"We aren't a high-hazard business," says Don Harrison. "The biggest hazards come from a few tonnes of chlorine here and there and some flammables. Our factories look more like car factories with robots assembling pieces of kit, with the exception of the fine chemicals business which is mainly pharmaceuticals manufacture."
Harrison directs occupational health (OH) provision for the metals group which celebrates its 200th anniversary in 2017. He also oversees the group's safety and health policies and guidance, which apply to 13,000 employees in 34 countries.
The business's safety hazards are the ones common to advanced manufacturing, he says: predominantly slips and trips, though there are occasional chemical burns and exposure. Ill-health cases are often tied to chemical use too: "This financial year we have had 12 occupational illnesses reported and five of them are chemical exposure issues, things like skin irritation and occupational asthma."
Johnson Matthey is the world's largest producer of catalytic converters for motor vehicles. Converter production for diesel engines involves spraying platinum nitrate solution onto a honeycomb ceramic substrate where it absorbs the carbon monoxide in the exhaust. Platinum is a sensitiser, leading to allergic reactions and sometimes to occupational asthma.
"Our biggest single issue is platinum sensitisation," he says. "For petrol engine converters we use palladium but it's also a member of the platinum family. So we do skin-prick testing for all our employees who are potentially exposed. The idea is to pick up any developing sensitisation before it results in symptoms."
Johnson Matthey's website makes a big play of its commitment to sustainability.
"Our business ethic is one of creating technology to help the world be more sustainable," Don Harrison explains. "We invented the catalytic converter and we make one-third of the world's converters which help to reduce environmental pollution. We manufacture all the legal opiates in Britain for pain relief. We also reprocess metals, which helps with recycling.
"So we have to take sustainability seriously internally or we are not what we are trying to represent. So operating ethically is essential, not just because we are nice guys but because otherwise we would lose a lot as our customers expect it from us."
The group drew up a set of sustainability goals in 2006 to be achieved by the year of its bicentenary in 2017. The targets included achieving carbon-neutral operations, zero accidents and ill-health and doubling earnings per share. "We're not going to meet them all," Harrison admits, but he believes the goals have inspired some impressive steps in the right direction.
Recently the company began sustainability audits of some of its suppliers, checking the robustness of their OSH systems, environmental measures and how ethical their business practices were. "Sustainability is now a board-level reporting issue and the board takes a very keen interest in sustainable performance," he says.
Down by half
The number of ill-health cases halved from 30 to 15 in the 2014/15 financial year. "It wasn't one thing that did that," says Harrison. "We did a lot of work on containment, trying to make sure our processes had lower exposure risks. We hired a consultant in to provide design assistance.
"We've also insisted all our sites that use platinum have pretty rigid constraints on who can work where. Bear in mind some of these sites go back a long way, so there were various levels of containment."
Along with tighter access controls to work areas, the containment involved installing glove boxes to separate operators from hazardous materials on workbenches.
"We have been running a behavioural safety programme in the company since 2009 and we are seeing the benefits of that, of better containment and of work we've done with senior management to make budgets available for these measures," he says.
Johnson Matthey benchmarks its OSH performance against peers such as oil and gas multinational Exxon ("companies we admire") and sets standards for ill-health cases and lost-time accidents, "which we are pretty much on target to meet", notes Harrison.
He says, though the company has always had strong OH policies, in recent years it has begun to apply some of the techniques that it uses in safety to help to achieve them: "Things that work in safety also work in health. The average health service works on an outsourced OH resource bringing people in and testing them to see if they are developing any sensitivity and then manage them if they do. We are finding over time that those groups are also amenable to behavioural safety approaches and engineering approaches, hence the containment initiatives."
Harrison started in the chemicals industry as an operator, moving up to shift supervisor for 16 years before starting his OSH career.
"I got my degree from the Open University," he says. "I ended up with a degree in psychology and the psychology of organisations was my specialism."
The behaviour of people in organisations still fascinates him and that is only more interesting when the element of working with risk is added, he says.
From 2008, when he joined Johnson Matthey, to 2014, Harrison was group EHS assurance director. When the previous occupational health director left, "I put my hand up for it because I've always been particularly interested in occupational health and medicine".
One reason I wanted to get more involved in occupational health was to move more towards being a practitioner again
"I'm not a doctor," he adds. "My background is in general health and safety. But I think an occupational health manager doing the kind of work I do is very valuable, as long as I have access to occupational health physicians."
To ensure that access he contracted four doctors, based in the UK, the US, China and India. These bolster the OH physicians and nurses contracted by the divisions to service each Johnson Matthey site, providing surveillance and case management.
"They serve their individual sites and my physicians liaise with them helping with any problems and offering them clinical supervision," Harrison says.
"We are just about to start making a platinum product-based product at a European site and they have never handled platinum on that site before. So they have a physician but that physician has no experience of running an OH service around a potential allergen. So myself and the UK-based doctor will spend two or three days there in May helping to train them and set them up to run an OH service up to that standard."
In the scheme of things
Don Harrison reports to Johnson Matthey's group environment, health and safety director.
There are four main businesses in the group, engaged in precious metal refining, catalytic converter production, fine chemicals manufacture and new-business development, which includes fuel cell technologies.
Each operates autonomously and has its own safety and health infrastructure. Harrison has dotted line reports from OSH managers in each division.
But he is based in the group environment, health and safety (EHS) function, which is charged with refining and operating the company's management system, the policies and guidance and auditing the divisions' performance.
"I'm in charge of occupational health for the company," he says, "but I also have a role in policy development, so I own the EHS management policies and the guidance."
Harrison talks to the doctors weekly by phone and makes occasional visits to the three based overseas.
"If I get a question that needs clinical input, I direct it to the appropriate physician," he says. "It greatly eases the local-versus-global issue because occupational health means different things in different territories."
Norms in the UK for instance are very different from those in the US, dictated by the workers' compensation system which ensures payouts for employees who sustain occupational accidents or contract diseases but have no recourse to personal injury claims.
"Having a network of physicians who can interpret local requirements and culture is very useful," he says. "A lot of the problems we have had implementing strategies around the world in the past have gone away.
"It also means that if we have a problem at our plant in Mumbai, I don't have to jump on an aeroplane to try to help them out with it."
How much travelling does he do? "I do an audit programme where I look at five Johnson Matthey facilities around the world each year, and audit the effectiveness of their occupational health programmes. I spend a couple of days having a close look at how they are implementing our strategies and polices at those facilities and make recommendations."
He thinks the value of going himself is that there is "someone at the centre who gets to see everything" and ensures standards at the plant in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia match those in the Royston, England, facility.
"Over the years there have been a number of things that I wouldn't have spotted from the feedback I get remotely from these plants," he adds. At one plant he found procedures for laundering coveralls were not up to company standards and his visit prompted the local management to build a new laundry for the factory.
Over the past 18 months, the company has reviewed its OSH policies and streamlined them. There were approximately 70 environment, health and safety (EHS) policies, says Harrison, covering everything from personal protective equipment to process safety.
"We found that trying to manage all those policies, in various languages too, was quite tricky and the guidance was a bit of a patchwork quilt. There wasn't guidance for all the policies."
The revisions, which he expects to be completed by the end of the year, will reduce the total to 58 by merging policies that fit together on topics such as hearing and vibration and process safety and project management.
"We've changed the format a bit too," he says. "We have included in the guidance some explanation of why the guidance is there. We used to say the policies contained what you have to do and the guidance offered some ways you can do it. But we didn't go further and say which were good ways of achieving the policy requirement and which were less good. So we are trying to do that."
The language has been revamped, to make it plainer. "We health and safety guys tend to talk in jargon and the things we say make perfect sense to us but not as much to the guys working on the plant."
Teams of operators have contributed to simplifying the terms in the procedures "and to get the terms in the English language ones right so they will be understandable wherever they are used -- in the UK, US or Australia.
The temptation is to stay in the ivory tower, cut off from people working lathes and on the robot lines
"We have found that if we write these things in a sort of American English it seems to translate better across the world. American English is more direct, less passive and our policies were written in British English in an almost legalistic fashion. We've tried to make it more pop culture, not because we want to be more trendy but to save ourselves the job of answering the question: 'What does this mean?'"
The whole group EHS team is involved in all aspects of the function, he says. Last year, it drew up eight "life-saving policies" on activities such as confined space entry, electrical safety, work at height and road safety which were high-hazard activities.
"We tried to predict if, God forbid, we had a fatality or a major incident tomorrow, what kind of thing would be at the bottom of it. We used industry stats to come up with eight areas and drew up new procedures for them."
The team suspended its normal audit cycle to visit all the plants and check the standards in these policies were met.
He says these opportunities to check operational effectiveness are "brilliant". "One reason I wanted to get more involved in occupational health was to move more towards being a practitioner again after many years in management.
"Also, I'm 60 and it wouldn't make sense for me to be just doing strategic work for the last five years of my career. Other people need to get up to speed in running the health and safety management systems."
A question of confidence
In common with other leaders interviewed by IOSH Magazine, Harrison says he has worked on building his confidence.
"Part of it is about dealing with people who are smarter than me and who hold purse strings I want access to and being able to sell them ideas," he says. "And part of it is having the confidence to stay grounded with the people whose health and safety you are trying to protect. The temptation is to stay in the ivory tower, cut off from people working lathes and on the robot lines.
"I came from the shopfloor," he adds, "and I still have this little voice whispering in my ear 'what would that guy on the shopfloor in 1980 think about that proposal you've just made?' And the proposal might be in the best interests of people on the shopfloor. It might be the guy who is suffering a platinum allergy and whose best interests are served by not having him in that environment, but the alternative is him not working for the company. And it's that kind of decision where you have to have the confidence to believe you are right."
I ask about the most difficult events he has had to handle in his career. The most stressful are fatal injuries, without a doubt, he says. His biggest fear is the 3am phone call alerting him to a major injury at a Johnson Matthey plant: "But you try to engineer it so that doesn't happen by making sure you go to sites and listen to people you trust talking about visits they make, to try to ensure our people are as safe as they can be.
Don Harrison, career history:
2014 -- present: Group occupational health and policy director, Johnson Matthey 2008 -- 2014: Group EHS assurance director, Johnson Matthey 2000 -- 2008: Responsible care process owner, BASF 1998 -- 2000: Shift manager, BASF 1994 -- 1998: Senior safety officer, BASF 1985 -- 1994: Shift supervisor, BASF 1979 -- 1985: Shift supervisor, Monsanto 1976 -- 1979: Process operator, Monsanto
"In terms of managing, the hardest things are committees and teams with large numbers of people where there are competing interests and you are trying to get them to understand a common goal. Managing teams where you don't have any power over them, that's tricky."
Does he have any helpful tips?
"Yes, don't do it!" he jokes. "The tip is to try to ensure everyone feels they have a piece of it. You have to engage and interest them."
He says the best way to bring people with you, and something he has learned by observing the best OSH practitioners, is to "show how much you care. The most successful people I have met and the ones who have impressed me most were the ones who obviously cared, rather than just trying to improve their careers or even their company's position.
"You can get into health and safety as a career either because you really want to or because that was the job that came up on the noticeboard when you wanted a change. My view is that the people who are most successful are the ones who really want to be doing this."