“The best safety device is a safe worker” – In conversation with International Rising Star Emmanuel Uwalaka
At Safety & Health Expo 2017 Emmanuel Uwalaka was recognised as the winner of the International Rising Star award.
Here he talks to Lauren Applebey about training in Africa via distance learning in the USA, the differences and challenges in cultures and attitudes, and how he plans to take over the SHE world – one African country at a time!
My main drive has been a passion to save lives by educating people on the principles and magic of SHE
Congratulations on your award! You must be really pleased. What is it about you and your work that you think made you stand out to the judges?
I am so glad and really appreciate this international recognition of such great magnitude. For me to have successfully scaled through in the presence of great judges from NEBOSH, RoSPA, Thames Water and Acre; these are mighty gurus worldwide in the field of Safety, Health and Environment (SHE).
I believe what actually made me stand out among other international nominees is my passionate nature and perception on Occupational Safety and Health (OSH), and the impact I have created on my people in Nigeria and other neighbouring African countries. I also knew that the judges might have seen that SHE flows in my blood and total being!
In Nigeria, my colleagues know me as the “Life Safety -DON” and that reflects on my activities because any health and safety activity I am engaged in, the end result is always to save lives through the real impact of what to do to remain safe and healthy.
How did you start you career in health and safety?
I came to know about SHE in my school days, it was a part of what we did in my department, civil engineering, and during my national youth service corps (NYSC). A friend introduced me to it, telling me I could run a course, and that was how I found myself in the world of safety.
After the training I was inspired by one of my trainers, Dr. Reginald Anyawu, who was very passionate about SHE. After one of the lectures with him, I began to see SHE from a different perspective – from the way others saw it. I started to build my career on SHE and I have never looked back since then, even though I am a civil engineer.
What was it about health and safety that interested you?
I investigated and saw that health and safety was the key to solving so many occupational problems that come in the form of hazards, diseases, accidents and deaths – over many workplaces, especially when it has to do with my initial first profession, civil engineering.
As of the time I keyed into health and safety, my main drive has been a passion to save lives by educating people on the principles and magic of SHE, and of course I do that voluntarily with or without payment.
You can hardly find such attitude among my colleagues in Nigeria, as the majority always want to know what they will gain immediately, not what they will contribute to the virgin field of SHE in Nigeria, and even in Africa. So I am highly delighted any time, any day I am called on SHE issues.
How did you go about studying through your HSE Masters Programme, from a US Institution?
It may not have been so easy when I did it. But I eventually discovered it was better than not doing it at all, especially when I discovered that I could run the programme on distance learning with a personal tutor on the programme.
Because I have been on top of searching for health and safety knowledge and skills from any foreign institution, it was not easy to pay for such programmes because it was very costly. But I was happy doing it, because it broadened my learning perspectives.
I do tell my clients all the time that the best safety device is a safe worker, and you can achieve that by transforming the worker’s ideology towards working safely.
Do you feel that the US and African health and safety cultures are very different?
I can tell you the difference is vast, and that is one of the root causes of what is killing Africans – ignorance. You can imagine where an African values doing a job to the level of engaging in an unsafe attitude that can claim lives at a spot. By the time you investigate such an accident, you find out it was just the lack of applying safety measures while executing such a job that caused the accident – and that is what I call pure foolishness and ignorance, just to save more money – you loose your life, which one comes first?
I have worked with a lot of friends and colleagues from the US and UK on Nigerian projects, I see their attitudes towards work and their safety at work, your life comes first, before thinking of profit. I think that is how their SHE trainings are tailored, and that is why I always seek foreign training content, because the end result always reflect on the scenario I narrated above.
African health and safety culture is still developing and a lot of work needs to be done by professionals who understand what to do to enhance the system, and not just seeking what to gain.
What is the culture you follow on your projects when it comes to health and safety, and how do you ensure that workers buy in to this culture?
I answer this with a smile! From my stories above, you can believe that I cannot follow the African system, because I am fighting to change that system by changing the African ideology on health and safety. I follow the culture that says, if it is not safe, then do not do it. Workers buy into this culture because they see what I do and they follow suit.
Whatever I do not want them to do, I do not do it as well, because I must teach by example. I also train and retrain for emphasis sake and it goes a long way in putting a safety culture in these workers. I have worked as a safety engineer in various construction project sites in Nigeria, and also as a consultant to many companies on health and safety matters, and I can tell you that I have always experienced ZERO incidents, because there are safe operating procedures in place for every task.
Do you believe target zero is realistic and achievable?
Yes, I believe so one hundred percent. It pays to develop an effective SHE system for every job, than gambling with lives. You see accidents and fatalities still exist in some organisations where there are SHE systems/departments; because the professionals there are fake, they are just SHE certificate holders, they are not SHE skills and idea holders with principles that can enable them to engineer systems that keep the workers and the environment safe.
How would you inspire young people to get involved in a career in health and safety, in Africa?
I have already started the movement of inspiring young people to get involved in the SHE field, and take it as a fruitful career by starting small, but it is not just getting involved in SHE career that matters, it boils down to paying the price that goes with it. And, by that I don’t mean running the certificate course, I mean getting involved in impacting lives through various activities with an organisation. SHE is not a hit and run career, it requires patience to grow capacity in this field, my problem with many of the young people I am mentoring in Africa is that they are too quick to make money and to get rewards even when they have not put in enough resources before expecting those rewards.
Apart from creating massive awareness publicly, as a radio and TV personality, I use the opportunity of my being on air usually to tell people testimonies I have achieved as a result of taking up health and safety as a career and exposing them to the opportunities in the field they can pick up. All these have been yielding great results, and I receive calls from youths asking for my advice on how they should start careers in health and safety. I believe in work first, then reward can follow, you can imagine the international recognition I am getting from NEBOSH, RoSPA and others for recognizing my efforts and impact, so it is very inspiring, and requires emulation.
You see accidents and fatalities still exist in some organisations where there are SHE systems/departments; because the professionals there are fake, they are just SHE certificate holders, they are not SHE skills and idea holders with principles that can enable them to engineer systems that keep the workers and the environment safe.
What is next in your future in health and safety?
What is next cannot be fathomed even by me, but I can tell you, it will be a world breaking record with God on my side, because SHE is more or less a ministry of saving lives. I am looking forward to receiving more challenging local and international opportunities that will expose me to explore my ideologies and inventions that I have at my disposal. As a researcher in this field, I am always studying new ways to resolve the issues of accidents, fatalities and deaths that we see at various workplaces, which do occur due to the wrong application of safety systems in workplaces.
The problem most times, as I earlier said, is not procuring SHE equipment for workers and putting safety documentation in place at workplaces, the secret is how do you communicate the message to the workforce, to enable them apply them and implement them, that is where the results show.
So I am doing a lot of discovering on how to manage most of these issues. My first book I published as an author, titled: “Safety everyone’s responsibility for a secured future” explains it all, without putting the right responsibilities in place, there is no future in the business.
I believe my expertise will be very valuable in every workplace, so the future is great!
Emmanuel Uwalaka is available for international assignments and recommendations on any SHE challenges in any sector both locally and internationally. He is available through [email protected] , Skype: Emmanuel Uwalaka, Phone: +234 8035433376.
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