Leader interview

Ruth Gallagher, Heathrow

The airport operator’s safety improvement director believes in the necessity of making safety personal and the limits of technical skills. 


Pictures: Andrew firth

“I always say that I fell through my career,” says Ruth Gallagher. “I don’t really think I made any direct choices; things got offered and I went for them.”

Gallagher’s eye for a good move and the acuity of those who made the offers have clearly served her well, as she recently graduated to one of the UK’s most senior OSH posts.

As safety improvement director at Europe’s busiest airport her work takes in the duties of a major construction client, passenger movement and crisis management in cases such as the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

Around 75 million travellers will pass through Heathrow in 2016, she says, “so obviously one of our risks is around aircraft movement and the risk of an accident caused by a runway incursion or bird strike. The airside team manage the day-to-day compliance and my team assures that”. 

Another airside hazard is presented by the hundreds of daily vehicle movements needed to refuel and replenish aircraft on the ground.

On the “landside”, in the terminals and office building there are Legionella, asbestos and confined space risks. Years of development at Heathrow mean hazards below ground also need careful management and accurate maps of buried services are essential.

Most passenger accidents occur on moving staircases, Gallagher says: “We are in discussion with HSL [the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) research division] to be part of their four-year project on behaviour on escalators.”

Hearts and minds

Since most workers at Heathrow are employed by third parties, her team’s efforts to create a safe and healthy airport often requires them to win commitment by other employers in what she refers to as the Heathrow “community”.

“We can provide tools to take the manual handling out of baggage movements,” she says, “but it needs the commitment of the community to use them.”

Apart from the 80 airlines that use the airport, the community includes ground handling contractors which service the aircraft with everything from lavatory drainage to catering supplies.

The nine top-tier ground handling firms play a critical role in managing airside safety and health, she says, but Heathrow has no direct contract with them – they compete with each other for airline contracts. However it does control the ground operations licences that allow them to operate and can make safety standards part of the licence conditions.

“Coming from construction, where as a principal contractor you own everything inside the [site] fence and you have direct contracts with the contractors and it’s easy to set standards, this is a real challenge,” she says, “because it’s all about influencing. And trying to explain the business benefits of health and safety to their bottom lines.”

The fact that the workforce transfers frequently between the handlers as they win and lose airlines’ business is another complicating factor in engaging with management and the workers to improve OSH standards.

It sounds like a nightmare to oversee, I suggest. “Just getting everybody in a room and to agree to work in one direction and then trying to decide how we will resource it can be a real, real challenge,” she agrees. “But we are getting there.”


In the scheme of things

Ruth Gallagher leads a team of 23 responsible for the safety, health and wellbeing of staff contractors and passengers at Heathrow. Five of these are direct reports, the heads of safety improvement, health and safety change and transformation, knowledge management and oversight, airside policy and oversight and fire safety, learning and development.

“We cover both the construction client side and the operational side,” she says.” I am responsible for assuring the airside safety elements such as aircraft movement.”

That assurance means verifying compliance with the airport’s European Aviation Safety Agency certificate, which is the responsibility of the airside safety and regulation team.

She reports to the airport’s chief operating officer. The safety function was moved into the operations directorate around the time she was appointed as director, having been simply a support service before.

“Having that voice at the operational leadership table has been a real game-changer for health and safety,” she says.

“A lot of people talk about how important it is to talk to the exec level but what is important to me is making sure our safety team are operating and engaging at the right level.

“We can probably have more impact talking to our frontline managers, who manage the people on a day-to-day basis, having them in a room for half an hour, than sitting with the exec for half an hour.”

Her own safety performance indicators are derived from a programme called “colleague home safe” based on the ambition to get all workers home safe and well every day. The three incidents that would stop a worker fulfilling the home safe aim would be if they had a lost-time incident, been sent to hospital or are absent due to work-related ill health.

“So those are my main KPIs along with contractor lost-time incidents (LTIs), passenger incidents, fires and, false alarms. 

“But the benefit I get out of sessions with the exec is not necessarily going through the KPIs, it’s some of the broader discussions we have about incidents and improvement activity and conversations about what we are going to do next.

Heathrow’s LTI rate has come down in recent years and, with a slight blip since the beginning of 2016, is on target to meet the target rate of 0.2 per 100,000 hours worked.

Gallagher says she is keen to shift focus now to leading indicators, using measures of employees trained and evidence of implementation of management systems and number of completed fire risk assessments.

“Those are the sort of things that show the exec that not only is our performance going the right way but we are doing everything that the best airports company in the world would be expected to be doing.”

Competence matters

The skills needed to persuade third parties to buy into OSH projects Heathrow proposes and then to steer those projects to completion go well beyond the traditional core ones of risk evaluation and control.

“We have tried to recruit professionals with those skills in the past 12 to 14 months and it’s tough,” Gallagher says. Candidates may be technically competent, “but when you ask them in assessment to write a project plan and present it, you start seeing some real gaps in capability”. She believes the skills gap could be closed if business management undergraduates had the opportunity to switch into OSH management courses in the final year of their degrees.

She attends the London Health and Safety Directors Forum and says its OSH director members are often split when they describe the skills they need in practitioners. “There’s half of the room saying ‘I’m looking for CMIOSH and qualifications’, then there’s my side saying ‘yes, but you can train people in that. I want good communicators, people who are good storytellers’.”

“Safety is a choice,” she adds. “I can write the best procedures in the world, I can give you every tool in the book, I can make safety as simple as possible, but you need to choose to want to do it.”

Gallagher says there is a debate in her OSH team about whether they are partners or advisers to the rest of the Heathrow business and the others that operate from the airport.

“Part of my team don’t want to be business partners, they are advisers,” she says. “But HR went on a journey ten years ago where they removed the adviser terminology and it’s now all about business partnering. I can walk into any leadership team meeting across the business and they will have their HR business partner at the table. I’m challenged to find how many will also have their safety person there, engaged in a discussion about where the business needs to go and how to get there.

“Unless we turn health and safety into a business proposition, we will always be the people who pick things up when they go wrong.”

She says she encourages Heathrow’s OSH professionals to read the business plans of the divisions and businesses they support and think how they can help those divisions meet their targets.

“But it’s a two-way battle,” she says. “Because, as much as my team want to get into that space, the people they deal with sometimes think ‘why would I want to let my safety adviser know everything? They’ll say no; that’s what they do’.

“Even today at Heathrow I hear people say ‘oh, they are safety, what do they know about business?’ Well actually, some of us know quite a lot but you need to let us in.”

The OSH practitioners have to work on changing their clients’ perceptions and convince them they aren’t just a block on activity: “We might have to say to them sometimes something is not a great idea, but we need to be able to articulate that in a way they can understand, rather than fall back on ‘well, the legislation says you need to…’. That just turns people off.”

We can probably have more impact talking to our frontline managers for half an hour than sitting with the exec for half an hour

Service culture 

“The reason I am safety improvement director is because I don’t own safety,” she explains. “At Heathrow safety is absolutely owned by the line [management] and my role is to help everyone in the business improve it. So I shouldn’t be doing safety – although I am still moving my team out of that and pulling out of doing risk assessments and upskilling the business to do those things.

“Our focus should be going into places and asking ‘how can I improve this? How can I make it better for you?’”

She says the comfortable path for OSH practitioners is to follow established systems and processes and assume things will work well, but that “normalises deviance” because often those systems and processes weren’t being properly implemented before. “And no one ever says ‘just a minute, is this the right way?’”

Her aim, she says, is to empower people to challenge those processes if they think they have better answers.

Heathrow’s OSH function has been set six challenges to underpin its work: to make safety personal to everybody; to create a community among the airport’s client businesses that cares about its employees; to improve health and wellbeing; to keep OSH simple; to exploit innovation and learning; and to create healthy and safe places.

Back to health 

When she took up her current post 18 months ago, Gallagher says her brief from the operations director “was to inject some energy and take the police out of safety” and to see through projects in business change and safety culture.

Though she feels the OSH team were excellent at the risk management components of their jobs, the paucity of project management skills led her to decide to build a projects team of five people responsible for change and transformation initiatives, plus construction project support.


Ruth Gallagher: career history

2014–present: Safety improvement director, Heathrow

2013–2014: Head of airside safety and assurance, Heathrow

2005–2013: Head of HSSE governance and assurance, BAA Group

2001–2005: Compliance manager/head of health and safety BAA Group

1998–2001: Senior health and safety adviser, Construction Confederation
1996–1998: QHSE manager, Dorin Construction

Priority projects will focus on improving health and wellbeing provision – “something where we have had a bit of a gap in at Heathrow” – and the projects team has already examined where gym facilities could be built and the provision of “mini-medicals”, offering checks on workers’ stress levels and body mass indices. So far the latter programme has been trialled among 1,500 employees and she aims to offer the remainder of the 6,500 direct workforce the check-ups in the next 12 months. 

Gallagher says her team is talking about health and wellbeing provision to the OSH practitioners in the baggage handling companies and airlines whose employees total a further 76,000 across the airport.

She explains that the airport’s regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), signs off Heathrow’s five-year business plans. It is now two and-a-half years into a plan period and the consultation with other employers at the airport will feed into the health and wellbeing strategy for the next five-year plan, starting in January 2019.

“Our CEO’s vision of Heathrow is as almost a mini city,” she says, “and like any city we need to make sure we are providing the right level of health, safety and wellbeing for everybody who touches it, whether it is a passenger, someone who works for us or anyone else.”

She says the shape and extent of that programme depends on the government’s decision on whether Heathrow is allowed to add a third runway and sixth terminal building to the airport, a decision which is due this summer.

In the family

After graduating in business science at Stirling University and passing a common law examination, Gallagher says she disappointed her parents by deciding against a career as a solicitor.

Instead, she went into her father’s construction firm in Newcastle upon Tyne in various roles including purchasing, office management and then quality management – in which she had specialised during her degree studies – and helped secure accreditation to the ISO 9001 standard for the company.

“At that time we were buying in our health and safety advice,” she says. “We had a consultant who did site tours, but we weren’t really doing it justice.”

Then came an accident when an employee struck a high-voltage cable with a pneumatic drill and was blown several metres.

Though the worker recovered, the accident sent shockwaves through the small company, “as it will do, because HSE took an interest and there were interviews and dealing with the family and so on.

“I remember going back into the office and thinking ‘no one should go through that’. So I thought ‘I’ll do health and safety’.”

She took the NEBOSH diploma and says she got to grips with CDM compliance for the family business. “Starting out, it was very much about the systems and processes, auditing and so on,” she says. “But I reached a stage where I didn’t know what I was going to do next.”

At a conference in 1998 she met Suzannah Thursfield, then director of health and safety at the Construction Confederation. Thursfield encouraged her to apply for a job she held for three years – “I had a great time there. I did all sorts, including the research work on putting scaffolders into harnesses” – before she moved to the British Airports Authority (BAA) in 2001 as a health and safety auditor, assessing the company’s airports and retail businesses in the UK, Australia, Italy, Mauritius, Oman and Budapest.

In the 16 years since she has held a variety of jobs at BAA. She says what keeps her in the company is “the opportunities Heathrow offers”.

She says she learned a lot about project management and the need for people skills by volunteering to head a year-long project at Stansted – another airport then owned by Heathrow’s precursor BAA – in 2005 to restructure the terminal’s customer services, simplifying processes, removing duplication, clarifying employees’ roles and shifting the focus from servicing the airlines to servicing the passengers.

“It was the first time I had managed that size of change,” she says, “and it brought home the need to tell a story well, to explain the ‘why’.”

Unless we turn health and safety into a business proposition, we will always be the people who pick things up when they go wrong

A sense of belonging

Some senior safety managers interviewed for this magazine have seemed stumped when asked what type of leader they are. Gallagher is more self-aware and recently enough promoted to a director role to have thought about the subject. She says her leadership style has changed in the past 12 months.

“I found the step up from ‘head of’ to ‘director’ to be quite a shift. You have to go from managing and doing to not doing very much and leading. And for someone who is a bit of a control freak it’s a challenge to let go and say ‘this is what I’d like to see at the end of this, go away and do some thinking and come back to me’. My team might say I’ve still got some way to go on that. But I don’t think you ever stop learning to be a leader.

“Leadership for me is split into three parts. There’s leading my team, there’s leading my senior colleagues and there’s leading the community at Heathrow.

“There is a golden thread that runs through them which is your ability to communicate and impact and influence but there are also different skill sets needed for each of them.”

She describes herself as energetic and thrives on having people around her and “bouncing ideas off them”.

“I’m not the kind of person who will walk into a room and start discussing safety KPIs,” she adds. “I always want to make it personal and meaningful for people because I think that’s the really important bit.”

She says she has contracted Jason Anker, who became a behavioural safety speaker and trainer after being paralysed from the waist down by a ladder fall, to make presentations on video and in person to Heathrow employees. They are then asked to talk with their colleagues about what they valued most in life that they would lose if they had a disabling accident.

“We get them to talk to their colleagues about what kind of commitments they would make to keep those things available to them for the next 30 or 40 years.”

They are asked to write down these commitments and the papers with each individual’s safety pledges are displayed in their work area.

“We have had phenomenal feedback on it,” she says. Her next challenge is how to help employees have “courageous conversations” with colleagues when they see them either breaking their commitments or working in an exemplary safe way.

“It’s just as important to tell people they are doing a good job as to tell them they are doing it wrong. It’s too easy to fall into the habit of picking people up when they are crossing the road away from a crossing, not using the right tool or the right PPE.”

Aside from resisting the tendency to get too involved in operational matters, what has been her biggest challenge in developing as a leader?

“It’s about a feeling of belonging. When I started this job I went through a period of not really feeling I belonged and thinking ‘what have I done?’ and ‘is this the right role for me?’”

She says her contributions to meetings with fellow executives would begin “Sorry, but can I …?” – which, she notes is typical of other female managers she coaches at Heathrow – because her new peers included people she had previously reported to. She had to tell herself repeatedly ‘Stop saying sorry, Ruth; you are supposed to be here!’ “I struggled with that for a few months,” she recalls. “Now I am much more confident.”



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.


  • It is good to read an article

    Permalink Submitted by Phil Lewis-Farrell on 25 May 2016 - 11:21 pm

    It is good to read an article like this that identifies progression in the H&S profession and acknowledgement in a chosen field by being appointed a director. Well done Ruth!

  • Your thoughts and career

    Permalink Submitted by Frederick Norteye on 27 August 2016 - 04:17 pm

    Your thoughts and career experiences sound very interesting and insightful, highlighting the key deliverable factors underpinning the selection criteria and expectation of prospective EHS employers.


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