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Nick Warburton is former editor of SHP Magazine. He is currently working as a freelance journalist and as an account manager at Technical Publicity.
December 2, 2014

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Teresa Budworth interview with NEBOSH Chief Executive

It is ten years since Teresa Budworth became NEBOSH chief executive. In an exclusive interview, she talks to SHP about her passion for health and safety and how training can help drive up standards, both in the UK and internationally.

AAV_9615Anyone that knows Teresa Budworth will know that she lives and breathes health and safety. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she actively chose to pursue it as her first career. Also, unlike many of her peers, she later married a safety and health professional.

A self-described ‘safety anorak’, Teresa confesses that evenings are often spent ‘putting the safety world to rights’. Perhaps not surprisingly, the couple’s daughter has chosen to pursue a non-safety career.

What may surprise readers to learn, however, is that Teresa has taken up life drawing in her spare time after a colleague admonished her for focusing too much on work. Her sketches are impressive.

But then again, when she starts to recall her humble beginnings and an illustrious career that took her through local government to consultancy work, academia and onto NEBOSH, it’s clear that she is a natural when it comes to managing the complex outlines, shapes, tones and textures that populate the safety and health world.

This year arguably marks a high watermark in her career. Not only does it coincide with her tenth anniversary as NEBOSH CEO, but during the summer, the charity won the Queen’s Award for Enterprise, a prestigious prize awarded for NEBOSH’s outstanding achievement in international trade.

Britain’s highest accolade for trade success, it reflects the work NEBOSH has done to raise health and safety standards around the world. Teresa is modest about the achievement and explains that when she took over the mantle of CEO in November 2004, the charity recognised the world was changing, which meant NEBOSH’s approach to training provision needed to reflect this.

“What increasingly drives standards is not necessarily national governments but it is large corporations and it is the safety standards that they put in place inside their organisations and the standards that they demand of their supply chains,” she says. “That is probably much more influential outside the UK.”

Teresa points out that the decision to expand overseas came about in part as a response to this emerging international demand for its qualifications but also because it fit with NEBOSH’s charitable objectives. But what does she think is motivating these corporations to raise the game, so to speak?

“Good health and safety adds a lot of value to a business,” she ripostes. “I know that is not the kind of zeitgeist of the moment, especially in the UK where it’s seen as a barrier. But actually, all of the robust evidence shows that if you manage health and safety well, you tend to manage your business well; projects get delivered on time; and you manage your reputational risk.”

She points to the Gulf of Mexico disaster and adds that for projects with high capital value plant, it makes sound business sense to avoid incidents. This may explain why the safety profession is increasingly held in such high esteem internationally and why the health and safety bar has been raised.

“One of the important things to say is that some of the organisations, particularly in the Middle East, are absolutely world class in health and safety terms,” she is quick to add. “It’s not a case of us taking great British practice out to people who don’t know what they are doing.”

This leads her on to another achievement this year, a new book, Reflective Learning, co-written with Waddah Shihab Ghanem Al Hashemi, chief EHSQ compliance officer at the Emirates National Oil Company in Dubai.

Designed to provide a tool for the self-development of safety and health professionals, the collaboration came about after the writers met at a Middle East conference.

For Teresa, the inspiration behind penning the book can be traced back to when she started her postgraduate diploma in 1986, and the course’s emphasis on experiential learning. When she returned a decade later to complete her MBA, reflection was once again a major strand in the final assessment.

She also cites her work at the University of Warwick’s Medical School where she was visiting lecturer on the occupational health diploma from 2004 until this year, when the course closed.

“A critical part of every assignment that those students had was the reflective part of it, which is the sort of, ‘so what?’ part,” she explains.

“‘I’ve done this piece of learning; I’ve investigated this issue; I’ve written this assignment; what I am going to do differently as a consequence of it?’ It’s not just acquiring the knowledge; it’s putting it into your own professional practice and reflecting on yourself as a professional.

The other trigger, she hastens to add, stemmed from being a chartered IOSH fellow. Each year Teresa sits on peer interviews and fellowship interview panels and common questions that interviewees get asked are – “what does your CPD programme look like?” and “what are you doing about your continuous professional development?”

“I can’t remember how many times I’ve been answered with, ‘my company is not paying for my training at the moment’,” she confides.

“It’s like people have a view that development is something that passively happens to them and it isn’t. You have to figure out what is it you need and think about how you are going to get there.

Teresa explains that the writing process for the book involved looking back at her early career, and then reflecting on her learning experiences.

She admits that she was unusual for her generation, making a decision at the age of 18 to go into health and safety and study a degree at Aston University. She was one of only two girls at her school to go to university yet despite battling the odds, finding a job was an uphill climb.

“Traditionally, it wasn’t a graduate job,” she reflects. “When I started and I was looking for a job, I saw an advert for a car park attendant and safety officer. That was the sort of esteem that the profession was held in.”

In 1984, she landed a graduate job with Southwark Council at an office based in Peckham, an experience she describes as a “baptism of fire”.

Despite the gritty environment, she values greatly the experience and is quick to dispel any misperceptions of local authority work.

“The variety of hazards is incredible. I was very lucky that my career in local government took me from residential care homes for the elderly to going down sewers to do confined-space training,” she recounts.

“I also did an awful lot of fire safety work, supervised asbestos stripping in schools, boiler rooms and swimming pools, and I did refuse collection and incineration plant. It was a really good grounding.”

She also feels the experience helped to sharpen her political and influencing skills. It was while she was working for a local authority back in her native Midlands that she started to demonstrate an interest in training.

In 1988, she took the syllabus for NEBOSH’s first national general certificate and developed the first course on behalf of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), working as a training consultant.

“I knew that it looked good for me when three different people cut the advert out and left it on my desk,” she remembers. “My boss could see that training was something that I was very passionate about and hence that move.”

In January 1991, she joined Ajax Health and Safety, a start-up consultancy as its training provider. The small business environment suited her.

“You sort of thought up an idea, discussed it, decided it was a good idea and just did it,” she explains. “But then as it became assimilated into Norwich Union, you became part of a larger organisation and it just becomes difficult to achieve what you want when you are a minor part of it.”

Despite this small frustration, she spent nearly 14 years at Norwich Union, working on a myriad of projects – everything from steel works in South Wales to Austin Rover in the motor industry, before joining NEBOSH in late 2004 as deputy CEO. From the outset, she was determined to make the charity more business-like.

“We have a business case for everything that we do but at the same time you need to retain the small business feel of being entrepreneurial, being able to respond to your environment and being in touch with your customers.”

Since taking over the reins as CEO, NEBOSH has seen a massive international expansion. In 2004, only 5 per cent of its examinations were taken outside the UK; it is now over 65 per cent. The charity’s range of qualifications is taken in more than 110 countries, even in remote places like Mongolia.

Every year, NEBOSH carries out a ‘Jobs Barometer’ study to look at vacancies for health and safety practitioner positions and to examine the qualifications and professional status employers look for.

“What we’re basically looking at is whether people value NEBOSH qualifications when they are looking for a safety practitioner and by and large they do,” she says.

“[But] it’s important that there is choice. I would never want us to be in a monopolistic position where it’s the only way to get qualified. I think it’s really important that there are a variety of different ways to get to a competent grade of membership.”

This begs the question – does she think that NEBOSH’s training complements IOSH and its own qualifications?

“I think it does,” she says resoundingly. “I am hugely supportive of people with NEBOSH qualifications moving on to chartered membership. We encourage people who get our diploma to move on to chartered membership.”

She adds: “It’s really important, especially if you are the only safety practitioner in your organisation, that by joining IOSH as a professional body, you’ve got access to a network of people who can support you. I hope that NEBOSH is seen as a complementary organisation to IOSH.

As a chartered IOSH fellow and a council member, Teresa remains a passionate advocate of the institution’s drive to improve safety and health.

In November she attended the launch of IOSH’s No Time to Lose campaign, which aims to get the causes of occupational cancer better understood. A firm supporter of its objectives, she recognises the barriers to progress on this issue.

“If you look at the traditional training of safety and health practitioners, there has always been occupational health as part of the programme,” she says.

“But somehow, I think it gets lost when people go back into the workplace. Often I think occupational health is seen as a separate discipline, so although you might develop your knowledge, you don’t get to put it into practice.”

She also feels that occupational health is not as visible as safety, especially because the person affected will most likely have left the workforce by the time they become ill from the past exposure.

“My father-in-law died of aplastic anaemia, which is very associated with benzene exposure. But he died at the age of 72, so he had left the workforce more than ten years by that point. Why would his employer know or even be interested? That’s if they still existed.”

It’s a moot point. Over the coming years, the fallout from occupational cancers will be felt largely by employees in the small-to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which are the most hard to reach, and the most susceptible to closure.

She recognised the scale of the challenge when she worked for Norwich Union and assisted with its insurance product development.

“People used to say, ‘As an insurer, can’t you leverage to bring about improvements in health and safety?’ But the fact is, yes you can with larger companies where you are writing insurances as a bespoke product… but most business insurance is written as a package. All you can do is to provide advice, which the insured person can either take or not take.”

Teresa is involved with RoSPA and cites its awards as a positive ‘road map’ in encouraging small businesses to take notice of health and safety. She also feels HSE has done exemplary work, reframing its advice for SMEs. However, more should be done.

“A challenge for the industry will be how to get best practice from the large companies, the lessons from it, into smaller businesses,” she says.

Looking to the future, she believes that one of the most significant challenges for the profession will be how safety practitioners can become enablers for positive change within their own organisations and work as part of a team to improve safety culture.

Speaking as someone who is passionately committed to health and standards for personal reasons, she particularly welcomes HSE’s move overseas to offer its health and safety services to international clients.

“The UK regulatory regime is fantastic and the inspectors do a great job; they’ve got a great deal of expertise in the safety science side as well as in the policy and regulation side. The Health and Safety Laboratory at Buxton is a national treasure,” she says.

“I don’t think it detracts from what they are doing here. In fact, I think it enhances it. By influencing overseas and through multi-nationals, you are going to improve the health and safety standards across the world as well as in the UK.”

With a General Election only six months away, Teresa argues that the time has come to change the ‘mood music’ around health and safety. She argues that HSE and health and safety legislation has had numerous reviews and both have been given a clean bill of health.

“Our HSE regulatory system is fit for purpose and is fit for the future,” she insists. “It’s not a burden. It’s a way of managing your business effectively and also it’s about harnessing the expertise that is there in big business and working through the supply chains to encourage smaller businesses to safeguard their own futures.”

She also points to the wider economy and the countless numbers that leave the workforce every day because of ill health or an accident caused by work.

“It’s a massive public health problem,” she says. “You are impairing someone’s ability to support themselves, which means that they are drawing benefits. It’s this whole social exclusion part of being injured or made ill at work.”

Pausing for a moment, she draws her own conclusion: “By preventing ill health and preventing accidents at work, you are improving not only the employee’s health and wellbeing but also the social and economic wellbeing of society as a whole.”

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