2019 Utility Week – Health, Safety and Wellbeing Conference

2019 Utility Week – Health, Safety and Wellbeing Conference

Utility Week hosted their 6th Health, Safety and Wellbeing Conference recently in Birmingham. With a great line up of speakers and attendees from across the utility sector it was an excellent day.

Dame Carol Black got the conference underway giving an outline of the challenges and opportunities the UK currently faces “developing mentally healthy workplaces and increasing productivity”. She threw up some interesting and unexpected statistics. Two which really set the scene were the following - the average worker loses 35.6 days per year on average due to absence and presenteeism, this costs the UK £81bn.

Worryingly Dame Carol also pointed to research completed which categorically shows young people have much higher levels of mental ill health on every metric including the causes. From financial concerns, bullying, depression and workplace stress, as this cohort gets older it seems unless there are major changes this problem is going to get worse before it gets better. 

the average worker loses 35.6 days per year on average due to absence and presenteeism, this costs the UK £81bn

However, it is all not bad news. Surprisingly only 3% of employees use mental health interventions in the workplace, however of those that did 71% found it useful. It seems if the support is provided and communicated to the workforce then real, impactful improvements can be made. However, the key is to “Ensure a firm base for Health and Wellbeing, grounded in the fabric of the organisation.” Not simply an add-on.

Next we moved onto a panel discussion involving Dame Carole Black, Joe Murphy, Head of Health, Safety, Security and Wellbeing at Southern Water; Nicola Johnson, Director of HSSE and Engineering Governance at E.ON; Dr Judith Grant, Director of Health and Wellbeing at Mace, and Andrew Grant, Head of Safety and Quality at Northern Gas Networks. The topic was “Prioritising the occupational and mental health of employees: what can utilities learn from other industries?”

Following on from Dame Carol’s opening talk a common thread running through many of the answers in the discussion was that wellbeing and health need to be linked to the strategic goals of the business to be successful. Andrew Grant commenting that “to really get mental health fixed we really need to get HR involved” and Dr Judith Grant “the key is collaborating and not working in silos”.

Following the break Gerry Mulholland, HSEQ Director – Utilities at Amey gave an overview of their progression towards their ‘Amey 2020 Challenge’ – not to leave any street works excavations open overnight by 2020. Utilising some innovative technology Amey are on target to achieve this ambitious target, it will no doubt be a year of change at Amey to make this happen.

Richard Gough of SSEN next gave an overview of the challenges and good news stories of the collaboration across the utilities sector which has led to a massive reduction in the injury rate. However, as he quite rightly stated, unless there are blanks in the injury column, for a number of consecutive years, the job is not done.

Owen Wilson, Networks Safety Manager at Gas Networks Ireland gave an interesting talk on ensuring a strong health and safety culture. Given they had recently undergone a major internal survey, Owen had recent accurate data and was able to give an overview of what was and wasn’t working for them.

Coming to the end of the discussion the audience received a glimpse of the future where the next three speakers talked about “The importance of innovation and the role of technology”. Craig Murdoch, Head of Safety, Health & Wellbeing at Skanska Utilities gave an excellent talk on how health and safety innovation can also achieve a carbon neutral future through the use of technology. Skanska have set a target of being net-zero carbon by 2045 – including their suppliers. This ambitious target will require new ways of approaching construction and Craig showed a video of a study by Skanska and Volvo doing just that, with the use of autonomous vehicles in a major quarry project. The result was not only zero emissions but also a much safer environment. It feels like the future, with the video looking slightly like a Sci-fi movie! However, innovation like this is surely required to fight back against climate change. The video stating there is no longer the need to trade-off between profit, sustainability and health & safety.

Skanska are also investing heavily in off-site production, robots and the greening of traditional plant – really shining the light for others to follow in not only making the world greener but also safer – truly improving overall wellbeing.

Next was perhaps the most surprising statistic of the day from Leo Scott Smith who has developed the lone worker app – Tended - “70% of employees are against using technology to improve safety”. Why? Many fear what will happen to their data. This has been a major cause of health and safety having some of the lowest pick up rates of technology than any other sector. All is not lost however, and Leo suggested open, transparent communication from the outset overcomes this resistance.

“70% of employees are against using technology to improve safety”

Finally in this segment Richard Broome of the Utility Strike Avoidance Group gave a call out to all in the industry to improve the data around cable strikes – this being the key to tackle this problem. At the moment only 150 strikes per month are reported. It is known that the actual strikes are much more than this – how much more is anyone’s guess with one estimate at 60,000 per year! All we know for certain is that data is critical to resolving this.

The final session of the day saw Carol Moore of Thames Water give an insight into the five year journey they have been on across health and wellbeing in the organisation. The figures speak for themselves in regard to the improvement. They have seen a 78% decrease in LTI’s and an amazing 3.5t lost by 300 employees on Slimming World! However, those looking for a silver bullet would have been left disappointed. “there is no one initiative that will have a profound impact….it is about being relentless over a number of years.”

Congratulations Carol for recently celebrating 40 years at Thames Water!

The final speaker of the day was Ian Travers the former Deputy Director of the HSE. Ian gave an interesting insight to the importance of process safety to managing catastrophic risks.

One of the major challenges in this space is that humans are not good at measuring likelihood with Ian asking the question – “when is the next time you are going to crash your car?”.  The answer in my head, like I am sure most would be – “never”. However, the statistics on car crashes show this is unlikely the case.

One of Ian’s comments really left food for thought. An explosion he investigated was due to an error which was made 40 years ago with a piece of plant. This both shows the importance of demonstrating control of processes and detecting early signs of failure. Ian suggests leadership and culture are critical to the solution.

Thank you to Denise Chevin, Intelligence Editor of Utility Week for Chairing the day.

James Irwin is a Director at Irwin & Colton, a specialist recruitment consultancy across health, safety and environment. For more information visit www.irwinandcolton.com

Posted on Monday Dec 9