped on a spill and who turned up in court with a chest full of medals. “We could show there wasn’t a spillage, we had CCTV [closed circuit television footage] showing he didn’t really fall over, and the case was thrown out.”

In the scheme of things

As group head of safety and insurance, Neil Lennox reports to the corporate services director (who is also the company secretary) who sits on Sainsbury’s operating board.
Lennox’s own team comprises seven direct reports, three of whom look after retail operations, managing teams of health and safety business partners in the north, centre and south of the UK, and providing advice to the management in the company’s supermarkets and convenience stores. One supports the logistics operation, covering Sainsbury’s six depots and another 14 contractor-operated hubs. He has a fire expert and two insurance specialists.
His team owns the policies and procedures for food safety, OSH, fire and insurance. They advise and support the management in branches and depots on controlling local risks and carrying out the day-to-day operational work such as risk assessments.
“If we weren’t here, quite honestly I don’t think anyone would notice for a few months, but things would start to slip.”
Insurance was added to his role and title two years ago in a restructuring exercise. Before, claims were handled by a head of insurance with a finance background who was more distanced from their causes.
“I’ve had strong relationships with the insurance function in all the businesses I’ve worked in. The link between the claim at the end and the incident at the beginning is absolutely clear and what we have done in the past two years is take out all the guff in the middle.”
The safety team talks to regional managers and store managers about the potential cost of customer accidents. Like many local authorities, Sainsbury’s mostly self-insures, he explains, bearing the cost of claims on its own books.
“So from a profit perspective, the more we can engineer out the risks the better. The best way to do that is have the team coaching the business to understand what the end cost looks like, rather than having two separate functions.”
He offers tackling occupational asthma in the company’s in-store bakeries as an example. Since it is a delayed disease risk, few store managers see an employee become sensitised so they may not control exposure to flour as tightly as they should, until they are made aware of the consequences for the individual and the company down the line.
In 2009, he took on responsibility for food safety and passed management of occupational health (OH) to the human resources department.
“I don’t do wellbeing and some of the health things, such as stress indicators, which we monitor through our Talkback [employee opinion] surveys.”
He still works closely with the OH staff, and the safety team still organises and monitors health surveillance for workers such as those in the bakeries exposed to flour.
It seems like a curious division, but he argues issues such as noise, manual handling and dust issues are “bread and butter” for a team trained and qualified in safety and health, so naturally rest with his function.

Another case involved a Sainsbury’s employee who was claiming £1m in damages for a work injury and refused lower settlements before it went to court. “The court did everything bar say they were lying and gave them £250 nominal damages. We felt sorry for the colleague because they had been badly advised by their union.”

In answer to a question about the range of hazards his team advises on, Lennox says: “I think we have pretty much everything you can think of.”

He almost caveats chemical hazards then stops himself. “We have ammonia in our depots, CO2 and halocarbons in refrigerants, so you still end up with COSHH [Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations] issues.”

An unceasing building and refurbishment programme that includes the 5,667 sq m superstore at Vauxhall, London, in whose coffee shop our interview takes place, makes Sainsbury’s a serial construction client. Lennox says adjustment to the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations (CDM) 2015 involved training the in-house property team and appointing a preferred supplier to act as principal designer on most projects. “Two of my team are construction specialists and, from a store development point of view, it’s pretty well-handled because the main contractors know what they are doing.”

The challenges come with smaller refurbishment and maintenance and repair tasks, he says, particularly because it can be unclear whether the latter fall under CDM.

“We have a series of gates, from feasibility to capital approval, and at each stage we will check whether we need to appoint a principal designer … We run into a bit of a grey area when we are having to swap a piece of plant or doing investigative works with more than one contractor involved.

“A great example is a drainage problem. Initially we’ll call out the refrigeration contractor and they come and have a look and say it’s a drainage problem. The drainage contractors come and have a look and if there are pumps involved that’s another contractor. And sometimes the only way to get it resolved is to have all of them on site at the same time.

“It’s probably not quite a CDM job but it’s not always clear.

“We have just rolled out defibrillators to 120 of our largest stores. If you read CDM, bearing in mind you have to drill three holes and put them up with three screws, technically it’s probably a CDM job, but I wouldn’t class it as one.”

(For more on how CDM 2015 applies to maintenance and repair work, see IOSH Magazine, February 2016, bit.ly/2gYfzGd)

Home hazards

Changes in consumer demand have pushed the supermarkets away from the retail park mega-branches towards smaller local convenience stores – the company operates 773 of these as well as its 601 supermarkets, and latterly to home delivery. Sainsbury’s makes more than 200,000 domestic deliveries a week. That has changed the business’s hazard profile.

“We would once have said we had very little lone working,” he says. “The advent of online shopping and home delivery has led to more lone working in more hazardous locations, so instead of just delivering to a warehouse it could now be anywhere.”

Lennox was well prepared for this development by his time at British Gas, where engineers are trained to assess and manage difficult situations in customers’ homes.

Sainsbury’s home delivery drivers are taught to carry out dynamic risk assessments and always to be aware of their surroundings, watching for everything from uneven pavements to vicious dogs and aggressive householders. 

“If somebody is not comfortable, we would always say ‘don’t do it’,” says Lennox. “We would always stand by someone who said they weren’t comfortable delivering to a location, so long as they had good justification.

“We can block addresses or whole postcodes. We can send two people to an address if we have to. Clearly we don’t want to do that because home delivery is supposed to be a single person job.

Neil-Lennox-Sainsbury's-coffee-close-up“In our stores we can say of manual handling, ‘if it’s too heavy you do it with two people’. You can’t do that in the back of a van. Generally we expect drivers to load their own vehicles and tote [delivery box] weights could be up to 15 kg and stored above head height in the back of the vehicle.”

The drivers are taught handling techniques to minimise the risk of musculoskeletal damage and the totes have been designed for easy grip and handling.

“They also have sack barrows that will go across rough ground and even up stairs if necessary. We have done a lot of ergonomic assessments and a lot of education, but you have to trust the people to do the right thing.”

The risk of road traffic accidents has also risen. “HGVs [heavy goods vehicles] generally go up and down the motorway, come off and do a short journey into a store. Home delivery opens up to a lot more exposure to pedestrians.”

The drivers are also likely to be less experienced behind the wheel than their road haulage counterparts, which makes selection important. Sainsbury’s contracts AA Drivetech to carry out licence checks and to risk assess candidates for home delivery positions.

“If we think they haven’t got the right attitude or the right road awareness, in some cases we will give them extra training or coaching but in others we have to say ‘we are really sorry but you are not the right person’.”

Primary interest

Like all UK retailers, Sainsbury’s activities are regulated by local authorities rather than the Health and Safety Executive. The desire for a consistent approach to enforcement led the company to join the “primary authority” scheme in which organisations with sites in multiple councils’ or fire services’ jurisdictions can work with one of them to set standards that the others are then expected to apply uniformly.

“We have four different primary authority relationships,” says Lennox. “One for fire, one for environmental health, one for trading standards and one for petroleum licensing. Which pretty much covers everything we do.”

The partnership with Cherwell and South Northants District Council to set safety and health standards has been very beneficial, he says. In the early days of the scheme there were reports of council environmental health officers in some areas bridling at having to follow rules set by other authorities. Lennox says if that was true, the situation has settled now.

Owning up

Neil Lennox says one of the most important things he has learned as a safety leader is not to feign knowledge.
“Be honest. You’ll never know everything, and if you don’t know something, don’t try to bluff it.
“One of my frustrations years ago was learning all the regulations by rote. I don’t expect people to know everything by heart, I expect them to say ‘I’ll get back to you on that’. The important thing is that there is someone in the team with the necessary information.
“We have experts in everything but we aren’t all experts in everything. If I try to bluff my way through it I’ll get nowhere.”
Another aspect of honesty is admitting your failures: “If you make a mistake, accept it and learn from it. I’ve cocked up in the past and I’ve stood in front of the operating board saying ‘this was on my watch, it was my fault’. I’m still here, so it has worked for me.”
He encourages his team to behave in the same way. “I am honest with them and generally they can tell me if they think I am wrong. I don’t have a monopoly on good ideas and they can challenge me, no matter where they are in the organisation.”

“There’s still a little of that with fire because the fire authorities are a little behind the curve, but even that’s changing. For local authorities, the pressure they are under with cutbacks means they need to say ‘we’ll trust that’s a good relationship and leave them alone’.”

The company’s accident frequency rate (AFR) per 100,000 staff stands at 490 and for customers the measure is 0.12 per million transactions. He says the trend in both rates has been down in the past decade: “When I first joined in 2004 [the AFR] was about two-and-a-half times what it is now,” Lennox says. “It’s plateaued a little recently, but is still going down.”

Harvesting the “low hanging fruit” included cutting slip accidents by around 80% by issuing non-slip shoes and improving housekeeping.

“Manual handling is still one of our biggest issues for colleagues, and we’ve eliminated some of that through training and engineering processes, better stacking in depots and better maintenance of roll cages. As we have built stores and refurbished others we have worked with our store development team to build in features such as non-slip floors in produce areas, which is great for the customers, and improved layouts in bakeries and [food] prep areas. It’s training, engagement with colleagues, lots of little changes.”

Starting point

After graduating as a mechanical engineer in the 1980s, Lennox began a career with Air Products, selling new combustion technology to refiners and chemicals manufacturers.

“I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I could see other people who were better sales people than me and it was the people who were the ‘killer closers’ [closing most deals] who got the sales management jobs.

“Fortuitously a job came up that was a chance to move into a managerial role in training. I’d always been interested in training and coaching so I went for it … My boss at the time said ‘you are throwing your career away’. My response was I don’t see it as any different.”

In this job the company sponsored him to take a master’s degree in business administration. He also gained experience in organising safety training. From there he moved into a newly created UK safety manager post in 1992, later adding responsibility for the rest of Europe. “That was it; I decided it was the career for me.”

Moving to British Airways (BA) in 1998 as senior manager for ground safety, he had his first experience with trade unions – he lists “working with unions to achieve practical solutions” as one of his skills on LinkedIn. “Probably one of my biggest learnings in BA was negotiating with the unions. Whether it was the pilots’ union or the ramp workers’ union, if you didn’t get them to see it your way you could get bogged down in all sorts of problems.”

He returns to his point about OSH as a sales role. “Building relationships, and building trust and having respect for people you have a different viewpoint from, is part of the skill of dealing with the unions and is part of a sales job.”

Neil-Lennox-Sainsbury's-directing-customerHe deepened those skills at British Gas as head of health, safety and environment, and continues to use them at Sainsbury’s, negotiating with the Unite general union and the Usdaw shopworkers’ union.

“At its best, there are some full-time union guys I can have a stand-up row with but we can go to the pub together afterwards and have a pint. We come at things from slightly different angles but our end goal is the same. I do my job because I don’t want to see any Sainsbury’s colleague, contractor or customer injured.

“But I am a realist. As a business we have to make a profit. I have had debates where the union has said ‘you must do it this way’. That might be the best way to do it in their eyes and another way might be best in mine. But the company has to take the consequences if we are wrong and I am paid to take those risk-based decisions on behalf of the company.”

I observe he clearly prefers to lead by persuasion than by command.

“You have to flex it. There are times for clear direction and saying ‘this is what we have to do, no ifs, no buts’. That happens in crisis management, when people will look to you for a clear steer.

“There are times when we have to be policemen, but I’m not a fan of that. I’m much keener on coaching and educating.”

He echoes the concern of Ruth Gallagher, OSH head at Heathrow Airport, in a previous leader interview, that many safety and health practitioners see themselves as separate from organisational matters.

“I’ve interviewed lots of people over the years who are really well qualified but can’t identify with the business and can’t talk business language,” he says. “I’ve recruited store managers and deputy managers and colleagues from the shopfloor and trained them in safety because I get somebody who can talk in the right language to a business leader.”

He tries to visit stores and depots as often as he can because if he is five days a week at the central London head office “I’m not doing my job properly”.

This time out and about is not spent checking that the policies and procedures he oversees are implemented, he says.

“I will be out with my team, which is geographically spread, seeing how they are doing. And I’ll be out seeing what is going on in the business. There’s so much change going on. If I sit in my office and think about rolling out this or that initiative without understanding what it’s like to be a store manager at this point, I just won’t know how to land things.”

He says taking the temperature on the shopfloor also allows him to challenge his own team to do things differently when necessary.

In common with all the retailer’s senior managers he has a “connected store” that they maintain regular contact with, visiting every couple of months and helping out on the shopfloor at Christmas and Easter. Lennox’s connected branch is in Godalming, Surrey. He has been till-trained, so any reader who passed through the store on 23 or 24 December might well have had their purchases rung up by Sainsbury’s group head of safety and insurance.



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.


  • Refreshing to read a

    Permalink Submitted by Dale Banham CMIOSH FIIRSM RSP OHSCR on 21 December 2016 - 12:21 pm

    Refreshing to read a realistic approach to H&S. More H&S leaders/advisors etc should adopt a more holistic approach rather than degrade our profession by 'Regulation in Isolation' adopting 'tick box charlie' approaches to compliance with H&S particularly CDM. I have clients who have worked in Construction all their lives and now refused entry as no skilled CSCS card. They had CSCS card but now need skilled worker card for renewal when their trade is fitting kitchens. CITB NVQs now required for construction as this body doesn't recognise other industry skills which are paramount to undertake works in first place!! All this despite working for same client and in London for over 4 years across the breath of London!! H&S gone mad as 'Site Rules' aspect of CDM over rules HASWA Sect 2 ITIS and all aspects of common sense. Needs redressing soon.

  • All construction jobs, no

    Permalink Submitted by michael beheny on 21 December 2016 - 12:30 pm

    All construction jobs, no matter how small are CDM jobs and must have a construction health & safety plan, but only require a Principal Designer if there is more than one contractor.

    The principal designer's role is a Health & safety role and he has no design duties under CDM unless he is separately employed as a designer.

  • Super article which tells it

    Permalink Submitted by Jim Lennox. CFIOSH Independent H&S Consultant on 21 December 2016 - 01:42 pm

    Super article which tells it as it should be without too much stress on regulations etc. We need to rely on people accepting responsibility if we are to reduce accident and I'll health rates.

  • Good that Sainsbury's are

    Permalink Submitted by Ian on 21 December 2016 - 03:41 pm

    Good that Sainsbury's are taking the role seriously and putting some weight behind it. Praise also to Mr Lennox and his honesty is the best policy.
    I'm a regular customer and a professional FM so I do note how things are being done whilst in store (I know. Sad old git). I would suggest though that the company invest in a better FM provision on the soft services side. The two stores nearest to me are horrible on the outside and stairs and walkways from the covered car park are usually a disgrace.
    If I didn't know that the inside of the store was actually ok I would never go in!


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