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In safe hands

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When I met Lawrence Waterman five years ago, he had recently joined the editorial advisory panel of our magazine, Safety Management, but his fame preceded him.


He has been working in health and safety since the ‘70s, soon after finalising his bachelor degree in biological sciences. During the past four decades he has left a mark in many of the most challenging construction environments in the UK. That is why neither the announcement of his chairmanship of the Board of Trustees of the British Safety Council last November, nor the very recent news of the Lifetime Achievement Award by Western Business Publishing came as a surprise.

Lawrence is mostly known for his role as head of health and safety for the London Olympic Delivery Authority. This work earned him an OBE in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Honours in 2012.

His work for the Olympics had started many years earlier, in 2005, soon after London won the bid, just as Lawrence completed his term as IOSH President. His day job as a health and safety advisor took him to many sites across the UK, reviewing programmes and training managers for large contractors. The success of London 2012, the first Olympics construction project without a fatality, was a landmark, and will be difficult to beat.

After the Olympics and until the end of 2016, he was director of health and safety for the Battersea Power Station Development, another landmark construction project, and advisor to the Tideway project team. He is a member of Tarmac’s Senior Leadership Team, a company dedicated to sustainable building materials and construction solutions, and an advisor on the Lower Thames Crossing.

He is also a senior advisor to the London Legacy Development Corporation, which continues to develop the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, and to other projects including the Chinese-funded Royal Albert Dock Development, which he joined after Battersea.

Lawrence Waterman’s relationship with the British Safety Council began many years before his appointment as chair of the Board of Trustees.

Meanwhile, he has kept a place in academia, as a visiting Professor in the School of Civil and Building Engineering, at Loughborough University, where he has lectured and participated in research after the Games. He was project director for the occupational health pilot Constructing Better Health and is the author of papers, articles and book chapters.

He has received (jointly) the medal of the Institution of Civil Engineers for Safety in Construction twice, in 1995 and 2012, the latter with the President’s Medal for contributions to civil engineering. In 2005, he got the RoSPA Distinguished Service Award.

As part of his work as founding partner of Park Health and Safety Partnership, Lawrence has also worked overseas, supporting, between 2012 and 2014, an agency of the New Zealand Government (ACC) in the reconstruction of Christchurch post-earthquake. He has also collaborated with the Singaporean Workplace Safety and Health Council in 2013.

He first worked with the British Safety Council during the London Olympics and became a trustee the same year.

For the past five years I have seen Lawrence in public events, often delivering inspirational speeches. I have read his columns and have been with him in meetings, always making sharp comments and insightful observations.

Lawrence is a good interviewee, the kind who looks back into your eyes before beginning to answer a question, and meaning every word of it. We have spoken informally about politics and travel, the best restaurants in Chiswick and how lovely is the walk on the Thames path to reach our office in Hammersmith. He quoted Oscar Wilde during this conversation, something that makes him stand out from the health and safety crowd.

By the end of this long interview, he said that it would be a challenge to turn it into coherent sentences. I can tell you, it was not.

IC: What are the main health and safety issues in the UK

LW: Health and safety is an area of activity that in many organisations is now properly regarded as essential for that organisation to be regarded, and regard itself, as successful. Looking after your staff, visitors, customers, neighbours, making sure that you don’t cause any harm is seen by most people as something reasonably that you could expect of any decent operation.

The maturity of safety management in the UK means that when things do go wrong and people are hurt in accidents, it’s usually a topic that’s newsworthy, while in the days when workers were killed daily it was regarded like the weather or something that just happened. Now, when something goes wrong in a hospital, at a power station, on a construction site, quite rightly it’s something that prompts questioning, investigations and serious efforts to prevent a recurrence. The subsidiary question is always: does this represent a breach of good legal practice, is this a subject of a prosecution, is there going to be societal retribution for what’s gone wrong?

I think that workplace safety in the UK has got this level of mature confidence in which people should be able to go to work every day or come across other people at work and not be harmed as a result and be able to go home back to their families in a safe condition at the end of that day.

The challenge is maintaining that in a fresh way so that people don’t become complacent. When you have fewer accidents people can assume they’re never going to occur, they can get lazy and assume that everything’s alright without checking it.

Brexit and new technology

The other problem that can arise is that change can take place, creating new risk, and people are not sensitised to that, not aware of it. At the moment, the big change that everyone is talking about is the implications of Brexit for work and workplaces, and if that does represent the potential for a dilution of the standards that we’ve been used to. In recent years, as a result of government cuts, we have already seen that austerity means less money being spent on regulation, on the Health and Safety Executive. That squeeze means that those employers who really need to be encouraged with the risk of enforcement to take health and safety seriously are probably being pushed less hard than they were a few years ago. That’s not a good background to, then, see the possibility of the EU directives, which have underpinned our health and safety arrangements, being effectively set aside.

London 2012 was the first Olympics construction project without a fatality Photograph: iStock/dynasoar

Although there have been some reassuring noises made about maintaining standards, there’s also been the concern that being truly globally competitive is seen by some politicians as code for deregulation in the workplace. A lot of that threat has been discussed in terms of employee rights, but the most basic right is the right to life and that’s what accident prevention is aimed at preserving.

In the British Safety Council, we have just published the research report: Future risk. Impact of work on health, safety and wellbeing, together with the business psychology company Roberson Cooper, a report reflecting this period of rapid technological change. I hope lots of people look at that research reviewing what we currently understand about changes in the workplace, such as artificial intelligence and others, what the implications are likely to be for the risk profile of people working.

I think that report is a pointer that Brexit is one driver of change, but technological developments at work is a second driver. Those two things in combination mean that health and safety for all organisations need to be near the top of the agenda to make sure that we don’t lose sight of the potential impact of these changes on the safety arrangements that we’ve got used to.

IC: You’re talking about accidents and safety...

LW: On the health front we don’t have this level of maturity. We don’t even know how many people are psychologically harmed by work pressure turning into work-related stress, for example. Or, the psychological health, but also the physical health of our workforce, the impacts of silica dust on the lungs from people quarrying and working in construction, the impact of noise exposure in manufacturing, but also those people that are working out and about in noisy urban environments near roads.

Airborne pollution we know is now causing something like 40,000 premature deaths a year, but many people work outdoors in urban environments and I’m very pleased that the British Safety Council is in the process of developing a campaign associated with air quality and outdoor workers and looking at the risks and the appropriate precautions and controls to manage those risks, rather than just making the facile assumption that if you’re working outdoors it’s bound to be good for you. Whatever work people are doing, they deserve a high level of health and safety so that they can enjoy their lives and the lives of their families.

So, I think on the health front we don’t have the developed systems that have driven down the accident rates, we don’t have the levels of occupational hygiene intervention that result in exposure to health risks being reduced to as low as is possible. We don’t have the health surveillance that’s really keeping an eye on the health of the workforce and making sure that if anything arises that causes harm that we’re going to rapidly respond and we need that in place.

We don’t want another generation to be exposed to a modern version of asbestos and only after many years of harm do we wake up to the problem and begin to take action. We want our health programmes to be as proactive and positive as our safety programmes are, so that we cease to be a country where we shout safety, but whisper health. We want them to be treated with equal parity and indeed we know that many more people’s health is damaged by the work that they do than are injured in accidents in the workplace. We don’t have a balanced score card now for health and safety.

Battersea Power Station Development, one of the biggest contruction projects in the UK, where Lawrence worked as director of health and safety until 2016. Photograph: iStock/Ben Gingell

That’s one of the reasons why, as chair of trustees of the British Safety Council, I’m absolutely determined to focus on health and the workplace as one of our three focal points. I’m absolutely determined that this is going to be realised in campaigns, information, research, engagement with our members, working with regulators and the government, using all the levers that the British Safety Council has used in the past in order to create real improvements. I’m determined that we do this as professionally and effectively as possible, with the same campaigning zeal for occupational health as hitherto we’ve used for accident prevention.

IC: You mentioned the risks of Brexit, but many people do not foresee those risks considering that European legislation is well ingrained within the British legal framework and are optimistic this will remain the case.

LW: I’ve worked in construction more than any other industry in the course of my career; a sector that still employs over two million people doing work with modern equipment, modern materials, modern techniques, but work that in some respects would still be recognised by biblical construction workers from 2,000 years ago. We still put bricks on top of each other, so much mortar, we still dig holes in the ground, we still run water pipes to provide possible water. There are many developments in construction, it’s a very modern industry, but it’s an industry with a long history that is still doing things that people did a couple of thousand years ago and those who built the pyramids in Egypt would recognise aspects of what we do now as related to what they did.

In that industry we have over the years killed and injured more people than any other industry, partly because we employ so many, partly because of the hazardous and changing nature of the very workplace that you work in. Building does create a new environment and the EU directive on temporary mobile work sites, translated into UK legislation as the Construction Design and Management Regulations (CDM Regulations) was needed precisely because across Europe, construction workers in Germany, France, Belgium, Spain AND Greece were doing similar work to the work we were doing in the UK. Indeed, German, French and Spanish construction companies are working in the UK, and German, Spanish and French construction workers work in the UK just as British construction workers work in European countries.

The advantage of setting some universal standards across Europe is that they underpin the way in which we try and manage those risks in construction and drive down, as we’ve successfully been doing in recent years, the accident rate and, particularly, the fatality rate. I think that’s been a fantastic achievement.

One of the worries is that because Europe has been presented as a bureaucratic obstacle to the UK being able to operate globally as a trading nation, we’ve lost sight of some of the benefits of working with partners and health and safety is the best example.
I can think of companies, professionals, organisations like the British Safety Council over the years coming together and cooperating, despite commercial conflicts, cooperating to set standards to protect the health and safety of workers. I don’t want to lose that sense of cooperation and a joint venture to make workplaces safer.

The British Safety Council’s vision is very clear that no one should be injured or made ill by the work they do and this is a challenge not just for the UK, but it’s a global challenge and we need to cooperate with others to meet that challenge. So, although there are exciting opportunities arising out of Brexit, turning the UK’s face to global trade, looking for developing new and deeper relationships with countries around the world, I hope that we can still cooperate very closely with our close neighbours in driving health and safety to higher and higher standards.

The British Safety Council is very keen on not just being European, not just being UK-centric, that’s why in recent months [November 2017]
we’ve opened our first office overseas, in India, and are looking forward to doing an enormous amount of work there in order to help Indian companies, members of the British Safety Council and those that we can work in partnership with, to raise health and safety standards in India in the same way that we continue to work to raise health and safety standards in the UK.

IC: You said that the British Safety Council should recover its campaign zeal, which was at the foundation of the organisation 60 years ago. It has now moved from a campaigning organisation with a wider approach to health and safety, to be a membership association representing companies, and still campaigning, something that can be perceived as a contradiction

LW: I think it’s possible to respect one’s tradition and look back on the period when James Tye, a great campaigner and a great communicator, founded the British Safety Council and drove it so hard. I think one can look back at that time with respect, but we’ve got to be clear that we’re in a different era. Sixty years since the foundation, it’s a very good time, the Diamond Jubilee that we’ve just celebrated exactly a year ago, is a very good time to reflect on what the British Safety Council has been, but what it now is.

As a membership organisation we’ve got to be as respectful of our members as we are of the British Safety Council’s history. We’ve got to reflect our members, but those companies that join the British Safety Council are very brave because they are making a public declaration of their commitment to high health and safety standards. They act as the flag carriers, the people that shout health and safety, the people that insist that health and safety is an enabler, it helps them run their organisations better in all aspects. It means that they can look after their staff, their customers, the people that they come across, the neighbours of their offices, factories and construction sites. So, the organisations that are members of the British Safety Council are the leading bodies in the UK and globally for driving health and safety standards.

I think that is very brave of them because a lot of people are nervous about making such public declarations of their commitment, but making a difference begins by being brave and making that commitment. So, we’ve got to be careful at the British Safety Council that when we speak we say things that are evidence based, that are true, that are honest, that are ethical, so that when our members look at what we’re saying they can be as proud of the British Safety Council as we are proud of what they do in their own workplaces.

That’s a difference from where the British Safety Council was originally – when it was a small organisation, speaking for itself, it could speak without reference to anyone else and say whatever it wanted. We don’t do that anymore, we consult our members, we communicate with them and, above all, we listen. That’s why we have sector interest groups (SIG), who are a group of health and safety directors or managers, depending on the industry, that meet under the auspices of the British Safety Council to share common issues and best practices of the industry and network. [see box with SIGs info].

We’re an organisation that really tries to reflect the best of UK industry and increasingly, with our global membership, of global industry. So, when we campaign, we campaign on the incredibly sound foundation that we argue for the kind of policies, arrangements, the kind of standards that our members are already demonstrating are cost effective, value for money, make good business sense, that work for their workers and their organisations.

It’s interesting, but the British Safety Council private companies and public companies that are members, are profitable businesses. They demonstrate that good health and safety and good business are the same thing. So, when we campaign these are the things that we raise. That’s why in 2014 we published The business benefits of health and safety, a literature review, a paper which really provided the evidence that good health and safety is good for business. We’ll continue to campaign around the kind of standards that our members are already showing are the standards that represent the highest level of world civilisation, that’s really what we’re talking about.

IC: Health and safety has been demonised and mocked by the tabloids for years, although it is also true that recently the media has been quite focused on some health issues affecting the workplace, such as stress and mental health. Are we in a moment when the health and safety duo is coming together

LW: Oscar Wilde said that “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” I think that one of the reasons why health and safety has been attacked by the tabloids is because what they’ve been attacking is sometimes bad health and safety and the idea that all health and safety is good, anything labelled as health and safety is positive. I think that saying that all safety and health is good is a mistake, as it is assuming that every restaurant meal is a great meal or every football game is a great game.

We operate in a world where thousands of companies employ millions of workers with thousands of health and safety advisors employed trying to manage health and safety. Some of them get it wrong and there are two different ways of getting it wrong. One way is that you don’t do health and safety well enough and people get hurt; the other way of getting it wrong is that you do things that are not good for the business, for customer service, for comfort, for appreciation and are not necessary for health and safety, but have been labelled as such.

One of the things that the British Safety Council is brilliant at is making sure that health and safety is effective and practical. We’re not in favour of stupid rules, we’re not in favour of the kind of bureaucratic health and safety that results in manuals that have got thousands of pages in. We want health and safety that looks after people and enables them to live the free, open, enjoyable lives that we all want for ourselves and our families. I think that some of the criticism of health and safety is good because it forces us to make sure that what we’re doing is correct and sharp and effective. Without critiques, I’m not sure that actors would be as good on the stage. Without critiques, I’m not sure that any of us working in our own fields would try and be the best that we could be. Having a bit of negativity is like having a grain of sand in an oyster and it can produce a pearl. I think it’s the right thing to do, but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

 Health and safety is too important to allow those people who attack it to dominate the conversation. The better we are at managing health and safety at work, the fewer people that are harmed, the less that becomes a story. What happens is that people become complacent and they take it for granted. So, when they see something that is labelled as ‘we’re doing this for health and safety’, they think it’s a nuisance and it’s a burden and it’s getting in the way, but the truth is that having brakes on cars and driver training and speed limits and lights on the roads and proper maintenance means that we kill less people on the roads than we’ve done for many years; and for every bereaved family we’re not doing enough.

When health and safety goes wrong, we must do more and when it’s going right we’re doing too much, and we have to as a campaigning evidence-based professional organisation, reflecting the needs and wishes of our members, we need to constantly strike a balance between doing too much, being bureaucratic, not getting it right, being inefficient and not doing enough, not protecting people, not looking after their health and safety.

The British Safety Council, relying on its research, its evidence and the support and knowledge, deep knowledge of its member companies steers that balance incredibly well. One of the dangers of seeing health and safety as just red tape is it becomes an encouragement to dilute the standards that have been so hard won and under resourcing areas such as research, the work of the regulator, the Health and Safety Executive, the hollowing out of local authority enforcement. It is not good for the millions of small businesses and the workers that they employ in the UK, so we need to make sure that we maintain that minimum core of good quality health and safety, but of course we’re going to try and make it as efficient as well as effective as possible.

IC: The name British Safety Council somehow suggests an old-fashioned way of thinking...

LW: I think the name of the British Safety Council, like lots of other bodies, has got a deep history that many people are very proud of, and are quite rightly proud of, and many people reading this probably wouldn’t know it, but the early campaigning years of the British Safety Council is one of the reasons why we all wear seat belts when we drive in cars.

The campaigning of the British Safety Council in the past, has really made a difference to health and safety in the UK and increasingly around the world. But the word British sounds a bit empire and we talk about Safety Council and that doesn’t include health. So, I think that what we must do is strike a balance between what we sound like, what the name sounds like and what we actually do and what we do could not be more modern.

We run training courses that help people cope with rapidly changing workplaces. We have special conferences to discuss the impact of artificial intelligence on work and the way in which nanotechnology exposes people to risks that we didn’t even know about 20 years ago, but at the same time we carry out audits on organisations so that they, effectively, are benchmarking themselves against those high global standards. So, that audit, that training programme has got a long history, a long background because we embed the knowledge, the skill, the knowledge of our member companies.

We are very much in favour of tradition, of history, of learning, but we use it to look to the future and be fit for the future. I think that the British Safety Council title is both a reminder of our history and a challenge for us to remain as relevant and as modern as we need to be to protect the health and safety of everyone at work.

IC: Pick the time or job you have done during the past 40 years in health and safety that you feel proudest about

LW: I tend to be a very in the moment person and I can’t imagine a greater privilege than being appointed chairman of the British Safety Council. I’m incredibly proud of that and I really want to make my contribution to this great organisation by, in the main, helping others do the same thing. Working together collectively has always been the best aspect of the work of health and safety.

If there’s a professional time in my life that represents something very important to me, it would be my role as head of health and safety for the Olympic Delivery Authority for London 2012. It is not just because it meant that I worked with the British Safety Council, which provided tremendous support, the five-star audit, the video for the games makers, which really began my deep relationship with the British Safety Council at that time, but also because London 2012 provided an opportunity to demonstrate how good health and safety could really enable people to achieve the best.

I am talking not just about the three gold medals on Super Saturday in the Olympic stadium, not just the brilliance of the Olympic Park and the millions of visitors in the course of the Olympics and the Paralympic games, not just a construction programme that for the first time in Olympic history managed to build all the facilities without killing anyone. All of those individual achievements were really important, but I think more than anything else London 2012 created an opportunity for the UK to celebrate what’s best about Britain and – I’m a Londoner – what’s best about London. Health and safety showed itself to be the foundation stone for doing that.
So professionally, that was my proudest period, until taking on the role of chairmanship for the British Safety Council.

IC: What kind of chairmanship do you want to ensure

LW: I suppose the two things that I’d want to emphasise or deliver as a final message for this interview. We have been talking a lot about the British Safety Council and its members and it’s got a great staff team, it’s got that great history, but health and safety is too important to be owned by any particular body, whether it’s a professional body, a campaigning body, a membership body, it doesn’t really matter. So, although the British Safety Council is an incredibly important player in the UK and increasingly global health and safety landscape, we will be doing our best when we work most openly in partnership with others who’ve got similar visions. Our vision of no one being injured or made ill by work is matched by others with visions of a world of work without harm, a sustainable workplace, a safe and healthy world, the human right of being healthy and safe. You look at the different organisations in health and safety, in human rights, in environmental management and you soon come to the conclusion that however proud we are of the British Safety Council’s position and tradition, we will be doing our best when we link arms with others who can sign up to our vision or who have a vision that we can sign up to.

I’m hoping that during my period of chairmanship we will strengthen the partnerships that already exist and forge new ones, so that we can be ever more impactful, ever more effective in our support to our members, in our provision of services like training and audit, which themselves make a contribution to our vision and in our campaigning work that results in increasing change for the better in government policies, in organisational commitments and delivery.

 However good and important the British Safety Council is, we need to multiply our efforts by working with others in a respectful close partnership, whenever we’re able to do that. The second thing is that we’re a member organisation and how good we are will always depend on the extent to which the organisation listens to, engages with and discusses what to do next; how we can do it best, how we can do it most effectively with our members and the wider community interested in and committed to workplaces that are healthy and safe.

I hope that we will turn outwards, be more campaigning, but working in deeper partnerships with others and that at the same time we will increasingly turn inwards to make sure that our members are getting exactly what they want, the services, the support, the information that they want and that they can see that they are shaping the future of the British Safety Council as their representative body.

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