SHP Meets teresa budworth
‘Senior h&s professionals need to fully integrate themselves and align their operational plans with the organisation as a whole’
NEBOSH Chief Executive Teresa Budworth recently announced that she was going into semi-retirement, bringing to an end a 13-year tenure, during which she has overseen huge international growth, helped grow the competency levels across the profession and met the Queen. SHP caught up with her to look back on her career and find out what’s next.
Teresa Budworth’s NEBOSH career might span an impressive 14 years, with 13 years as Chief Executive, but her experience in the industry stretches back to 1979. At the time she was an exception to the norm, having chosen to do a degree in health and safety, at Aston University. You might think that as a graduate in health and safety, she would stand out from the crowd and transition into work fairly easily, but that wasn’t the case. Teresa reflects on how she found it a struggle to find a job at first. It was seen as a second or third career or a job for someone who was coming to the end of their working life. That, she says, is the biggest change she has witnessed during her career in health and safety, the professionalisation of it as a career.
She has spoken in the past about how the profession was viewed in the late 70s. “When I started and I was looking for a job, I saw an advert for a car park attendant and safety officer. That was the sort of esteem that the profession was held in.”
Thankfully, she acknowledges, the profession has totally evolved and now it’s much more of a partnership with the management of an organisation and working with directors to integrate health and safety into decision making, “rather than going around with a clipboard telling people what they are doing wrong.”
But what was it that attracted her to health and safety in the first place? Aside from being a self-confessed ‘safety anorak’, she talks about the appeal of variety and how “there are lots of things to see and learn about” and how no two days are the same. Thinking back, she recollects some of the huge range of ‘weird and wonderful’ places she has found herself during her 40-year career, from being down sewers and doing COSHH assessments at a chicken broiler unit to being behind the scenes with a Beefeater inspecting the Tower of London and looking at the security around the crown jewels.
Teresa feels that NEBOSH has played a significant role in making health and safety more professional. “When I first started working at NEBOSH in 2004, less than 5% of our work was outside the UK. Now, closer to 70% of our qualifications are taken outside the UK. The profession is growing all around the world.”
The Middle East is a particularly strong area of growth, but NEBOSH qualifications were taken in 132 countries last year. “Some of the best practices in health and safety I’ve seen anywhere in the world are from companies in the Middle East.” She says. “Perceptions that there is a long line of employees ready to take the place of people who get injured at work, is simply not true in the majority of cases.”
Another factor for the growth, according to Teresa, is the quantity of ‘process industries’ in the region. Oil & gas is a good example of this, where if something goes wrong, it can go catastrophically wrong; the loss to plant, people, the environment and organisational reputation can be staggering. For that reason, she feels, there is much more of an interest in safe-guarding that plant, the processes and the people.
Passion for the profession
NEBOSH surveys show that the average age of people in the UK taking on a NEBOSH Diploma is around 40, however outside of the UK it’s about 10 years younger. Teresa feels that this is because health and safety may be seen as more of a career of choice outside the UK, with a greater number of younger people going into it. Maybe not with a degree to their name, but going into the profession pretty soon out of university.
She does think the pattern is changing in the UK though, with younger people getting into the profession with a passion for health and safety. Passion being the key word, she says.
Where does her passion for safety come from? “It’s actually quite a sad story”, she remarks. “My father was a safety representative in the 70s and was a large influence my life. He and his brother worked for British Steel and both of them had accidents at work. My uncle lost part of his finger.
“I also used to babysit when I was younger. The father of the family I babysat for fell off a ladder at work and was killed. That, for me, was very close to home. I saw the impact on that family, having not only lost their father, but also losing their home as they were unable to pay the mortgage.”
When starting out, Teresa was very into science, having done maths, physics and chemistry at A Level. She was also interested in psychology, the social and political aspects of things. She wanted to study why we make the decisions that we make. “Health and safety as a degree subject allowed me to study all of those aspects at the same time. For example, studying the engineering aspect of why beams fail, why buildings fall down, how materials fail, as well as the politics behind policy making in health and safety and law.
“There is always something new to learn, which is fascinating. Such variation from one industry to another.”
NEBOSH has changed a great deal in the last 14 years. When Teresa started at the organisation, much of the process was very manual, from photocopying and posting documents to processing data from forms. All of which has now been automated and outsourced. “This enables us to deal with what we are good at: raising competence in health, safety and environmental management.”
Teresa has also overseen a huge upgrade of all the IT systems and they are in the middle of another large upgrade which is due for completion by the end of this year. As part of the modernisation, there has been a lot of investment in upskilling the team to ensure that the people setting the exam questions and practical units are not just health and safety experts but experts in assessment best practice too.
Competency in soft skills
The assessments are not just about examinations Teresa stresses, they all incorporate practical skills and putting them in place in the workplace. “For example, the certificate courses, the most widely taken qualification, requires a report to be written to management persuading them what they need to do and why.”
One of the advantages of the course is that they are available to all ages. “In the past there may have been a view that you were written off if you didn’t do well at school, but nowadays, bodies like NEBOSH are making the opportunities to earn qualifications later in life much more accessible.”
NEBOSH also awards the qualifications for newly appointed HSE inspectors, which does involve an exam, but also includes an assessed case study which requires them to prepare evidence for a prosecution and a videoed role play of interviewing a witness and taking a statement. “Doing the job in practice in the workplace is very much at the heart of how we design our assessment systems”, she adds.
She is hesitant to put too much focus on the need for soft skills though. “My worry is if we just think safety is all about communication and soft skills and forget about the technical body of knowledge, then you are in a situation where people think ‘anybody could do that, do you need a safety professional at all?’”
Teresa feels the UK’s health and safety record is so strong “because we have a truly excellent regulatory regime.”
“I think that the Health & Safety at Work Act and The Robens Report on which it was based, and this is me being a real anorak, is a really excellent piece of legislation. The Robens Report in particular is all about the people that create the risk being the experts on those risks and doing what needs to be done to control them. That is what is at the heart of what a health and safety practitioner does. It’s not about eliminating all hazards, it’s about ensuring that you can do things which are potentially quite hazardous, but do them in the right way.”
A great example of health and safety enabling you to do something, minimising the hazards with effective solutions, says Teresa, is Thames Water and how its maintenance and inspection tasks in sewers have been developed using drone and computer simulation technology to plan out work without the need to send workers into a sewer.
She feels the profession’s historically negative reputation stems from people who are not qualified in health and safety, not clear on what they are doing and overreacting to trivial risks or using health and safety as a convenient excuse. “I remember being in Sainsburys a couple of years ago on the fresh meat counter and saw some pork belly. I asked for it to be boned and the person behind the counter told me it couldn’t be boned for health and safety reasons. However, when pressed, the real reason was that the person was not a trained butcher. It had nothing to do with health and safety at all, it was just a person not having the required skills to carry out a task.”
“You often hear of teachers not taking their students out of school because of the fear of a risk assessment. My daughter went to a school that was twinned with a school in Ghana and it used to take children on trips to rural Ghanaian villages each year. If those trips can be carried out safely, then it’s a problem when teachers are not taking kids on a field trip in the UK because they are scared of the risk assessment.”
Teresa feels it’s important that as a profession we communicate what out value proposition is. “What is the benefit that this profession can uniquely bring to an organisation?”
Citing research by INSHPO, the International Network of Safety and Health Practitioner Organisations, she says there is strong evidence that employing a health and safety professional can enhance a company’s value and performance. She notes that the research also looked at what the characteristics are that deliver the maximum value of employing a health and safety professional. One of them was about the level in the organisation in which they report, pointing at the importance of having senior management health and safety professionals.
Her husband Neil, who is also a heath and safety professional, has a theory on this from his Masters’ thesis which, although tongue in cheek, highlights the point. He looked at what the indicators are of safety performance, one of them being, what model of company car the health and safety manager drives. That, he wrote, is a good indicator as to how senior they are within an organisation and whether their voice is as powerful as say the marketing or HR director.
“Senior health and safety professionals need to fully integrate themselves and align their operational plans with the plans of the organisation as a whole. What implications do the plans of the business have on the staff and what are the potential risks that could come with those plans? Teresa added.
The conversation then moved on to women in health and safety and what she has noticed during her career. “There are more of us now. The gender balance is clear at the annual NEBOSH Graduation Ceremony.” She also notes that there are a lot more women to be found in senior positions in more traditionally male dominated industry, such as in utility or construction companies, and, that there are a lot more younger women coming into the profession.
Indeed, she has a theory that women are coming into the profession at a younger age than men. Men, she feels, are still tending to come to health and safety as a second career, maybe from engineering or production roles, or from the armed forces, whereas more women are coming into health and safety as a first career. She stresses though, that she has no firm evidence to back this up.
When asked to think about what her proudest achievements were during her career, she pointed to the international growth which NEBOSH has enjoyed. But also to the organisation winning the Queen’s Award for Enterprise, in 2014, which led to her meeting the Queen and Prince Philip. She recalls the surreal moment during the reception when she was told that the Queen would be making her way down to talk to the group that she was standing with, “What am I going to say to the Queen?”, she pondered.
When SHP last spoke to Teresa, the announcement of the award had only just been made. Looking back on it now, she reflects that that the award itself was not the most important thing. Instead, she talks about the recognition of what it means.
The award, Britain’s highest accolade for trade success, reflects the work NEBOSH has done to raise health and safety standards around the world. Teresa says what makes her most proud is what the achievement stands for, that more people across the globe are achieving healthy and safe working conditions because there are more competent people to ensure that. “That’s why NEBOSH exists and that’s why I went into health and safety in the first place.”
Teresa was keen to point out that her leaving NEBOSH was only a “semi-retirement”. She was appointed as Chair of the Chief Fire Officer’s Association last year, which is a governance role, making sure that the infrastructure behind the charity is all in place, so she will continue with that. She also says she may consider another non-executive position.
In the meantime, the added free time will enable her to write another book. The idea for which she has been sitting on for a while. She also has a dog, which was a lifetime ambition, so she plans to spend more time with her dog, as well as signing up for some art classes to pursue her interest in painting.
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