Editor, UBM

March 22, 2016

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In conversation with Sheila Pantry: curiosity and single malt whisky

Sheila Pantry and Heather Beach

Sheila Pantry and Heather Beach

Sheila Pantry OBE, former Head of Information Services at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and winner of IOSH’s lifetime achievement award, speaks to Heather Beach on behalf of SHP

Every now and then you meet someone both loveable and inspiring. Twenty odd years ago I was lucky enough to have my career in health and safety launched by the redoubtable Sheila Pantry OBE.

As Head of Information Services, Sheila and colleagues work resulted in the HSE being the first UK government department/agency to make their newly created electronic bibliographic database HSELINE available worldwide on the European Space Agency in Frascati, Italy computer service.  It was a tremendous move.

The CD-ROM technology was quickly developing in the early 1980s, so the next move was to offer HSELINE, along with the ILO CISDOC bibliographic database and the US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) NIOSHTIC databases together on CD-ROM known as OSH-ROM.  This was followed by making full text information available  via CD-ROM, working with Bela Hatvany, MD of SilverPlatter. This collection was called OSH-CD. I was hired to sell this information – an extremely easy job.

A lifelong friendship has ensued.  Sheila knows my family– her typical approach of extreme curiosity about everyone and everything. This, she maintains is what has helped to keep her young, together with vegetarianism and malt whisky.

Sheila is reaching an age where most people would sit back and put their feet up, although I incurred some considerable wrath by describing her as retired – far from it. After leaving HSE, Sheila set up her own consultancy information business  – now  well in its second  decade,  keeping up with the use of technology – publishing the  long established OSH UPDATE + FIRE collection of 26 databases containing over 1.3 million items  of full text and bibliographic information. She also edits and publishes a number of OSH and fire websites, including OSH World,  History of Occupational Safety and Health and Workers Memorial Day

I spent a happy hour catching up with Sheila and probing her for her opinions on HSE’s new strategy, the focus on small business and her foray into writing children’s stories.

What are your thoughts on the HSE’s new strategy, Helping Great Britain Work Well?

I think it is a refreshing approach – clear and accessible. The focus on health and hygiene is absolutely right – it will have a downstream approach on the NHS as well. We need more joined-up holistic thinking like this.  The hidden dangers of asbestos were first highlighted by two ‘Lady Inspectors’, as they were called in 1898, and it took over 100 years for the UK to get legislation on the subject!

HSE has a focus on small businesses, what should the profession be doing to address construction and agriculture particularly?

In health and safety we have a tendency to talk amongst ourselves – which means large organisations who ‘get it’ are safer than the millions of people working in SMEs out there.  We are all guilty of it – even our wonderful, long established institutions. I think we should be reaching out into the local community more, talking more in schools and universities.

In the Republic of Ireland for example, they had a ‘good neighbour’ scheme, when larger companies training their own staff they would invite neighbouring companies in and share the training. It would be great to see more of this.

Health and safety needs integrating into everything. It should be part of teaching in schools – how to assess a risk. It is nonsense that children should not take risks – you and I did – but just like learning to cross roads safely, e.g. they should be educated in how to assess the risk of climbing a tree.

Your career spans 40 years in health and safety – what changes have you seen in that time and what is next?

The key change is in technology; I am in love with it. HSE was the first government department to hold bibliographic data on the ESA computer and on CD-ROM see paragraphs above.

Now the big change is the smart phone. Technology and access to validated and authoritative information – especially in OSH and fire – can be a massive enabler.

What inspired you to compile the History of OSH website? 

I am on the RoSPA National Occupational Safety and Health Committee, and when someone said we ought to have a museum I said a virtual one was better, as HSE has disposed of the conventional OSH Museum that used to be on Horseferry Road in London.

David Eves, another committee member, was inspired and wrote a ‘A Brief history’ of OSH – which turned out to be 100 pages long!

It has been amazing discovering such old documents though. The oldest on the website, De Re Metallica and is about the hazards of working with metals. Originally in Latin, now in English, it dates from 1556.

What we know as the Factories act of 1802 is actually subtitled: Act for the preservation of the Health and Morals of Apprentices, which is apt now with apprenticeships being such a big topic in 2016.

You’ve achieved so much in your life, what are you proudest of?

This is interesting seeing as you, Heather, have started the Women in Health and Safety network, my biggest achievement has been helping and encouraging women to develop their careers, which is still on-going. I introduced job sharing in HSE for example. One of my many protégées has ended up last year as President of CILIP – the Information industry professional body.

What inspires you?

People working in different workplaces, what’s new, blue sky thinking…. I am so curious and excited by the world, e.g. listening  to the wonderful BBC’s World Service and Radio 4  broadcasts to find  out what is going on out there.

What are you working on this year?

Continuing to develop my business and the various websites mentioned earlier. I am on the RoSPA National OSH Committee, the UK Fire and Research Statistics User Group, Fire Information Group UK  www.figuk.org.uk/  – currently organising the FIGUK Mind the Gap Seminar in Fire 2016  to be held at the Imperial Hotel, Russell Square on 26 October 2016. Writing and researching  information, as well as my 17 information books, my recent foray into writing stories for children.

I have a large family and many friends to keep up with, love an active  social life that includes theatre-going,  listening to all kinds of  music from classical to traditional jazz  – and I run a couple of Jazz Supper Clubs in the Sheffield area.

I keep in touch with lots of my overseas OSH and FIRE contacts – and help where I can – my overseas work was the main reason for my gaining an OBE.


Having admired the view from the lovely UBM building, chatted to my 9-year-old about ponies and cowboys in the USA, Sheila trotted off to the Courtauld Institute at Somerset House  for the latest exhibitions and then to dinner and a theatre show with a friend. I am star-struck yet again.

If you want the opportunity to meet Sheila Pantry, she will be at our exhibition in June. Register to join her as a VIP.

Heather Beach is director for the OSH and Facilities portfolios at UBM and runs Barbour EHS, SHP, Safety and Health Expo and Facilities Show. She is a founder of the Women in Health and Safety Network.


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