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February 20, 2015

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IOHA 2015: Q & A with Alistair Fraser

Alistair FraserDr Alistair Fraser is this year’s Warner Lecturer at the 10th International Scientific Conference of the International Occupational Hygiene Association (IOHA 2015). He is vice president of health for Royal Dutch Shell plc.

You’re a graduate of Aberdeen University Medical School. How did you end up working in the corporate world rather than the clinical field?

After medical school and my house job, I went to work in the Antarctic as the base doctor at the research station on Signy Island, working for the British Antarctic Survey. I stayed for 14 months on the base, looking after the crew – in fact I think I did the first ever root canal treatment in the Antarctic! After that, my exposure to the oil industry started – first looking after the workforce on platforms in the North Sea and then on a drill rig offshore Madagascar.

Can you give us some hints about what you’ll be touching on in the Warner Lecture at IOHA 2015 in London?

At Shell, we are developing a powerful culture of health. We believe that if you can find ways to enable worker health and activity, then you improve engagement and this in turn drives safety and productivity. Research has shown that if you improve engagement by one per cent, you get a four per cent increase in safety. From an occupational hygiene perspective, I’d like to talk about the “HOW” of what Hygienists do. For example, we must get the control of health exposures right – but it’s how you communicate it that is so important too. When you drive outcomes of protecting people and empowering them to protect themselves, then you will achieve much better results. When people feel cared for within an organisation, all sorts of other things improve, and achieving the goal of healthy, high-performing people moves closer.

I’m also planning to touch on ‘metacognition’ – thinking about thinking, if you like – and to do a couple of psychological interactions to challenge people on how we construct our own views of the world.

BOHS recently announced Shell as the leading sponsor of IOHA 2015. Can you tell us what makes IOHA 2015 a good “fit” for Shell?

Everything we do at Shell – from running a large shipping fleet to the sandwiches we sell at the service stations – features a mandatory health risk assessment and risk management process. So having excellent occupational hygiene support, which is globally available, is really important. Shell operates in 72 countries around the world and the IOHA also has that global reach.

What do you think sets Shell apart in its approach to its “culture of health” within the world of multinational organisations?

Many corporate health promotion programs tend to be about attempting to persuade people to change lifestyle behaviours now (eat less, take more exercise) with a goal that, for example, you won’t have a heart attack in 20 years’ time. However, human beings generally prefer faster gratification, and negative goals are not as engaging as positive ones. So we’re saying that yes, parts of the classic health promotion system are important – such as knowing your blood pressure – but we’re working to give people tools to improve their performance and health right now. We ask people to challenge their thinking to make changes. For example our offices increasingly feature items like sit-stand desks and exercise bicycles. Perhaps more important is the simple behavioural change of ‘move more’ – perhaps by standing in meetings. Standing improves cognitive function, improves decision making and reduces the duration of a meeting. We use behavioural strategies to help drive engagement and so worker health becomes a business value-add – not a cost – with a goal of healthy, high performing people. Challenging thinking and moving health from a service to a business enabler recently saved $300 million on a single project.

Can you tell us about your own personal philosophy to best practice in worker health protection?

It’s about getting people to be personally accountable for self and others. Let me give you an example. During the building of the turret for Prelude (in Dubai), a massive floating liquefied natural gas (FLNG) vessel, there were concerns about the risk of heat stress with outside temperatures in excess of 45°C. A common procedure to manage heat stress is to enforce controls based on measures of thermal load and then insist on restricted work and specific break times. On this project, management backed off and instead worked to drive engagement with the workforce, “We trust you will do your work. If you are not feeling well, go to the air-conditioned cabins, have a drink and when you’re ready, go back to your work.” The results were excellent and the heat stress issue was effectively managed. If you educate people, demonstrate that you trust them and make it clear they are accountable for themselves, (whilst providing the necessary support structures), the results are great.

You’ve worked in some fascinating places around the world – from Oman and Nigeria to the Antarctic and offshore Madagascar. You must have seen some hugely varying approaches to worker health protection. What do you think large companies such as Shell can effectively do to promote worker health protection around the world, when governments and conditions are so diverse?

Big companies can achieve a lot. First, we can set an example by applying our health standards, to the best of our ability, wherever we are in the world. Second, we can and do work a lot with governments and academic institutions in the interests of looking after worker health which, in turn, drives performance and safety.

You’re currently in the demanding role of vice president of health for Royal Dutch Shell plc based in The Hague, Netherlands. When you’re not working, what do you do to switch off and look after your own health?

I like to be as active as possible – including at work. I cycle to work; I walk the dog; my wife and I have three children – the youngest is 5 – so that’s a very energetic age! I have a very old Land Rover which needs love and swinging hammers to maintain it, and in May, provided the logistics work out, I’m going off dog sledding in Spitzbergen for 10 days. I’m not such a fan of the concept of work-life balance – I believe it’s all about making work choices and life choices.

This interview first apepared in Exposure, the BOHS membership newsletter

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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