Karl Simons explains the health and safety approach at the Thames Tideway project
The Thames Tideway Tunnel is London’s new super sewer, a gargantuan project that will manage the overflow from London’s Victorian sewers for the next 100 years. SHP hears from the man in charge of health and safety on the development.
As head of safety, health and wellbeing at Thames Water, Karl Simons is not afraid to get his hands dirty. Supporting the team delivering clean water and sewerage services to a quarter of the UK’s population, Simons has quite a job on his hands overseeing the complicated and varied health and safety challenges that come with the brief.
While many commuters may curse at spending their time stuck in tunnels in the daily commutes, they should be grateful that they don’t have to stand knee deep in human excrement.
In recent decades, London’s ageing and creaking network of tunnels, deep below the surface, has been discharging millions of tonnes of raw sewerage into the Thames.
That is about to change, however, with the development of London’s new super sewer – the Thames Tideway Tunnel, which will breathe fresh life into the capital’s antiquated system. It’s a formidable project and poses huge health and safety challenges for Thames Water and Simons, who is overseeing this aspect of the development.
London’s ageing water and wastewater networks and treatment works are undergoing a huge overhaul. Describe what it’s like on the front line.
It’s an exciting and extremely busy time for us with the next five years bringing £5bn of capital investment in upgrades to our ageing water and wastewater networks and treatment works, combined with a further £5bn to be spent on our Thames Tideway upgrade schemes.
Add to that investment, the day-to-day management of more than 600 manned and several thousand unmanned sites, 150,000km of water and wastewater networks mains, requiring more than 10,000 jobs a month, eight COMAH sites, several major tunnels, 250 reservoirs, 70 toxic gas sites, 4,500 sewers crossing under railways, and you have a business with a multitude of potentially catastrophic risks to control.
Tideway, The Thames Tideway Tunnel is going ahead. What does this mean for London?
It’s fantastic news. For the past few years, we have been working on our London Tideway improvement programme, the final phase of which includes the next major national infrastructure project, the Thames Tideway Tunnel.
At a cost of more than £5bn, the series of projects will support the ageing Victorian infrastructure running around the Thames, which is presently not capable of dealing with the demands of our growing population. Last year, after heavy flooding, more than 55 million tonnes of sewage discharged in the Thames, compared with 39 million in an average year.
Due to its scale, the Thames Tideway upgrade programme provides health and safety challenges outside of what we would consider usual for the business.
The tunnel boring on the most recent phase of the project, called the Lee Tunnel, a 7km stretch from Abbey Mills to Beckton, at a depth of up to 80 metres and a width of three double-decker buses, has been completed – setting multiple world records.
This first phase of the tunnelling scheme meant our teams had to work deeper under the capital than any other tunnel in history. The next 26km stretch will be just as challenging, taking more than five years to complete.
Looking beyond London, what will this mean for similar projects?
We’ve brought together a team of some of the best tunnelling engineers and managers from around the world. Supporting them I am extremely fortunate to have a world-class group of health and safety professionals who are constantly challenging the present standards we see on global tunnelling projects today.
I never underestimate the opportunity we have on such major projects to innovate and the new health and safety standards we set on this project will become the minimum requirements for the next generation of tunnelling projects, not just nationally but also globally.
You’ve been at Thames Water for two years now. What have you focused on specifically?
From my arrival at Thames Water, it was clear that many employees across the organisation, be it in laboratories, operational sites or call centres, didn’t believe that our vision of zero incidents, zero harm, zero compromise could truly be achieved.
I learnt a long time ago, from some great mentors, that achievements in safety and health are derived from belief and passion. We won’t achieve anything without everyone fully understanding and being motivated with the same desire to succeed in an area that may seem impossible at first.
In truth of fact it’s very simple – zero incidents, zero harm, zero compromise is a daily vision. When a manager puts their team to work safely and sends them all home safe that night, they have achieved our vision.
To breathe life into this philosophy, it’s important this is not only understood as being achievable, but that it is expected. We introduced a zero compromise card to the business, for all employees and contractors, handing out more than 20,000, with a message directly from our CEO straight to the individual, empowering him or her to stop any activity they feel is unsafe and help in putting it right.
Having worked with a number of CEOs over the years, I know how important it is to have this top-level leadership on health and safety. Within the last two years we have introduced a fleet of initiatives that have enhanced competence, confidence and engagement across the organisation and beyond.
Can you furnish us with some examples?
We started with introducing ‘executive incident reviews’, in which every work related lost-time injury or illness to one of our employees, members of the public or contractors is reviewed by a member of our senior leadership team. This has enhanced engagement and discussions at the conclusion of any incident investigation, giving confidence that appropriate action has been taken.
We also carry out a yearly health and safety conference where senior management from Thames Water and our contractor organisations have the opportunity to focus and discuss areas of development and interest across the organisation.
However, alongside this senior level backing, we need to support our frontline managers by giving them the knowledge they require to be able to drive health and safety on sites.
To do this we made a commitment to put all current and future frontline managers through the National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health (NEBOSH) general certificate, which has affected not only the competence but the confidence of frontline managers when engaging with the health and safety issues of the business.
Since then, we’ve seen the first 200 operational managers complete the course with the remainder planned for this coming year.
Alongside this, our supply chain partners are now also slotting their people in a position of responsibility on to the course. We have reached the tipping point where I believe it’s now become anti-social at Thames Water to be a manager without this health and safety qualification.
The tunnel boring machine, Busy Lizzie.
Health is emerging as a really important issue on major construction projects. What have you done on this front?
Health and wellbeing has been a major area of focus over the last couple of years. I have long understood the connection between good health and its link to good safety. When our employees are stressed or fatigued they’re more likely to deviate from a safe system of work, which could result in an incident.
We’ve led several campaigns to tackle this, including our first Water Wellbeing Week in 2013, dedicated to increasing health awareness and encouraging healthy living. We developed a series of initiatives for the event, which were also embraced by the other water companies we work with. An estimated total of 200,000 people were involved across the UK. The campaign’s success resulted in the business being recognised at the Water Industry Achievement Awards 2014.
For me, by far the best move has been the introduction of personal medical assessments for all our employees. For a business the size of Thames Water to enable all of its people to have access to a confidential assessment so everyone understands their condition is outstanding.
This involved colon and prostate cancer testing along with a suite of other tests followed by a comprehensive report for each individual. It isn’t just senior management that has access to medical checks – it’s provided for everyone.
We’ve also introduced a building personal resilience workshop to help our employees identify ways in which they can help themselves to cope with increased pressure and change by ensuring that they maintain a healthy work-life balance. Specialist occupational health advisors deliver the programme at locations across our catchment.
The outcomes of the escalation in the health profile and visibility has resulted in us witnessing a staggering decrease in workrelated referrals to stress, anxiety and depression.
How do you ensure that employees don’t lose sight of health and safety?
At Thames Water, we have multiple contractors working on our behalf, which can make communicating the central messages and ensuring everyone follows our vision a challenging task.
We have a collaborative website, which is used to share hands-on health and safety information and best practice between 40 partners. This includes our online ‘home safe’ counter. It gives round-the-clock updates on how many man-hours have passed since the last workplace injury resulting in any of our employees or contractors having to take time off work.
The system gives staff and contractors clear guidance on how to avoid similar incidents. We also use the hub to share our ‘health and safety stand-down’ material.
In your opinion, what is key to ensuring health and safety remains at the forefront?
As mentioned earlier, having a fully engaged leadership team is vital, along with investing in education for all employees. However, you also need to ensure that you’re working with the right people, with the right skills and attitude.
Finally, above all else, it’s visibility. I am fortunate to have a great team around me that monitors all our risk areas and turns them into tangible numbers and facts that mean something I can explain to all levels and disciplines within the business.
With a highly regulated business like Thames Water surely cost plays a factor?
We use the money we receive wisely to invest in our multitude of assets. The most critical philosophy here is that risk drives budget not the other way around.
You don’t allocate some investment to a manager and tell him that’s what he has to maintain his site. You ensure that the discussion focuses on, “What do I need to do to ensure the business remains compliant and operational?”
We then calculate the costs as the outcome. This ensures a much better risk debate at every level. In addition, we work hard to ensure we employ like-minded organisations. However, companies are only as good as their people and it is with this philosophy that we introduced behavioural psychology through the procurement process to ensure we’re not just getting the right companies, but the right individuals in key stakeholder positions accountable for critical decision-making.
This involves a series of behavioural assessments, cultural penetration visits and lead-team workshops.
These people will be working alongside us for the next five to 10 years, so it’s important that we find the right people with the right behaviours, representing the right organisations.
It’s also really important to recognise those who go above and beyond what is expected of them, those who challenge accepted practices and are always searching to achieve the best in health and safety for the benefit of everyone.
Our health and safety awards gala is now a yearly event that recognises those individuals and teams working for Thames Water and our partner organisations.
Karl is head of safety, health and wellbeing at Thames Water.
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