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May 22, 2023

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‘There’s a move to be more impactful’: IIRSM President, Ruth Denyer speaks to SHP on her time in the industry

Ahead of EHS Congress, taking place at the Estrel Congress Center in Berlin this week, SHP catches up with President of IIRSM, Ruth Denyer. She is also a Director of Production Health and Safety at Netflix and has been reflecting on her 25 years in the industry…

Tell us a little about your background and how you got into safety?

Ruth Denyer

IIRSM President, Ruth Denyer

My first degree was in occupational health and safety, so I started in safety when I was 19. I studied for three years, learning all the knowledge you learn on a degree such as organisational culture, big incidents that have happened in the past, ergonomics and physiology and law. It was really interesting and when I graduated I remember looking in the SHP Jobs section, most of them were construction but I couldn’t see myself doing construction safety.
A job came up for the national theatre, to be a safety advisor there and I knew it was the job for me. I loved the idea of helping creatives make those visions come true and managing all the challenges behind the scenes. So I got that job and then I have worked in other places like the internal team at KPMG Group and then at ITV for 17 years, before I got to Netflix. I love the challenge, it’s the constant creative ambition which makes every day different.

As president of the International Institute of Risk & Safety Management (IIRSM) how important do you think it is that such a group exists for both employees and organisations?

I got involved in IIRSM when I started to really think about safety as a risk domain. At ITV I was the group risk director, I moved from safety into broader risk.
We have a great community of people who really care and these types of organisations can leverage that community to have an impact. The IIRSM is supportive, it helps a lot of people, it’s an incredible thing to be part of.
It is also important to get some coherent messaging around risk management safety, so I think it’s critical because otherwise these conversations don’t happen.
I feel really privileged that I’m part of a community of professionals who share expertise with each other openly to help make things better in other places.
You don’t give your time to an organisation unless you really believe in it and I do believe, what we do is a really useful resource.

The IIRSM has a community of members in more than 90 countries – in your experience what differences do you see country to country?

There’s massive differences – speaking from experience of both the IIRSM and working across the world, local cultures are so important and require different approaches.
You have to be so cognisant of culture to make what you’re doing have an impact. Even things like conversations about people, speaking about risk, the way you have to frame that and any solution that supports people has to be informed by the local culture that people are working in, their norms, practices and beliefs.
I think there’s a real risk that globalisation implies one size fits all in terms of a manual, this is how you do it everywhere. And actually, that has not got integrity. Everywhere isn’t the same and you will be starting from different places and people have different focuses. And if you’re going to have an impact, you have to spend time understanding that local landscape.

The IIRSM has a huge number of resources in terms of not only help and advice but documents, tapping in to experts’ knowledge, guidance, training and more – what is next for them?

We are really focusing on the key things. What we’re going to make a difference in and how we support our community. How do we build that community and how do we enhance people’s understanding and knowledge to enable them to have more impact in their roles?
A good example is when I first went to an IIRSM event four years ago there was someone speaking about resilience – that is not something I would have gone to in a safety role but that talk was so relevant to what I’m doing even in safety.
I think that’s one of the things that IIRSM really helps with, helping people connect dots.

You’re speaking to us today in your role as President of IIRSM, but your day job is Director of Production Health and Safety at Netflix – are we able to get a bit of an overview of your work at Netflix?

My role is director of production safety and I look after Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Pacific regions. I have a smallish team and it’s an incredible organisation to be part of. It’s a fabulous ever-changing business in content making, so we do all sorts I think would be the answer!

How have you seen the approach to health and safety change over the years?

Credit: Alamy Stock

It has changed a lot in some spaces but in other spaces it hasn’t changed at all. I have become really interested in how we approach safety in different ways. It always comes back to the fundamentals of actually, what are we trying to do? Are we focusing on the right stuff? Are we engaging with people in the right way?
I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting over the past 25 years about things I might have done one way 25 years ago that I wouldn’t do now – I think there’s a move to change.
There’s a move to be more impactful and think about safety as a risk and a risk management practice, but equally there’s some places where it’s much more of a compliance role.
We come at it with our own perspectives. It’s easy to forget the basics because you get really interested in the new stuff. Health and safety is a fundamental right at work under the International Labour Organisation and do people even realise that? I don’t think what that means in global workplaces has really been dug into.

What are you most looking forward to about attending EHS Congress, in Berlin, in May?

I really love to hear how other people are looking at the challenges they have, their future focus, how we’re going to influence and change. You learn so much from other people’s experiences and there’s some really interesting theories, you can hear how people would apply that in what they do every day – it’s that shared learning space.
Often you’re so busy doing the doing that you don’t have that moment to take a breath and think. This kind of event gives you that moment.

You will be speaking at EHS Congress too, what can delegates expect from your session?

I’m talking about synergies between risk and safety. If you talk about risk management, it can become very one-dimensional and often safety isn’t at the table. It’s the domain of finance people or insurers and actually we as a profession and body of thought leaders know a lot about risk management.
When I was talking to a lecturers about the financial industry and risk I realised so much of the learnings coming from that are the same as the learnings about safety culture – there’s so many synergies between these things. We will talk about how you give everybody a voice, not just about safety but about risks in general.
It’s in the DNA of safety and yet somehow it’s become a real specific function over there, rather than part of this risk conversation – my talk is about what there is to learn from both sides.

How important is it for the profession to come together like this and share best practice?

The Congress is one great way of getting together a group of people to learn and share knowledge. It is a ripple in a pond so things like this are really helpful – then, when you think about what you can do as an organisation in that broader community, you can push that ripple out much further.
I think connecting with people is really important and I think we’ve all learned how important that is after the last three years of doing things remotely – but I also think a lot about the people who don’t get the opportunities to go to these events, how do we then use this influence? The IIRSM and help to reach all those people too.

Hear more from Ruth Denyer at the 2023 EHS Congress, taking place in Berlin from 24-25 May.

Click to see the full EHS Congress agenda.

Click here for more from EHS Congress on SHP.

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