Karl Simons: Staying ahead of the health and safety revolution

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The King George VI reservoir, one of London's many lakes
The King George VI reservoir, one of London’s many lakes

haw-week-badgeThere are a whole plethora of risks that consume management time and attention at Thames Water, from trips and falls to Legionnaires Disease and the diversity of the company’s role is enormous. Thames Water has 15 million customers and represents a quarter of the UK’s water operation. Karl Simons heads the health and safety operation at Thames Water and is at the forefront of efforts to utilise a change in perception of the role of the Health and Safety manager that has occurred over the period of the last five years.

In terms of protecting your workforce has there been any schemes that you have created yourself to assist this process?

Several years ago Thames really did change the game towards looking at risk in a very different way. We have cut in half the number of injuries that lead to lost time (i.e injuries that prevent people from returning to work the next day). We have also cut in half the number of high potential incidents within the organisation. What we have done within the organisation is create a greater level of confidence and assurance in health and safety procedures and the fact that health and safety risks are being managed. Reliance within the team has also improved, people are looking after each other and are also not afraid to challenge each other. What’s different about my role is I don’t just represent the 15,000 people that work on behalf of the company, but I am also act to ensure that members of the public get safe reliable drinking water.

How have Thames gone about achieving these impressive injury reduction figures?

Innovation has been pushed through the organisation in order to tackle risk areas. We are also attempting to embed appropriate messages reminding our workforce of the risks and what needs to be done to avoid them. Investment has gone up when it comes to maintaining the safety of our assets.

Many years ago health and safety was stigmatised as a blocker to work being undertaken, interestingly now within Thames health and safety is viewed as an enabler to get work undertaken. I see more and more things coming across my desk that prove that people are using health and safety as a catalyst to get things done, to get investment approved and to be fair, all credit to my chief executive, managers have been empowered to invest correctly in safety. Health and safety is now at the forefront when business decisions are taken.

You say that more and more people are engaged with health and safety now, so would you say that your job is starting to get a little bit easier?

The changing attitudes certainly make it easier. I suppose my sole responsibility, ultimately, is to do myself out of a job! But, it is refreshing to see my sixty strong team from systems analysts to trainers, all people that do a terrific job in supporting the organisation. It is also encouraging to see my health and safety advisers who have gone from being just inspectors of sites to being strategically aligned to the business operating model, so they are part of the leadership team, in which they support and influence things and are accountable for the performance of a business unit. So we have shifted our model of how we integrate into the business. So the health and safety professional’s role has matured extensively over recent years and is seen now as a business professional, a leader within an organisation.

What are some of the areas that cause the most injuries within the business?

I think we will always be in a position where the vast majority of our injuries are from trips and falls and the vast majority of our energy and focus is always based around removing the human ability to fail. As human beings we make mistakes, we have lapses in concentration and I think if we understand how we are going to tackle that and make sure that anything that is introduced into the organisation has a physical understanding of how you remove the human ability to make a mistake, then we will start to solve the problem.

When it comes to trips and falls I recently took my entire team up to the health and safety laboratory and we went through each of our risk areas and the specialists from the HSE (Health and Safety Executive) labs took us through the latest in health and safety technology. On trips and falls, which account for over fifty percent of our organisation’s injuries, they showed us a new grip test they were working on for footwear. So that is moving away from managing the behavior of individuals. So we gave them all our boots and told them to test everything and lo and behold, the boots were not living up to certain grip test.

You mention new technology and investment, do you sometimes still have to fight for health and safety investment?

Well, like any business you have to be sensible around how you mange your cost base and like an organisation we have budgets, but what has changed is that the executive team now very much understand the positive outcomes of not only the tangible indicators i.e. the reduction in injury, but also the indirect culture within the organisation. So this makes it easier for me, yes.

So you would say that there has been a cultural change, a revolution if you will, in the way health and safety is perceived within a business?

Yes, certainly. A huge cultural shift. But it has taken and will continue to take a lot of work. It is one of those kind of topics that is relentless. We are constantly evolving and we are constantly learning from where incidents have taken place, but what I really love is that we are now in the position at Thames now where everyone is looking at creativity.

How can this cultural change be developed and utilised in the future?

The emerging risks will come from the change in environment, the increased demand on water due to population growth. The change in environmental cycles  and the more dramatic weather events are creating risks that we have to understand better. We are always looking forward and that is what is exciting about the organisation.

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