Lawrence Waterman, head of health & safety for ODA & LLDC who oversaw proceedings at London 2012 and now Battersea Power Station, talks to James Pozzi about Health and Safety Week, which runs till Friday.
This week is Health and Safety awareness week. Aside from celebrating the reduction in workplace accidents over the past 40 years, what are the week’s other main objectives?
I guess there are a number of things. Firstly there’s no doubt we’ve achieved quite a lot over the years, but that means it can become a bit stale if you’re not careful. One of the advantages of having a focused week like is being able to refresh the parts that normal weeks don’t reach; liven things up, take up new initiatives and make a bit of a fuss about it. The second thing is that for many years, in manufacturing no less than other sectors, we’ve shouted safety but whispered for health. If you look at health statistics, we don’t gather them as effectively as we ought to, and if you don’t know, then you don’t manage so well. There’s been a tendency to put health in the too difficult box, associating it with doctors and nurses. But we wouldn’t say safety is to do with orthopaedic surgeons and for people sewing on severed fingers through poorly guarded machinery. But it’s about ill health prevention and occupational hygiene in the work place – managing the source of the risk. We’re really keen to use Health and Safety week to raise the profile of occupational health and getting more employers and managers to be aware of health risks in the work place and the simple things you can do to reduce exposure to risk and less ill health.
What are some big occupational health threats you are seeing a lot in the industry?
Asbestos is a bit like taxes and the weather – it’s always with us because of the long latency associated with. Before, so much was stuffed into buildings, that when you start working on an old building, you’re either looking at an asbestos survey and removal to check it is dealt with properly, or you’re looking at a building where people haven’t go round to it yet so the problem remains. In terms of more recent issues, hand on vibration syndrome in engineering is common, from the grinding of castings through to the use of the increasing number of portable hand tools. We still have a large number of people who end up with noise induced hearing loss every year, even though they know what to do about it and can reduce noise that’s sourced through better equipment. We’re also still getting on our skin, a lot of stuff that causes long term damage – respiratory sensitisation and contact irritants for example. Hazardous substances are still not as generally well managed as they need to be. One of the problems in modern manufacturing is people are always looking for the next big thing that could make a process more efficient, and this leads to people thinking they’ve solved the problem. Then a new material comes into the work place and you have to go all around the loop again. Even though the UK is doing quite well, we still need to refresh, update and maintain the systems you’ve got. If you turn your back on them for a moment, they end up covered in a layer of dust, not being employed properly and putting people at risk.
On the physical injury side, where do you feel UK manufacturing needs to go to further improve its figures?
Using an example of recent years, the team at Aston Martin has won all sorts of awards. I’ve looked closely at how the company makes such an eminently British product which represents the best of our engineering. What they do is work with individual workers on the production line, quality control is not an end of manufacturing check, it’s something that happens as the work is being done all the way through. So they weave quality all the way through, and unsurprisingly, that’s exactly what they do with health and safety as well. So the guys working with the car bodies or assembling the engines is completely woven together. I think the future of manufacturing in the UK is to do with empowering the workforce in their work teams to completely integrate health & safety with quality production. So when they have the morning review before starting work, you don’t have something that is a quality circle separate from a health and safety initiative, but instead, high quality including not having accidents while making a product safe for the consumer. The indivisible, integrated management approach is the future of manufacturing in the UK.
In terms of regulation, has there been any changes or modifications that have been particularly influential in recent times?
I think there’s a lot of resistance to any new regulation. From a political-social point of view, I don’t think we’ll see any more radical, additional developments. I think the move is that maybe in some areas, we need to simplify things to make it a bit easier to integrate the health & safety requirements with the other things that you’re doing. I think there may be little change at European level in the near future, but in terms of individual nation states, there may be a continual effort to reduce the paperwork and make things simpler. There may be that kind of distillation; like a really good chef doesn’t end up producing great platefuls of bland stuff, but three teaspoons of a really beautiful juice can make a dish. I think we need to distil out the core things we want people to do in health & safety and not try and boil the ocean all the time with the regulations.
You’re working on the Battersea Power Station project at present. How’s that coming along?
It’s very exciting. When you think of that program and rebuilding those chimneys is in a way of touching on heritage and also making it iconic for the future as well. You think about the engineering that went into that power station – the control room is a listed structure – it gives an idea of how we’ve got this deep engineering and manufacturing base in the UK, but at the same time we’re the most modern manufacturing in the world at the same time. It’s a wonderful balance.