Just 21 per cent of health and safety professionals are women. Showcasing the critical part they play in driving our sector forward is central to attracting more diversity into the profession. Rachel Rawlings is the Regulatory Affairs and Quality Manager for UK & Ireland & Norway at Air Products. Here she explains how she has driven forward ISO 45001 standards across the business, and why she believes diversity in occupational health and safety is so important.
Occupational health and safety (OHS) may, on the surface of things, seem dry and anodyne but it stands as a cornerstone for modern organisations and is, in fact, crucial to commercial success.
Why? Because a safety-first culture attracts and retains skilled staff, which in turn enhances productivity and inspires confidence among discerning clients. This protects the bottom-line and the reputation of a company in ways that can’t be measured in numbers.
At Air Products, OHS is not just a box to tick. It’s a deeply ingrained commitment that permeates every aspect of company operations.
We recently achieved ISO 45001, the international standard. Its implementation provides organisations with a robust framework to identify and control workplace hazards, prevent incidents, and continuously improve safety performance.
OHS has always been a priority for us and now it’s equally important to root that message in evidence such as the certification. When clients ask about our management, instead of submitting piles of papers, we only have to show them the certificate as proof that all of our seven Air Separation Units (ASUs) at Carrington, Didcot, Hull, Isle of Grain, Llanwern, Milford Haven and Stallingborough respectively are ISO 45001 compliant. This is a huge achievement and commitment.
Air Products first started the process of achieving ISO 45001 in 2019 but then hit the brakes when COVID-19 emerged. When I joined the company in 2021, we restarted the programme with ambitions to get all our ASUs certified in one go. This was no easy task, but who doesn’t love a challenge!
I found that in addition to addressing the non-conformances and tightening our procedures, achieving the certification also needed a strategic communications push to bring our teams on board with our plan. Sometimes quality, control and safety systems can seem a bit vague and distanced from everyday work done at site - good to have but filed away in a corner gathering dust.
Our teams agreeing that following procedures was in fact not extra work, but simply working to a certain standard to achieve the best result, was half the battle won. Making it workable by ensuring that these procedures are easy to follow and accessible so they are not a burden on time was the other half. For example we saved the generic procedures and risk assessments across all sites in one place – an easy to access shared site – to standardise these processes and also minimise hassle.
When it comes to safety, it’s clear that small changes can have a big impact. For instance, I’ve worked with our supplier to stock a small range of female fit fire-retardant workwear. Finding the right work gear helps our diverse workforce feel welcome, comfortable, and safe on site and also contributes to our safety standards.
Commitment from the top leadership is equally important in taking OHS procedures seriously. Air Products’ senior leaders put their weight behind this process and attended the opening and closing meetings with the ISO 45001 assessor in person. This sent a clear signal to everyone that certifications like these are a priority.
Having achieved what we set out to do doesn’t mean we can put our feet up. When the standards are approved, they have to be maintained, which is an on-going task. ISO 45001 places a strong emphasis on worker participation to manifest a shift towards a culture of inclusivity and shared responsibility. To that end - and also because I’m passionate about what I do, I want to make my work relatable to everyone at the company and ensure my colleagues are curious about what I do, and why I do it.
I use internal social media channels and I make the content engaging, with images, personal anecdotes and humour. I’m consistent with my messages so everyone knows that quality and safety are always on the agenda and that things are always happening – we are constantly reviewing, tinkering, improving.
Even outside of my work, I’m an evangelist of engineering and the importance of quality, control and safety. I want to encourage everyone regardless of gender, ethnicity or background to consider this stream of work which makes such a tangible impact on peoples’ lives. But OHS remains a male dominated profession. Creating a more visible and vocal presence for diverse workforces in OHS through social media, and direct outreach to schools can help create awareness of these roles. I want to encourage more young people by showing them how interesting, adventurous, and sometimes challenging my job is - the very opposite of boring!
I strongly believe that if we are able to demonstrate the variety of roles in OHS - and create and communicate clear career pathways to leadership positions where women and young people from different backgrounds can see themselves in 10-15 years, then we stand a better chance of hitting our diversity and inclusion targets. Transparency, equitable pay, mentorship and networking opportunities provided by the industry and employers are critical to this.
As workforces become more diverse, so will the OHS needed to protect that workforce. We must have the same diversity of our employees reflected in the teams that look after their well-being, be it physical, mental or emotional.
The final word in support of gender and general diversity in OHS or for that matter any company is that it equates to sustainability. It’s been established that a diverse leadership encourages intake of a diverse staff and helps companies outperform financially. So, if health and safety and diversity in their own right aren’t persuasive enough, then that certainly should be. There is a serious case to be made for diversity at all levels and departments of a company, and across the OHS profession.
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