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Duncan Spencer on Health and Safety First Aiders

The impact of health and safety first aiders and ISO 45001 | Duncan Spencer (Expert Interview #10)


Duncan Spencer has a wealth of experience in health and safety and plays a key role in IOSH. In this podcast, we talked to Duncan about the impact that health and safety first aiders can have whilst also looking into ISO 45001.



Read full transcript

– [Paul] Right. Our next feature for HSE Online is an interview with Mr. Duncan Spencer, head of advice and practice systems at IOSH. IOSH, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, are the world’s biggest professional health and safety membership. The voice of the profession campaigning on issues that affect millions of working people by setting standards, supporting, and developing to connect their members with resources, guidance, events, and training.


We speak to Duncan today about the impact of mental health first aiders, the challenges of recruiting quality HS professionals, how do we get equality in the boardroom, and ISO 45001 control of contractors and continuous improvement. Here we go. To get us started, I guess one of the biggest areas that we’ve seen an increase in incidents is mental health.


You know, we’ve seen worrying increase in mental health challenges in the workplace, co-ops are looking at ways to reduce the incidents and I guess produce and provide support to their employees when incidents occur. One idea is providing mental health first aiders. I guess what I wanted to ask yourself, Duncan, is what are your thoughts?


Is this the magic bullet? Is it a sustainable, reliable solution to help support and reduce mental issues?


– [Duncan] No, I don’t think it’s a magic bullet is my first reaction to that. We had certain research recently published at IOSH called the mental study and part of that study was to look at what mental health first aiders were being used for in the workplace and to some degree, how effective they were when they were there.


And the principle findings of that study and the extrapolation that comes from that indicates very clearly that while mental health first aiders have an important role to play, in their own right, they will not solve your problems, that actually they need to be a part of a whole. So, what you need is a full system that primarily, and which goes back to the tenets of the health and safety profession, that primarily works to prevent the causes of mental ill-health in the workplace caused by the workplace and therefore, you don’t need mental health first aiders because you’re not getting people into that situation presumably.


So, they become part of the belt and braces process as does an employee assistance program and so on and so forth. So in terms of dealing with mental health difficulties, I think that they have a place but they should be part of that full process. Now, that brings in other concerns and other issues that you have to think through because, of course, mental health isn’t something which is created within the workplace, or, you know, elsewhere.


It’s also created by domestic situations as well.


– Sure, it’s a much wider issue.


– Absolutely. And I know that there’s long been a debate over the past decade or two about how far should a business go in terms of reacting to somebody who’s bringing difficulties from home into the workplace. But I think where we’re getting to now particularly because of the productivity agenda that we’ve had in recent years within retail, engineering, and so on and so forth, how do you get more for less, so on and so forth, that we’ve come to realize that that was the wrong way of thinking it through because if you do the maths in terms of somebody being ill and off work as a result of mental challenges that they might have that actually there is a loss there.


And so you end up losing money, you lose productivity, you might even lose the person which then introduces recruitment costs, and so on and so forth. So it doesn’t really matter now whether somebody is bringing a domestic situation that’s affecting the way that they work whether it’s, you know, something that’s happening at work that’s affecting the way they work, or a combination of both.


The fact is that that person is suffering and therefore, we ought to do something about it and we ought to do something about preventing that or building their resilience to being able to deal with those kinds of situations when it flags up for themselves.


– Where is the line drawn from a domestic issue to a work issue? Do you feel sometimes difficult for a corporation to overstep the mark into more domestic-based issues and challenges or would it be the responsibility of the corporation to interfere and try and support?


– I don’t think you have a right to pry into people’s private lives, but what you do have a right to do is to challenge an employee when they are not working at full capacity. This is what I mean about having a full program that looks at all of the facets of this.


So, if you are a line manager and you’ve been appropriately schooled in what to look for around changes of behavior, for example, in an individual and drop of productivity and so on and so forth, you ought to be in a position where you sensitively approach that with the employee and say, “So, what’s going on, you know, how can we help?” you know, and so on and so forth because you don’t know at that stage whether it’s work-created or whether it’s domestic-created or whether it’s some combination of both or whatever.


So, it’s having that open dialogue and that’s where this IOSH study comes in again. It’s also having an organization that has worked upon destigmatizing mental health issues in the workplace because that’s really important and that is one of the things that a mental health first aider could help you to do because they could help to raise the profile around this, and so on and so forth.


If you’ve got a proper system which is transparent to everybody and they appreciate that it’s there to help them and they’re not going to be penalized by the fact that they’ve come forward saying, “Boss, I’ve got an issue here.”


– I think it’s fair to say, and correct me if I’m wrong, but HSE professionals, I feel like they struggle to perhaps find their way and place in the boardroom. Do you feel now that that landscape is changing or why is it so difficult to perhaps recruit the right HSE professionals?


– Crikey. It is a big question, though. I think principally if we change that question slightly and you talk about how many people in CEO positions, managing director positions, chair positions in large national and international corporations have at least in part had a health and safety career as part of their portfolio?


And the answer to that is very, very few, unless, of course, you’re running your own company that is dedicated as being safety in some way, you know, whether it’s a consultancy or it has safety products or whatever it might be, then you might get that. But then when you start to look deeper and you say, “Okay, well, whereabouts is the safety professional that knocks on the door of that?”


And you do find nowadays you get people who are termed as directors of health and safety, but unless they’re in construction, very rarely do they actually sit in the board. They’re usually a director in terms of directing things but not an executive director, they sit outside of the board. So, the fundamental question here is when you look at a chief executive officer and you say, “What is your background?” and they say, “Oh, well, I came from personnel, and I came from procurement, I came from finance I came from whatever.”


And you say, well, why haven’t we got people who say, “Well, I come from health and safety”? And I think the essence to that when you start to think about it it starts to challenge how do we prepare and how do we develop the career paths of health and safety professionals? And if you look at organizations, membership organizations, IIRSM, or IOSH or whoever and what you actually find is that up until relatively recently, all the focus was on how we develop your technical competency, not how do we develop your ability to be able to affect change and influence in the workplace?


So, when you look at that more dispassionately, we’ve had…IOSH has run focus groups on this recently and you hear stories from people who are in leadership positions within the profession who say, “I’ve been trying to recruit somebody to my team and I’ve got inundated with CVs, a lot of them were very poorly written so I selected, you know, a couple of dozen and I interviewed those couple of dozen.”


And actually, when you look at them on paper, you can hardly tell the difference between them because they’ve all got the same qualification. They walk through the door and I stand up not appointing anybody. Why? Because they can’t influence, they can’t negotiate, they dont’ understand how business works, and so on and so forth. So, actually, one of the things that is a challenge now within the profession is how do you develop people’s career opportunities?


By giving them the skills to be able to utilize their technical ability more effectively. Because if you look in, you know, many small and medium enterprises, and I said this as a generalism, but you often find that that person is held as solely responsible for health and safety, and, you know, they have a very defined unit and so on and so forth.


But if you are in a position where you want to progress from that and you want to move into large multisite businesses, national businesses, global businesses, and so on and so forth, if you want to go along the career ladder and elevate yourself to directors and maybe even eventually, get onto the board, then something has to change. You have to understand that actually, you can’t do safety anymore, you have to get others to do it for you.


So, for example, in my own career, I led the team at the John Lewis Partnership where there was only five of us, yet there were 94,000 partners in the John Lewis Partnership and 450 different sites, everything from agriculture through leisure facilities and different styles of retail outlets and ware houses, and da di da di da.


And the reason why we were able to do it is because we could influence, we could negotiate, we could involve ourselves and get other people to do these kinds of things. And that’s the kind of skill set that you need if you’re going to be seen as a business equal because that’s the essence I think of your question is how does the profession get business equality?


– Business equality, absolutely.


– And I think at the moment the key is that we haven’t got the right language and we’re not acting in the right ways in order to earn that respect. And if you look at other professions like procurement and like personnel, and you track what their membership organizations have been doing over the past 10 years, they’ve been doing exactly that. They’ve been changing the way they support their members to enable them to be able to gain these skills and thereby affect their career change.


So, we have to take a long hard look at ourselves in terms of how we develop talent within our profession so that we can have that business equality.


– That’s fantastic. I couldn’t agree more. Thank you so much. So, let’s talk about ISO 45001. For the benefit of the viewers who don’t know, ISO 45001 is an ISO standard for management systems of occupational health and safety published in March 2018, and the goal of ISO 45001 is the reduction of occupational injuries and diseases.


But my question to yourself, Duncan, is what are the implications of simplifying OSH controls and management systems?


– Okay. So, one of the things that is… I have to start by declaring a truth here which is I’ve never been a fan of ISO standards and the associated British standards that go with it because we get ISO standards and charter standards, we reinterpret them, we produce British standards accordingly.


Never been a great fan of them because for the legislation structure within the UK, it’s very clear to me that what the health and safety at work here says and its daughter regulations, it’s elastic law. It enables you to be able to look at your own circumstances in your own context and decide what are the safety issues that you have and therefore what are the appropriate ways of controlling it.


That’s not been well understood by many people because they’ve often clamored for somebody to tell them the answer rather than find it for themselves, hence why you get quite a number of people who are great fans of the approved codes of practice that HSE produces, so on and so forth. They want somebody to tell them how to do it. And so, traditionally, what you find is that the way that the ISO standards have moved in the past is that it’s been another way of telling people how to do safety in the workplace.


This is what the system looks like. The beauty about ISO 45001, and I nearly turned cartwheels when I saw it with glee, is they’ve actually put a clause within it which makes… which challenges many people’s idea of what continuous improvement means. So, all the standards up until now have said you have to continuously improve and the way traditionally that has been viewed by many people is it’s about putting more layers of the onion in place and you end up getting to a position where inadvertently, maybe, you’ve gold-plated safety and you end up with far more controls than is necessary.


And actually, long time ago, the effect of you putting more controls in place, it’s diminished, the value is very much diminished. So, one of the things that I think is really key and really challenging for the profession now is that within the new ISO 45001 standard, it very clearly says in the guidance that goes with that that continuous improvement includes simplification.


So, that’s a challenge to organizations to say, “Do you know what? You can go too far with safety.” Which is another way of saying what HSE says which is that you should understand your risk but you should have a proportionate response to it. And that’s the key thing is how do you decide when something is proportional or not and the idea would be that you understand your context, you understand how your organization operates, you understand how it’s changing, and therefore, you need to review your controls and simplify those controls.


– Nice. I’ll give you another example of how that helps. In the six months that I worked in the housing sector, I worked for one of the largest housing associations in the country, what I inherited when I started this project for them was a system where they had 27 different policies in health and safety and when you went to look at how they did things on the grassroots level, what you found was there were so many policies, or there were so many different responsibilities in it, so many different actions that were required managers that they completely lost their way.


They have no idea what they were supposed to be doing. And as you were trying to amend these things, you know, you’ll have to amend 27 different ones every time you made a change, and so on and so forth, it became a bureaucratic nightmare. So, in order to better get over that, what you do is you reduce all of that down to one. You know, if it’s an act it has a policy. If it doesn’t have an act it has a procedure. And what you suddenly find is suddenly it becomes manageable, not only for you in terms of keeping things up to date but in terms of people understanding what is required of them.


So, if you give them long, complicated instructions, they will say, “Well, this will never work in a month or seven days, so I’ll do the best I can and I’ll nod in the right direction.” But if you can simplify it so that they get to a point where they can have ownership and want to have ownership of it, then you’re going to have a much more effective system. So that clause within 45001 is really meaningful from the point of view of saying to the profession, “Stop. You need to think about this. You need to think about how you can do this in a simple way so it connects with people and you can get buy-in and engagement.”


– What about the implication on contractors?


– Well, contractors, well, I have to say from a contractor point of view, in my tenure at the john Lewis Partnership, for example. If we had a serious accident, there were one or two, it tended to be with contractors. So, that would be echoed by, I think, many people in large national and multinational businesses.


It tends to be when other people are coming in because you don’t have the same level of control with them. So, again, with 45001, what that’s done is another significant change within is it’s asking you to think much more deeply about how you have a working relationship with contractors that enables you to come to common agreement about what the safety standards are and where you can assign back responsibility for those standards to the contractors where you don’t have a


[inaudible] kind of culture but you’re very much in partnership in terms of how do you move this forward? And in that sense try to break down the company barriers so that you’re working much more closely together. The whole intention with how far you go in your relationship with your contractors and how far you go in dictating to them the standards that you want or whether you go much further and much more ably by agreeing in partnership what those standards should be and what would be more appropriate.


It’s a similar kind of idea, if you like, of one of the problems you have with dictating a procedure to somebody working on the shop floor is that they know things for real and how they operate and whether it’s possible. And so, they were quick to say, “Actually, that won’t happen, boss because of X, Y, and Z. You should’ve come and talked to me first.”


When in a similar way, if you think about it, if you’re asking a contractor to come in and do a piece of work for you, it’s because you generally don’t have that specialism within your business and therefore, the same kind of idea applies. So, if they’re the experts, bring them in, get them to talk to you about what the standards should be, get them to have the ownership of it. And that’s what 45001 is starting to do as the kind of ideas you hear about from the


[inaudible] and business and how they try to approach their contractors and it seems to be the way forward. So, gone in the past I think will be if we have this conversation again in maybe five years time, I think we’ll look back and go, “Yeah, in the old days, you used to have a score system and we used to check off whether they got this document, that document, and so on and so forth, and thought you were we were controlling contractors but in actual fact, we weren’t.


But now we have partnerships, we have dialogue, we have mutual respect, we have a mutual agreement on what the goals are, and we have an open dialogue about how well we’re doing to be able to approach that that we recognize that the contractor has responsibilities, but you also have responsibility as the client.


So I think we will see a much more productive relationship, I hope so, coming out of that.


– Fantastic. Well, Duncan, thank you so much for coming. Thank you for your time. You’re welcome. And looking forward to working with you again in the future. Best of luck.


– Thank you very much.