Straight talking

The transport engineering company’s OSH head is testing the transformative potential of two-way communication.

Pictures: Andrew Firth

Louise Ward had an epiphany soon after starting work at Siemens in 2018. “I realised that I had been in health and safety 20 years and it had only just occurred to me that conversations have two sides.” That might seem a late awakening, but the conversations she is talking about are not the casual kind, rather those between managers and subordinates and between peers that are encouraged in corporate OSH programmes. “For two decades I had been involved in safety conversation initiatives that only dealt with the transmit, and not with the other side,” she says.

Ward is not alone; many practitioners will be familiar with programmes that encourage people to challenge each other if they see unsafe behaviour. But these schemes can create an adversarial atmosphere between colleagues and seldom draw on either party’s problem-solving abilities. Ward and her team decided to try a more constructive approach.

She had moved to the top safety job in the rolling stock arm of Siemens Mobility UK – the German engineering group’s standalone transport business, which supplies and services trains for train-operating companies on long-term contracts – after a fatality had prompted the company to refresh safety and health management.

“They had lots of good things in place already but were looking to take a different approach,” she says. 

The difference she believed she could bring was to push beyond a compliance-led safety culture to something more inspiring. She reflects on Herbert Heinrich’s accident triangle, refined by Frank Bird, which proposed a relationship between large numbers of near-misses at the base of the triangle and a small number of serious accidents at the apex. OSH practitioners initially have to concentrate on the serious accidents “because that’s all you know about, the stuff that people can’t hide”.

It is possible in many cases to eliminate the worst accidents, cutting the top off the triangle and leaving a trapezoid shape of lost-time incidents and first aid injuries and near-misses. 

“Whatever you do you can be stuck with that,” Ward says. “And that’s as far as you can get with compliance. If you want to aspire to excellence, you have to engage with people because you have to inspire people to move with you towards excellence.”

Her view aligns with the Safety II arguments of Eric Hollnagel or the ‘safety differently’ philosophy promulgated first in the UK by John Green. “All of that new thinking is about being people-focused,” she says.

First steps

Before Ward arrived at the rolling stock business unit in June 2018 she liaised with her future colleagues to ensure she could hit the ground running.

“In my very first week I spoke to the top 200 [managers] in the company,” she says. She talked about the importance of leadership by example. “I asked all of our leaders to go away and think about what zero harm meant to them and then think about how people would know that from watching what they do.”

She emphasised that leaders should not set themselves impossible targets. “Safety isn’t our number-one priority and we need to put it in its place. Safety isn’t what we do, it’s how we do things.”

Making safety a realistic rather than an absolute objective makes it easier for managers to focus on “because they have been saying for years safety is their number-one priority and not believing it in their hearts”.

In her second week the business had a safety stand-down on the anniversary of the fatality. “We talked about thinking about each other and stepping in when something doesn’t look right,” she explains. 

“We made a video of our people talking about the impact the incident had had on them; not the business impact, but the personal impact and we talked about what we were going to do to change and how it felt to be involved in zero harm.”

Soon after the stand-down the safety team launched the new safety conversations initiative, Talk to Me, which Ward describes as “our game-changer programme”.

We talked about thinking about each other and stepping in when something doesn’t look right 


Starting with the business’ train-care facilities, the staff went through sessions using actors employing elements of the ‘forum theatre’ technique. Conceived in Brazil in the 1970s, a scene is enacted twice and on the second performance members of the audience can stop the action and put themselves in the place of an actor to change the course of the events.

Ward and her safety team helped to devise the scenarios with the Twickenham, London-based Dramanon theatre company, which specialises in learning through drama. 

“We had a few key principles,” she says. “We said it had to be rooted in the everyday.”

Many drama-based programmes focus on major accidents, she adds, “but I think a lot of people disengage from that because fortunately those dreadful things don’t happen that often”.

The vignettes they devised with the actors included someone working at height without a harness, or working on an unsecured ladder, or using the wrong tool. For office-based staff they depicted an employee suffering fatigue from excessive hours finalising a contract bid. “They were almost mundane, regular situations that everyone would recognise and associate with,” says Ward.

A core team of actors from Dramanon took employees through the scenarios at the train-care facilities and offices. Before each session, members of Ward’s team would meet the site managers and encourage them to choose the scenarios that were most suited to their depot or office. “We said ‘what are the things you would like to tease out during the programme?’.” 

Talking cure

The slogan accompanying Talk to Me was ‘Courage to step in, character to accept’, emphasising not only individual responsibility to intervene to stop unsafe acts and conditions, but also the willingness to accept a challenge from somebody else who believes what you are doing puts you or others at risk.

“As we were doing it we realised it isn’t just about zero harm,” Ward says. “It is about our culture as an organisation. It’s about people having a voice and their opinions mattering and us wanting them to step in whenever they see something that isn’t right and whenever they have an idea to say so, and to know they will be heard.”

This was the programme she believed could promote the kind of engagement that would push the organisation towards a generative safety culture. And it did, she says: “It was transformational. It drove some amazing conversations and a level of engagement that we had not seen previously.”

There was no preset performance indicator to judge the success of Talk to Me, but the level of near-miss reporting in the rolling stock business more than doubled in the months after the sessions. (Ward notes that the number of reports is usually less important to the company than tracking how many reports have resulted in prompt control of the hazard. “Anything [reported] staying open longer than 30 days needs a business case.”)

“More importantly, the nature of the reporting changed. We were seeing [employees taking] ownership. So rather than [reports stating] ‘I saw this last Sunday and someone needs to do something about it’, we had people saying ‘I saw so-and-so working unsafely, I spoke to him about it and as a result we changed the method of work’.”

The increase in reports was aided by a parallel initiative to move to electronic reporting, so workers now use smartphone apps to log near-misses. 

The absence of a fixed target for the initiative was important, Ward says, “because it never became a numbers game”, with set levels of reporting expected. But the level of OSH awareness the conversations reflect should eventually be reflected in lower injury figures. 

“The change will be when we see the near-miss reporting staying high but the accidents reducing, because that means we are acting on the near-misses and plugging the holes in the Swiss cheese,” she says, referring to Professor James Reason’s theory of how risks eventuate as a result of aligned holes in control barriers.

The forum theatre-style sessions are now built into the induction training for new apprentices and graduates joining the business unit. The practicalities of scaling up the drama sessions for the whole of Siemens Mobility will probably involve trying other methods. “I think video is a great medium that strikes a balance,” she says.

Louise Ward, career file

2018- present Health, safety and environment director, Siemens Mobility

2016- 2018 Policy and standards and communications director, British Safety Council

2015- 2016 Head of health, safety and wellbeing, Thames Water

2012-2015 Head of passenger and public safety, then head of health, safety and welfare, Network Rail

2008-2012 Head of health and safety, Civil Service

2004-2008 Head of health and safety policy, EEF

2002-2004 Health and safety manager, JP Morgan Chase 

1998-2002 Health, safety and environment manager, News International

1996-1997 Assistant health and safety officer, BNFL


A week in September

Ward had already used video to bolster the Talk to Me campaign during Zero Harm Conversations Week, a safety event in September for the rolling stock business. She first thought of a safety equivalent of the TED (technology, education and design) broadcast talks, which started in 1984 in the US. Using a virtual events platform, the safety team streamed daily presentations by the chief executive, Ward and external consultants to the sites before shifts. They lasted no more than eight minutes and were followed by team discussions. 

“We did ones on accountability, health, wellbeing, resilience, exercise, nutrition, shiftwork,” she says. “There was one on the menopause, which is quite forward-thinking for a very male-dominated business.”

The videos were supplemented across the business by dial-in seminars on the same topics as the presentations, using Circuit, Siemens’ equivalent of the Skype voice-over-internet-protocol platform. Ward says she had been sceptical that the seminars would attract participants “but people were coming together in big groups at the sites to join the calls”.

“Most importantly, we had local content,” she adds. Each train-care facility and office chose a local champion to curate its own contributions to the week’s activities. The sites were tasked by the central team with producing at least three initiatives. Most of these were health-related or community activities, including walk-to-work challenges, cycling events, a badminton tournament, litter picking and garden building.

The champions had to ensure that the rest of the business was kept informed on progress through posts on the Yammer social media platform. 

“Yammer postings increased 2,000% for the week,” says Ward, “and we had 700 people join who had never ‘Yammered’ before.”

An estimated 85% of rolling stock employees took part in the week’s activities. “People are still watching the videos,” she says.

The engagement of so many people is important because individual small-scale participation can bring about revolutionary change in standards, she says. Indeed, one of the themes of the safety week was ‘Small things make a difference’.

“Revolution doesn’t need to be about one person with one big idea,” she says. “It can be about getting off the bus one stop earlier to have a walk in the morning or walking around the depot picking up the nuts and washers someone else could slip on … or changing the way you use plastic at home.”

Since her promotion from rolling stock to head of health, safety, environment and quality for the whole of Siemens Mobility, Ward has been working on spreading the Talk to Me programme across the other business units. Following the success of the Zero Harm Conversations Week, this too will be scaled up for 2020. She notes that the programmes will have to be adapted for the different businesses. Many of the employees in the intelligent traffic systems arm work alone, for instance, maintaining traffic lights and cameras, so an emphasis on conversation will not resonate with them and the message will be more about taking pride in their personal safety.

The change will be when we see the near-miss reporting staying high but the accidents reducing 

Time served

Ward is a career OSH professional. A degree in safety and health from Greenwich University was followed in the mid-1990s by a junior post in nuclear operator BNFL, followed by a smooth progression up to leadership posts in the Civil Service, Thames Water and Network Rail. She has had two spells working on policy for industry bodies, first the EEF manufacturers’ organisation in the early 2000s and latterly at the British Safety Council, the post she left to join Siemens.

I ask whether these periods looking at OSH on a national level have given her a valuable perspective. “I love policy work,” she says. “I’ve come back into an operational role because I didn’t want to lose touch. But it gives you a fantastic opportunity to look at what a lot of organisations are doing and cherry pick [good practice].” Working with the regulators in those roles gave her a better perspective on enforcers’ priorities, she says. “When I was at EEF we formed a stakeholder partnership with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). It was the first time the HSE had engaged in a structured way of working with a sector. I was really proud of that.”

In common with some other OSH leaders interviewed by this magazine, her ambition is to be so successful in making safety and health business as usual in an organisation that she finds herself surplus to requirements. “That might not be great from a financial point of view, but I’d like to do myself out of a job.” 

In the scheme of things

Louise Ward is health, safety and environment director at Siemens Mobility in the UK and Ireland, responsible for 5,000 employees in the company’s three divisions: rolling stock and customer service, rail infrastructure and intelligent traffic systems.

She reports to the division’s chief executive and heads a team of 100 OSH professionals in the business.

She is a member of the company’s core leadership team. “I ensure the board are hearing the things they need [in order to] make the right decisions from a health, safety, environment and quality point of view when they are running the business.” 

She oversees audits in her functions and is the link between them for the UK and Irish business and Siemens’ head office in Munich.

Asked what the organisation would lack if she disappeared suddenly, she says: “If I’m doing my job properly, then it should all seamlessly work without me. But what would be missing is the bit that joins the operational businesses with the leadership team. A voice on the leadership team holding them to account and being their conscience a little bit.”




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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