Assistant Editor , SHP

July 11, 2023

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“Career opportunities, progression, development, challenge – it’s all there in health and safety and I wish I’d joined the industry sooner.”

In a new series for SHP, we speak to professionals working in or around health and safety to start conversations that go beyond the day job, sharing individuals’ challenges and ideas for the profession. In this article, Assistant Editor, Rhianna Sexton speaks to Eddie McGrath, HSE Director at Jacobs, about his career, and encouraging young people into the profession via apprenticeships.

SHP: Hi Eddie, could you tell me a little about yourself, how did you get into health and safety?

Eddie McGrath (EM): I got into it by accident, mid-career, like a lot of people but thankfully that’s changing.

Eddie McGrath, HSE Director at Jacobs

My move into health and safety started in 2004 after I had the opportunity to gain a NEBOSH General Certificate from a local college. I grabbed the opportunity with both hands and really enjoyed the learning, one of the lecturers suggested I should expand on this by undertaking a diploma course at a university, which I did, then I took it a step further and completed a BSc in Occupational Safety and Health.

At the time I was working in manufacturing, and my then employer was looking for a health and safety adviser for a project to revamp all assembly lines in the factory.

I applied, and got that job and spent the first 18 months of my health and safety career working on a strip out and refit of forklift truck assembly lines.

It was a baptism of fire – there was a lot to consider but it cemented my interest even more.

I’d worked there for nine years already so I knew a lot of people, some of them liked the changes I suggested, some of them didn’t, but I tried to speak to people and understand their needs as well as making sure health and safety was paramount. Once they see you’re not going away and you can make a positive difference for them, they come around!

When the project ended, I moved into construction and was lucky enough to work on the first Hydro Electric Power Scheme to be built in Scotland for over 50 years.

Subsequent roles include leading health and safety for a portfolio of overseas projects and subsidiaries, culminating in my current role as HSE Director at Jacobs. I now work in the civil and defence nuclear sector which includes nuclear power generation, nuclear new build, decommissioning and regeneration and supporting the UK’s nuclear defence programme and a multi-national project to develop nuclear fusion as a reliable power source.

SHP: What do you enjoy about your role?

EM: The variety! Every day is different – I came from a manufacturing background where a lot of the work could be repetitive, day in, day out. It’s very cliché to say every day is different but, in my role, it is so true and will be true for most people in this profession.

Health and safety is a career that allows you to get involved in just about every aspect of a company’s business, from employee recruitment to project delivery to the board room. This variety means there’s a lot of people to engage with and there’s always something I need to learn or familiarise myself with to remain up to speed and credible – which is another huge positive; you never get to a point where you know all you need to know.

Moving from manufacturing to construction, there was a lot more standing back, having a look and thinking. The planning, executing and risk assessment process was the same, but the detail was different – I worked on an underground project which had completely different challenges to anything I’d done before e.g. everyone working underground had to have escape kits that would allow them to escape to the surface in an emergency; vastly different to anything I’d done before.

I’ve also been very fortunate in my career and had the opportunity to travel to places in the world I’d never have otherwise seen.

When you talk to people about health and safety, they think it sounds like a dry subject, people still have the image of clipboard, hard hat and safety glasses but that’s an age-old misperception. The scope of work is just so wide and varied.

SHP: Why today, would a young person want to have a career in health and safety?

leadership strategyEM: For the same reason, it’s so varied, challenging, and interesting. We still have some work to do to convince people of that, but I would advise anyone who has an opportunity to enter this career to grab it with both hands.

Speaking from experience, I would say the profession offers interesting challenges, huge variety for career development and direction and the chance to make lasting differences to people’s working lives.

For a young person, you can pick from various directions, including assurance, systems and processes or in the field construction. Every industry needs health and safety support, even now, with the advances in new ways of working, the focus on mental health or AI and the challenges around that- there’s always something new and something more for you.

Career opportunities, progression, development, challenge – it’s all there in health and safety.
It’s also at the top of every organisation’s agenda and prominent on their website – they are switched on and it’s hugely important.

I think the aged perception of health and safety as a bureaucratic blocker of progress are all but gone. Those of us who work in the profession have always known it to be the opposite of that. I have no doubt that attracting young people into health and safety as their career of choice will help drive the profession forward, introduce new ideas and new ways of working and improve inclusion and diversity.

That in turn will help to ensure the perception of health and safety is one of a career worth pursuing.

SHP: How do you reach young people for your apprenticeships at Jacobs?

EM: We used to go to the market to fill vacancies, but it became obvious that we were fishing in an ever-dwindling pool of resources. It was time to do something different and grow our own talent, so we produced a trainee and development programme.

We canvassed universities and colleges that were offering health and safety qualifications and identified Lakes College in Cumbria. In collaboration with the college, we identified and interviewed several candidates for two positions and Elizabeth Clingan and Alyssa Williams were the stand-out candidates.

SHP: That’s great to hear! And what can people expect from an apprenticeship in health and safety?

career progressionEM: Our HSE apprentice programme involves a mixture of academic study with specific modules and assignments that make up the college curriculum, coupled with hands-on construction project experience where our apprentices are putting their learning into practice.

We didn’t want to bring in apprentices to spend a lot of time sitting at a desk as that’s only a small part of the job, it was important to me to get them out onto the job, see it in action and get the opportunity to be involved.

Both our apprentices have active project roles supporting our work at Sellafield in Cumbria which is the largest nuclear complex in Western Europe so there’s plenty to keep them busy and interested. On site they are supported by a network of colleagues from a variety of disciplines that they can call on as they develop themselves in their careers.

At Jacobs we follow the 70-20-10 model for career development: 70% on the job experience, 20% coaching and mentoring and 10% academic. I believe this model works very well and gives our people the chance to put what they learn into practice very quickly.

SHP: Did the apprentices give any feedback on the process?

EM: Elizabeth and Alyssa both started in September 2022 and so far they have both given very positive feedback.

Elizabeth said: “As I hadn’t since left school before joining this apprenticeship, I didn’t have many expectations coming in.
“However as far as I’m aware the expectations that I had set weren’t enough and were irrelevant, as it went beyond what I could have imagined.
“The support that Jacobs has given me and Alyssa throughout our development has been amazing and continues to set the bar to better ourselves and help us to continue our growth.”

Alyssa said: “My feedback on the apprenticeship is all positive. The support I feel both myself and Elizabeth have received has been incredible from all parties and individuals involved.
“I am pleased to say it has exceeded my expectations despite them already being high to start with and I am looking forward to continuing my professional development into a bright future with Jacobs.”

SHP: What do you think apprentices can bring to a large company like Jacobs?

teamworkEM: They come in with completely fresh eyes, it’s their first workplace – outside of part time jobs while they study – and certainly their first career.

They come with no bias or opinion on old practices and modern technology is second nature to them, they easily adapt to the digital solutions we have.

A future aim of mine is to get as many young people involved as possible and start their careers at Jacobs and I’m delighted to say we’re recruiting apprentices again this year – being proactive and nurturing our own talent has too many benefits for me to list.

I wonder where I’d be now and what I’d be doing if I actually chose health and safety as a career at the start of my working life, rather than joining halfway through my career, or had the opportunities that these apprentices are having.

I advise any young person considering this as a career option not to listen to people that have a negative perception and never worked in health and safety, go and speak to people who are working in it – people stay in this career for a long time and that tells a story in itself.

The Safety Conversation Podcast: Listen now!

The Safety Conversation with SHP (previously the Safety and Health Podcast) aims to bring you the latest news, insights and legislation updates in the form of interviews, discussions and panel debates from leading figures within the profession.

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Alan Christie
Alan Christie
10 months ago

Interesting read Eddie, 😊