Leader interview

Seamus Keogh, Clancy Docwra

The utility services specialist’s chief executive, CMIOSH, says a hefty proportion of his time is spent on OSH matters and that is how it should be. 


Words: Louis Wustemann

“Everything we do is for somebody else,” says Seamus Keogh,“and their attitudes, behaviours and requests all have a health, safety and environmental impact. It’s part of my job to encourage us to rise to the standards our clients are setting and, in some cases, to help our clients rise to the standards we are setting.”

Keogh is explaining why, as chief executive of construction contractor Clancy Docwra, an estimated 40% of his time is still dedicated to safety and health issues. The proportion might seem surprising given that the company, which specialises in infrastructure work in the water, rail and power sectors as well as providing turnkey utilities installation for property developers, has a well-staffed OSH management structure below him.

His preoccupation comes not just because he is that rare beast, a qualified OSH practitioner heading a business with a £250m turnover, nor because he is relatively new to the post. In a business employing 2,500 people on hazardous tasks ranging from high-voltage cable installation to foundation piling, he says his time is well spent on ensuring harm is minimised.

“My job is to lead Clancy Docwra in the journey to become the most trusted provider of essential services,” he says, rehearsing the company’s stated “vision”, which it aims to realise by 2020. “You can’t be a trusted provider of anything if you don’t keep your people safe and healthy every single day.”

Seamus Keogh career file

August 2016 – present: Chief executive officer, Clancy Docwra
2008–2016: Chief operating officer
1999–2008: Director for internal resources
1992–1999: Health, safety, environment and quality manager
1988–1992: Contract manager
1984–1988: Site engineer/manager, Clancy Docwra

With a large proportion of its order book tied to regulated businesses, such as water companies, which work in five-year “asset management periods”, maintaining and enhancing the firm’s reputation is a priority. “A significant part of our business comes up for renewal every five years,” he says. “We are now working towards our 2020 vision which is to be the most trusted, because if we are we will secure all our framework agreements again with major clients.

“We’ve never said safety is our number one priority or anything like that. What we have said is that we are a values-based business and we are continually trying to improve our health and safety. And if you are not talking about it all the time you will not improve on it.”

Clancy Docwra’s vision of most-trusted status is accompanied by a mission statement – to “make life better for all our families” – that reflects the fact the firm is still family-owned, 58 years after it was established by Michael Clancy.  The mission is underpinned by six “foundation stone” terms: safe; successful; sustainable; secure; skilled; systems. Safety is the “first among equals” of the six, Keogh says.

What is your definition of 100,000 hours worked? Does that include your supply chain? What about the lorry driver who turns up on your site for two hours?

Single figures

If two-fifths of his time spent on safety and health, around two-thirds of that is spent talking to clients and the rest analysing Clancy Docwra’s own performance.

I ask what are the main measures he monitors. He says the firm has a red, amber and green traffic light-style system for five key safety measures: lost-time incidents, underground cable strikes, leadership engagement, work-related driving and near-misses. It aims to achieve a green rating in all of these by the end of the five-year plan.

“We have targeted single-figure lost-time incidents by 2020,” he says. “Though we have currently recorded more this year than in 2015-16, our downward trend remains and we expect to hit the 2020 goal.”

The response by the executive team to this year’s accident rise has been rapid, he says. Its members have doubled the frequency of their safety engagement visits to sites.

Near-miss reporting has its own target of one report per 500 hours worked. “There’s that whole argument over whether we are forcing people to report by setting a target,” he reflects. “We are aware that can sometimes drive the wrong behaviour, but we are getting some valuable data from it at present so we believe it’s the right number for us to work with.”

The company’s lost-time accident frequency rate is 0.06 per 100,000 hours worked. He says that’s the metric that is still often requested by clients in the prequalification process for contracts. But it frustrates him: “It’s old-fashioned and it’s not statistically accurate. When you are trying to make the comparison between yourself and the industry rate or another company, you are never sure how the data is made up. What is your definition of 100,000 hours worked? Does that include your supply chain? What about the lorry driver who turns up on your site and stays for two hours?

“We include all our supply chain personnel in our rate but there is no absolute definition that allows everyone to say ‘that’s the industry average, that’s the UK average, and that’s where I am in comparison’.”

He says he is most concerned with metrics that reflect the current emphasis on fostering collaborative safe behaviour among employees. But he is also interested by what measures might come next, particularly measures of employee health and wellbeing that will give an early idea of whether the company’s interventions are effective. “What’s coming over the hill that I can be considering and advancing?”

I ask what his options are if he sees something that he believes needs attention when he is reviewing the business’s performance against its five main OSH indicators.

He says he has three levers. “The first is a conversation in the exec team and what I might ask of them. Then there is what I can do when I am out speaking with our teams and people in the field.”

He says his task on site visits is to underpin the company’s message that there is no job it wants to be completed at the expense of individual safety.

His third lever to improve the metrics is the time he spends influencing clients and suppliers.

Point of delivery

In his previous post of chief operating officer, Keogh restructured the OSH reporting lines so the health and safety advisers in the field no longer report to the central OSH function but to line management. “That’s helping manage the risk where the risk lies, with the operational teams,” he says. “Our people who are most likely to be injured or hurt report to operational line managers. The best place to manage risk is having ownership and accountability with those who are responsible for those most at risk on a day-to-day, minute-by-minute basis.”

In the scheme of things

As chief executive of Clancy Docwra, the main operating business of the Clancy Group, Seamus Keogh leads the team of executives that runs the business on a day-to-day basis. Part of his job is to develop the executive team to help the business grow and evolve.
He proposes budgets for approval by the Clancy Group board. He is also the main point of contact for the most senior executives in major client organisations, such as Network Rail, Scottish Power, Scottish Water, Thames Water and UK Power Networks. He says if the Clancy family are the face of the group that bears their name, he is the face of the Clancy Docwra business.
He is the responsible person at board level for the company’s safety and health policies and procedures, working through the executive team – the chief operating officer reports to him directly on OSH issues.
Responsibility for safety and health in the company rests with operational line management, who are supported by a central OSH function headed by the associate director for health, safety and environment, who sits on the senior executive team along with the heads of business development, information technology and operations. There are separate managers for safety, health and wellbeing and environment reporting to the director.
The chief executive’s role also includes setting the direction of the organisation and making sure it adapts to a changing business environment, so it is in good shape for the next generations of the Clancy family as owners.
“I’m the best-placed person in the business to take the time to look into the future and see what challenges, risks and opportunities are coming towards us and try to shape the business for the future.”

This structural overhaul replaced a system that Keogh himself had instituted years previously. I ask if the change was necessitated by rapid expansion or by a shift in the risk profile of Clancy Docwra’s work. “It’s a combination of changing client requirements,” he says, “and growth in our business from a regionally-based contractor, predominantly in the south, to a UK-wide business in the past ten to 15 years.”

“It’s not how we thought about it 25 years ago,” he says of the altered reporting lines. “Then, it was very much a dictatorship; you did as you were told.”

The new structure best suits the company’s circumstances, he believes, “but there is no single answer to good management of a business. And what we have today may change in five years’ time.”

Can he foresee what the next restructuring will involve? “I think it will probably be an evolution from what we have now. There will definitely be developments in occupational health and employee wellbeing. The journey we are on now in health is the same one we have been on in safety for 25 years, we just don’t need 25 years to get there and can’t afford to take that long.”

In the mind

Mental health is a priority, not just because “it affects our people and their families” but because providing support will improve the image of construction when it competes for recruits: “What we need right now is a reputation where we can have a diverse workforce, as opposed to white, middle-aged men, which the sector is predominantly made up of.” The firm has initiatives to raise awareness of stress and work-related stressors through its Think safe = Home safe programme (see below), under which more than 2,000 employees so far have had briefings encouraging them to think how their behaviour affects their own and others’ safety and health.

“That’s part of moving from the dictatorship approach, through leadership to a more collaborative, partnership approach, because mental health is not something that as a business you can manage on your own. You have to do it with your employees’, your clients’ and your supply chain’s help.”

Think safe = Home safe tries to give workers the freedom to “open up and have genuine, authentic conversations with people face to face, and not be the middle-aged macho organisation.

“It’s not about being soft and cuddly,” he stresses, “but about having real conversations, and the right ones. Not aggressive, but performance-based and not biased.”

The work of the Health in Construction Leadership Group, which has persuaded the most senior managers from construction companies and major clients to commit their businesses to occupational health and wellbeing improvements, is important because it has spread consciousness of the need to act across the whole industry, “so you aren’t working on your own”.

Another health initiative has been to equip a mobile health unit which now travels the country measuring employees’ blood pressure and body mass indices on site.

“When we did that here [at head office in west London] the amount of engagement and enthusiasm from staff was amazing. So we thought ‘how can we travel that round?’ and give two-and-a-half thousand people access to it. So we are taking it to them.”

En route

Like Neil Lennox at retailer Sainsbury’s, who featured in last month’s leader interview, Keogh sees his organisation on a path from the state where people are expected to obey instructions unquestioningly through a state where they respond to strong direction from senior management to an eventual state where employees work with management taking equal responsibility for safety and health.

Seamus-Keogh-Clancy-Docwra.-in-conversationHis version of this familiar trajectory is the “five ships”. “You move from dictatorship through guardianship to leadership – which needs followership since you can’t have leaders without followers – and then to partnership.”

He recognises this is not a uniform process. “You are never all in one place at the same time. What you are trying to do is to move people on. There will be a time when you still require dictatorship in some areas – the best example of that is confined space working, where you will follow the rules.” But his aim is to shift to an ethos where employees at all levels are responsible for safety and health and collaborate to improve protection.

The leadership performance indicator is based on the exposure of the workforce to those who make decisions concerning them. Each of the seven directors and 11 associate directors is expected to visit a worksite every month for an engagement tour.

“The executive team meets on Monday mornings every two weeks and we feed back from those visits,” he says. “Safety is always the first item on the agenda.”

The responsibility for site OSH inspections cascades down the organisation to all those with line management or supervisory responsibilities.

“We have set targets for numbers of inspections by supervisors and managers and advisers,” says Keogh, “so there are over 2,000 health and safety inspections going on in our business every year.”

The nature of these inspections has changed with Think safe = Home safe, launched in 2014, which has seen all line managers, supervisors and OSH advisers attend regional workshops to improve their safety coaching skills.

What we need right now is a reputation where we can have a diverse workforce, as opposed to white, middle-aged men.

“The whole idea is to build a broader consensus and community between the line managers who own the OSH management responsibility and the advisers who are helping them deliver their responsibilities,” says Keogh. “If they are all on the same programme, they are more likely to see each other’s perspective.

The training equips the advisers, managers and supervisors to have coaching conversations during their inspections to promote safety consciousness and good behaviour and the workshops are now being held at site level for all employees.


As well as responding to shifts in its risk profile by changing OSH reporting lines, the firm has actively managed that profile by reviewing its activities.

Driving improvement

Safety in and around plant and vehicles on site and on the public roads is one of Clancy Docwra’s five main safety performance indicators, reflecting its risk level.
“We have a huge amount of vehicle movements,” says Seamus Keogh, “and unfortunately we suffered a fatality in 2014. A member of a family where three generations are working with us was tragically killed on a site through plant movement.”
As the incident still awaits Health and Safety Executive decision and direction, he says it would be inappropriate to discuss the details. “But as a family business it has had a huge impact on us and it was someone known to many of our exec team.”
The death spurred the development in-house of a system of seat sensors in mobile plant that cuts the engine as soon as the operator is no longer seated. The smart ID cards that store each Clancy Docwra employee’s training record and certification are now used to restrict access to plant; an unauthorised operator cannot even start the ignition on a vehicle because it will not recognise their competency card. He notes that this is an example of the “systems” element in the company’s six safety foundation stones.
Off site, he says mobile phone use by drivers presents a “huge risk” and, in line with UK law, the company bans the use of handheld mobile phones while driving its vehicles. 
“Our guidance is that if you don’t have to use it, don’t use it,” he says. “But there is a significant shift of opinion suggesting that you shouldn’t have mobile phones accessible in a vehicle at all. The biggest challenge we have is that we do not want to put in a policy you have significant difficulty enforcing. Otherwise you degrade all the other policies that are working for you.”
He says he believes the restrictions are likely to come and that technology, such as systems that disable phones while the vehicle engine is running, will probably help, but it’s important not to jump the gun and run ahead of acceptability.
Other technological interventions include speed restrictors. “Most of our vans are limited to 62 miles per hour, which is a problem for efficiency, especially when it’s towing, but our view is that driving down the motorway with a compressor or trailer on the back at any more than 62 mph is a risk we can do without.”

Clancy Docwra tries to maintain a balance of 80% employees to 20% contractors on its sites, with the latter group made up of experts in functions such as electrical installation or directional drilling – small-scale tunnelling underground to install pipes and conduits.

This balance between in-house provision and contracting to specialists is always in flux, Keogh says. In the annual review of the business plan and corporate risk register “everything comes up for grabs. You take the opportunity to look at all of your key risks and you say ‘could we do more of that [activity] or less of that, and what are the associated risks?’

“We used to be a tunnelling contractor,” he says. “We were extremely skilled in four-foot, six-foot and eight-foot tunnels, segmental tunnels excavated by hand. But the risks associated with that, the requirements to manage the occupational health risks around vibration and dust and manual handling, mean the right way for that industry to go was to mechanise.

“Very few designers will specify 100 m long hand-driven tunnels,” he adds. “They are more likely to specify moling or tunnel boring machines these days, in line with CDM.”

Clancy Docwra pioneered some of the mechanised alternatives such as on-pipe jacking, using hydraulic jacks to push pipes through the ground without the need for surface excavation, but now leaves even that to specialist contractors.

Another example of an activity judged too high-risk to continue came with a business called Rees Pipeline Services, acquired decades ago, that specialised in restoring sewers and relining pipes with heated compounds with carcinogenic properties. “We assessed that risk and changed the chemicals, but then exited the business altogether,” he says.

Director’s duties

A civil engineer by training, Keogh found himself working as a regional contracts manager for the Clancy Group in the early 1990s on a sewer improvement scheme for the borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. The project involved driving a 1.6 km tunnel up to 2.5 m in diameter and he was visited by a Health and Safety Executive inspector who took an interest in the operation: “We got on and he wanted to learn about tunnels”.

As a result of their exchanges, Keogh wrote a report for his manager, saying that he thought it would be useful to have some safety expertise inside the firm as well as the external consultants that till then had been their only OSH resource.

“My boss cleverly turned around and said, ‘seeing as you wrote the report and you wrote the job description for this person, maybe you ought to do it’. I thought about it for a couple of weeks and then I said yes. Honestly it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”

He was made a director in 1999 and has managed various functions in the Clancy Group, but he says the director part of the title always came first. “The role of a director is much broader than just the job accountabilities. You are an officer of the company, you have legal duties. You are an ambassador and you are upholding the company image.”

I ask what he thinks it is like for the company’s OSH staff working for a chief executive who knows their jobs as well as they do.

If you are the face of the business you have to be careful … If you look down, other people will wonder what’s wrong

“It’s tough,” he says, “and I have to be careful, because being a health or safety or environmental adviser in the field is already incredibly challenging, because you have to be many things to many people. You are asked to be an enforcer, a counsellor, a politician and a friend. That is a very hard job and my job is not to damage the confidence of any member of the team by challenging them too much.” So he aims for “80% encouragement and 20% challenge”.

Seamus Keogh-Clancy-Docwra If OSH management can be the most demanding role in business it can also be the most exciting, he argues, when practitioners choose to look beyond the narrowest functional demands on them and into supporting more broadly the organisations they work for.

It’s all the more demanding because there is not enough organisational context in the professional course curriculums. “However you qualify in health and safety, the studies are not that business oriented,” he says. “The risk is that they are qualifications for professionals living in an imaginary world rather than the real world of business.”

But he says all the negotiating and persuasive skills are a great foundation for practitioners who do want an expanded role. “The politician, the enforcer, the counsellor; all those skills are the criteria of the chief executive of the future. That’s why it was one of the best decisions I ever made. It opened up a whole new skillset. Training as a health and safety adviser has assisted me hugely. I would not be a chief executive if I had not done that.”

I ask what has surprised him in his short tenure as chief executive. He says the level of scrutiny has been a shock. Though he is an optimist by nature – “I like Leonard Cohen’s line: ‘There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’” – he says that, like everyone, he has bad days.

“If you are the face of the business you have to be careful … If you look down, other people will wonder what’s wrong. I’m more conscious of that since taking the title of CEO than I ever was as chief operating officer. The dial has turned and I didn’t turn it.”

The new job is keeping him more than busy. Apart from the duties that come with being the head of the firm’s executive team, he is keen to be involved in the induction and early support of the company’s current 25 apprentices and 15 graduate recruits. “They are spread all over the country and I’m trying to give them all some of my time. That’s my personal challenge, but it’s the best thing a leader can ever do.”



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.


  • One of the best Leader

    Permalink Submitted by Denis Lawler on 25 January 2017 - 07:42 pm

    One of the best Leader Interviews I have read for a long time,so refreshing to read how honest Mr Keogh is about his responsibilities is as a Director.I do wish every Director/senior manager/site manager involved in the construction industry has the opportunity to read this excellent interview.
    Well done Mr Keogh I am sure you must be an excellent person to work for.

  • Bravo Seamus! Excellent

    Permalink Submitted by Tony Hill on 31 January 2017 - 02:06 pm

    Bravo Seamus! Excellent article! I don't agree with everything quoted but the overall impression is of a company (via the man running it) with a clear vision and an entirely practical and businesslike approach to safety which very much mirrors my own experience on major projects conducted overseas.
    What a pity Clients do not employ people with such vision and hands on experience to lead the major national projects. Your safety team must be the happiest in the business knowing that you are strongly behind them and are mentoring them to operate in the real world by building on the paper qualification to enable them to add value to the business whilst keeping people safe.


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