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February 19, 2020

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Safety Bytes

‘A business can’t be successful if it’s unsafe’

In the latest of its Safety Bytes videos, Irwin & Colton asks Zoe Hands, Operations Director at MerseyRail, how her skills and experience as a Health & Safety professional equipped her for the position of Operations Director.

Zoe Hands Safety BytesMerseyrail is a commuter rail network serving Liverpool Region. The network carries 34 million passengers per year and forms the most heavily used urban railway network in the UK outside London. Zoe opens by discussing some of the transferable skills the HSE profession helps to develop. “There are two really key transferable skills that I think HSE professionals have. The first one is their ability to risk assess. I spend almost all of my time as an Operations Director risk assessing the threats and opportunities that are there in the wider business, whether that’s with my train crew, and what the threats are to their morale or to their availability and sickness and things like that, or whether it’s to the train operation itself.

“The other big thing that I find HSE professionals do more than perhaps general managers, is look outwards for solutions. When I went into operations, they very much were self-reliant. So, when something went wrong, they would look amongst themselves as to how to solve it. They didn’t look at other departments and other businesses, as to how they would solve it quite as readily as I think health and safety professionals do.

“Because health and safety professionals can’t deliver their own success, they have to do it through others. They have to influence and convince others to come to that message. That skill, of being able to get the operations team to look broader than just themselves, and how can we partner, how we can collaborate with others to get a better result for the business, is definitely something that health and safety professionals have in their advantage.”

Zoe goes on to talk about the challenges she has faced, moving from health & safety into operations. “One was around credibility. I do think there’s a bit of a stigma attached around health and safety, and whether, as a support function as we’re often seen, could you deliver the hard products that you have to do as a business?

“The second challenge was more around my security of knowing that it was making a difference. If I take those two separately, addressing the credibility issue comes when you get results. And until you go in there and you can start to put your mark on something, you potentially don’t have that credibility. You have to earn it!”

She then discussed the importance of safety within a business. “Whether you’re in a leadership role in health and safety or in operations, when you’re a leader, you have a cabinet responsibility to make sure the business is a success. It can’t be successful if it’s unsafe, and it can’t be successful if it’s not delivering the product with the commercial value that you need to get back from that.

“For me, health and safety professionals should very much work outside of their lane. Clearly, they’ve got their health and safety agenda and they must advance that at every opportunity, but the real value that you can add is to ask the same probing questions you do around safety of other areas. So, understanding the logic behind the decisions that have been made, and whether they’re sound is something that safety professionals do all the time. Why do we do it that way? We’re trying to understand what the employee’s thinking and feeling, and what product safety we’re trying to get out of that.

“Apply that same logic to a new revenue program, or a new operational initiative. Has it been thought through? It goes back to this idea of risk assessment. Risk assessment as a general skill. It applies to everything across the board. If you’re good at it, you’ll be good at all parts of the business.”

Click here for more Safety Bytes.


Irwin & Colton is a specialist Health and Safety recruitment company, based in the South East of England and recruit across the UK. They recruit all roles in the health and safety industry from Health and Safety Advisor, through to Health and Safety Director positions.

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Karl Spencer
Karl Spencer
4 months ago

Thank you for the time in doing this video, you gave some great views, especially when you state a HSE director may not always ask or understand the operation directors perspective / view. But I have to say, I disagree with the title of the article and the line in the video ‘A business can’t be successful if it’s unsafe’. This untrue (I wish it was though). There are too many cases of successful companies – earning billions and still killing people. Successful companies are still unfortunately awarded multi-million pound contracts and achieving safety scheme compliance, even while being involved… Read more »