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December 20, 2013

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The heat is on

The sheer diversity of the UK’s energy and utilities industry and the myriad of challenges that health and safety professionals face mean that providing effective operational health and safety management requires real dedication. Derek Swan offers an insider’s view.

The UK energy and utilities industry currently employs around 560,000 people, around 2 per cent of the UK’s total workforce. It’s a diverse, highly complex and constantly shifting industrial landscape that incorporates gas (transmission and distribution), power (generation and transmission), telecommunications, water, waste management and renewable energy.
Unlike other industrial sectors (such as construction, manufacturing, engineering and civil engineering) the energy and utilities sector is not a clearly defined industry. It has its own defined status but overlaps into all of the other industries and just about every walk of life.  
At present, energy and utilities companies face price volatility, not to mention significant policy, regulatory and technological changes. Against this backdrop, the hunt for new sources of energy supplies remains a constant, on-going challenge.
For any health and safety professional working in the energy and utilities industry it is essential that they are able to ensure that appropriate, relevant and up-to-date health and safety, quality and environmental systems, procedures and practices are firmly in place. And it is equally important that they ensure the workforce is aware of them. 
With increasing demand for gas, power, electricity, water and waste management facilities throughout the UK, compliance with international standards, regulations, legislation, asset performance as well as meeting the needs of the local community is vital.
For the health and safety professionals that work in this sector, there are tough challenges, for instance, regulatory compliance, workforce shortages, unexpected events and outages, maintenance reliability and human contributory factors. In addition, these professionals must implement health and safety in conjunction with daily operations across far-flung plants and enterprises. 
It is an industry that is increasingly shaped by globalisation, not to mention regulatory compliance, heightened environmental pressures, mergers and acquisitions, and ever-changing business and market conditions. Taken together, these pressures make operational health and safety management increasingly difficult and complicated. 
Arguably, this is why some of the most dedicated health and safety professionals work in energy and utilities to reduce risk and improve safety. 
But we can’t escape the reality that this same industry needs to ensure that its current and future workforce receives the required levels of training in health and safety that it needs. This is not only to keep up with regulations and comply with current legislation, but also to deal with new technological developments and customer service level agreements. It doesn’t help that successive governments seem to continuously move the goalposts.  
The impact of privatisation on the industry in recent years, together with governmental reforms and the HSE’s changes to health and safety legislation have also contributed to the difficulties that health and safety professionals face in delivering effective health and safety management systems. 
In recent years, improved methods of working have been required to achieve cost savings, reduce damage to plant and equipment, deal with spillages and loss of production materials and drive down accidents and injuries. 
At the same time, health and safety professionals have had to ensure the industry’s regulatory compliance, help drive through sustainable governance and improve performance and reliability. 
For those at the coal face, trying to implement health and safety procedures and systems, it has been difficult in an environment in which significant challenges to businesses — ranging from industry restructuring, system reliability, growing security concerns and wavering customer relationships — have further complicated operations and impacted on reputation.
One of the main frustrations is that every time a new government comes into office, it doesn’t appear to be able to come up with a plan and stick to it. Ministers state what they intend to do about renewable energy, the construction of wind turbines and power plants etc and then when it comes time to pass new legislation through parliament there always seems to be delay after delay. If it’s not this, it is change to legislation or a revision of targets that have already been set.
Let’s take excavation, which makes up a large proportion of the overall work undertaken across the industry. It is estimated that around 4 million excavations are carried out each year. For this excavation work to be carried out safely, companies work to the requirements laid down by the HSE in its guidance, Avoiding Danger from Underground Services (HSG47). 
This document was first produced in 2000 and is based around the 1994 version of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations (CDM) and therefore does not reflect the current CDM Regulations 2007. An updated version of HSG47 is long overdue.
The HSE has been reviewing this document in recent years and it was expected that the new version would be published in 2013; however it has been delayed due to a lack of resources and no date has been given for a planned update. 
Revision of the CDM Regulations 2007 was expected sometime in 2013 but will now be in 2014. Until this appears, it would be helpful if the HSE could update HSG47 to include the changes to CDM 2007.
So what can be done to further drive health and safety improvements in an industry that is already highly regulated and subject to constant scrutiny?
It is something of a paradox that the energy and utilities industry is simultaneously held responsible for being partly responsible for contributing to climate change while at the same time being recognised as a major player in the transition to alternative sources of energy that will ultimately reduce emissions in the future. 
Due to pressure from the Government and the HSE, some energy and utilities companies have started to collaborate and work together. Sharing the same aims and goals, they are finding that it is better to pool resources and share information instead of working on their own. 
Across the industry, various utilities asset owners, industry groups and contractors have joined forces with the specific aim of ensuring that the highest possible standards of safety and best practice are in place when carrying out work on vital services to homes and businesses. 
These partnerships have implemented workable solutions, introduced new technologies, disseminated information, provided personal protection equipment and avoided disrupting energy supplies. 
Health and safety professionals employed in companies across this industry have played a pivotal role in this process. They have the experience and knowledge to help these companies achieve greater value from management and reduce operational, reputational and regulatory risk. 
These same professionals also provide important guidance and technical support when the company is looking to new and potentially high-risk areas for energy sources. 
Their role is vital when there is a requirement to work on joint ventures; when companies want to prevent delay or disruption to major capital projects; when senior managers have concerns over meeting financial control and reporting requirements; and when senior managers have concerns over regulatory change and related risks.   
Health and safety professionals must be allowed to continue to have a say in all of these incredibly important decisions to ensure that the right solutions are found. 
The HSE’s mission is to prevent death, injury and ill health and this cannot be achieved without the co-operation of decision makers in companies such as directors, senior managers and health and safety professionals. 
The industry’s health and safety watchdog needs support and assistance from these decision makers who are committed to promulgating a common sense, practical and workable approach to health and safety and sharing and promoting best practice. If nothing changes, then the HSE’s mission will not be achieved.
Energy and utilities companies face an ongoing challenge, in an increasingly fast paced environment, to ensure their health and safety professionals keep up-to-date with all legal requirements. 
It is also essential that these same professionals pass on all relevant and up-to-date information on regulation, legislation, the environment and health and safety, at the right time, to the company workforce.
Failure to allow health and safety professionals to implement changes that reduce risk could be extremely costly in the long run. 
It may result in a company not being able to achieve full compliance with relevant legislation, which results in severe penalties and significant commercial and reputational damage. On the other hand, allowing these professionals to reduce risk will save businesses time and money. 
If health and safety professionals are not allowed to continue to have a say in the implementation of key changes in the business, companies will suffer. 
More damaging to the industry in general, in the last five-to-ten years I have witnessed many health and safety professionals who have reached a point where they have had enough and walked away from the industry.
Derek Swan is a safety, health, environment and quality (SHEQ) consultant, auditor, trainer, assessor and verifier in the utilities sector

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