‘Always know you are not on your own. There is a technical community that cares.’: In conversation with Karl Simons, Thames Water
Karl Simons talks to SHP about career development and his experiences of going from a lone adviser to Chief Health, Safety & Security Officer at Thames Water, which is a business responsible for 15 million customers.
Mr Simons has 25 years of experience in industry, having held senior executive positions working across all continents in numerous safety critical industries including oil, gas, minerals, rail, construction and water.
He regularly talks on the subject of health and safety and mental health at events around the country, and will chair Safer Highways’ Mental Health Summit at the House of Commons on 20 June.
Can you remember what kind of resources did you have when you first started out as a lone adviser?
Karl Simons (KS): “When I started as a health and safety officer, I had just done my NEBOSH general certificate and all I had was a part-time, 69-year old retired health and safety professional. He taught me an awful lot. I was the day-to-day health and safety officer, investigating incidents, but I needed that ‘grandfather figure’ to steer me to the bits I was not seeing. I always had somebody to bounce ideas off. I think professionals need that. I love mentorship programmes and I get asked a lot if I can be a mentor. It’s very challenging.”
How important are professional events for people who are starting out in health and safety?
KS: “When I was developing I always went to conferences with the view ‘what can I take away?’. A lot of things are discussed at conference, but I always took away one or two things that I thought I could implement or use.”
It’s often said that the best way to make a point is to make it part of a story or a larger narrative. Has that helped you get the point across to groups of people?
KS: “I could just tell people what I’ve done, but more often what others have said is far more important. Stories are the golden moments that allow us to drip feed the message that say ‘it’s not just the health and safety professional saying this, it’s the leader or the person in operation saying something around the importance of health in business’. You have to build a narrative. Whenever I am presenting, what’s really important is the settler. The first one to two minutes is crucially important as to whether the audience think’s ‘he’s got something to say’. It’s important to get all the audience participating in something. You have to connect with the people in front of you. It’s even more important as a health and safety professional. If a CEO stands up, people will pay attention regardless. When health and safety professionals are talking, people are there are there because they have to be there, so how do we make it exciting and make people relax.”
How important are professional qualifications for the aspiring health and safety professional?
KS: “You would not employ anybody but a chartered, structural engineer to design your house and if you’re running a company, you would not employ anybody but a chartered health and safety professional to write your formalised policies and procedures. It’s not to say you can’t do it, but there’s a certain level of credibility that needs to be there. I’m a chartered health and safety professional and I have a deep understanding of the law, which is better than somebody who has not gone down the formal education route. Sometimes health and safety professionals are not perceived in that way. A developing professional should do the 2-week NEBOSH general certificate. My 600 frontline operational managers all hold a NEBOSH general certificate. And if you give the managerial base that level of qualifications, then your technical specialists all need to be chartered members of IOSH.”
How easy is it for someone who is starting out in the business to get their voice heard and build a profile?
KS: “I get asked a lot about how ‘do I get to present on the circuit?’. I say reach out to the people who are organising the conference. There’s nothing wrong with saying ‘I would love to do a talk on the work we are doing in our company’. They may well knock you back, because they have not heard of you, but you may well get a bite. You might get a sleepless night beforehand and a dry mouth before you go onstage, but that comes when you are stepping out of your comfort zone. I always say to my team is our greatest ability to get things done is our ability to communicate. The way we communicate health and safety plays a massive part in how much people believe in what we are saying.”
What about communicating at boardroom level?
KS: “My team always ask me ‘what happens when you go into that environment, you get asked a question and you don’t know the answer?”. I just say ‘I don’t know the answer to that’. You can’t possibly know everything. Professionals should not be afraid to go into the boardroom and take that step. Remember you will know a lot more than the board members around the table. We should never be afraid to get in there and say ‘here’s the state of the organisation’. We are dealing with injury and illness and therefore the discussion will turn very quickly to the negative, about what is going wrong etc. My job in the boardroom is also to talk about everything that is going right. You have to turn health and safety positive. We do have incidents, but we have seen the volume of incidents fall over the last six years.”
Being ex-British Army yourself, do you think the profession offers a lot to former servicemen?
KS: “The reason I went into health and safety after the forces was because I saw my role in the army as being dedicated to the preservation of life. We go into conflicts to protect the innocent. I found it was a natural fit for me and many of my peers, who work for major employers, are ex-forces as well. This year was the inaugural British Army health and safety conference and I spoke at it. It was really enjoyable seeing all the health and safety professionals working in the battalions. It was really good. The military are coming up with some amazing ways of sending positive messages, particularly around mental health, which they call mental fitness. That’s a lovely way to portray a positive message around mental health.”
Have you got any other advice for people looking to develop their career in health and safety?
KS: “Always know you are not on your own. There is a technical community that cares. Specifically, look after yourself, draw strength from your technical peers, reach out and have a conversation. I try to answer all my LinkedIn posts and I got a lot of messages coming through. But I try to answer as many as I can. I’m very conscious that when someone is reaching out, they are asking for support.”
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