Leadership and legacy – Mike Robinson, CEO, British Safety Council
It’s almost one year since Mike Robinson stepped into his role at the British Safety Council. Here, he talks to SHP’s Lauren Applebey about his current challenges, lessons from the past, and what he believes the profession can look forward to in the future.
This article was originally published in August 2016.
Why have you taken on the role of Chief Executive of the British Safety Council?
“In the past, I worked as a Chartered Accountant and as an IT consultant. I was lucky enough to be given a CEO role at a young age and built Halifax Bank of Scotland’s European financial services businesses.
“Then, I decided to do something very different and moved to the Ministry of Defence at the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office, which specialises in maritime navigational safety.
“For various reasons, I have always had a passion for health and safety. In the past, I had done great things for shareholders and for government, but I wanted a role where I could make a real impact on people’s lives.”
What was so attractive about the British Safety Council as an organisation?
“After one hour of conversation, I was sold on the British Safety Council. I believed that it had the potential to have a much greater impact than it had had in recent times.”
“It is an organisation filled with the most passionate people I have ever met in my life. The level of passion and the enjoyment they get from their work is something I’ve never seen before. It is a privilege to be the CEO of such an organisation.”
With good leadership, amazing things can happen.
What does your role entail?
“I create focus and ensure that we engage with our people, as they are our biggest asset. In the past, my businesses were international, with offices located all over the world. With the British Safety Council, we have one office in London and if I need to communicate something, I can do so in half an hour by wandering around the office and engaging with the staff. A third of my time is spent looking at strategy and the future, a third is spent around people and the final third is devoted to engaging externally with members, stakeholders and the vast number of organisations operating in health and safety. The only way to deliver the impact that we want is to be commercially viable.
“Some 20-30 years ago, the British Safety Council had more impact than it has exercised over the last 5-10 years. There are a lot of reasons for that. I believe that the opportunity for the British Safety Council to achieve its vision, which is that no one is made ill or injured at work, is as big now as it was when the organisation was established.”
At present, what are the biggest challenges in the world of health and safety?
“It’s a fascinating time for health and safety. In the UK, we have an ageing population and an ageing workforce. The country is going through an unprecedented period of austerity and we need to work longer. However, the workforce is generally less healthy now than it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago.
“We have a safety record that is enviable in terms of reducing annual fatalities at work, from 5,000 down to around 140. However, this creates issues, including complacency. Just because the good work is done and we have one of the safest working environments in the world, doesn’t mean we can take our eye off the ball. We have to get that number down because at present, it has plateaued.
“The biggest challenges at the moment are to do with health, and not just noise, dust and vibration (where there has been huge progress in the last 40 years) but also MSDs and ‘non-physical’ health. I have noticed how uncomfortable some people are with the term mental health. This is a massive challenge.
“When I started in this role, I asked people why everyone was so focused on safety. Even in the short time that I have been working for the British Safety Council, there have been changes in the understanding of the cost of not managing health. In the past, the world of health and safety has not addressed this properly. Yet the issue of not tackling MSDs and mental health is similar to the legacy of not tackling airborne particles, which contributed to 13,000 deaths a year through lung disease.
“What we don’t want to be doing in 30 years’ time is dealing with the legacy of not dealing with MSDs and mental health issues.”
What is the current focus of the British Safety Council’s activities?
“Our key areas of interest are: health, wellbeing and mental health.
“On 5 October, we will hold our annual conference, with health and mental health as its two main issues. We will also be looking at sentencing guidelines.
“Internationally, we are starting to engage in Europe and the Middle East. Our impact can be bigger outside of the UK, especially in countries where there are large numbers of people who are killed at work.
“Abu Dhabi has just launched its first ever mental health campaign. Things are rapidly changing. Some countries are where we were 40 or 50 years ago, with many people being killed doing their jobs. We may be called the British Safety Council but we want to share our best practice with the rest of the world.”
What we don’t want to be doing in 30 years’ time is dealing with the legacy of not dealing with MSDs and mental health issues.
What are your thoughts on the HSE’s Helping Great Britain work well strategy?
“We wholeheartedly support the HSE’s strategy and particularly like the themes of health, SMEs and its international focus. I think it’s a very ambitious strategy, particularly when it comes to SMEs, as they can be very difficult to engage with. However, as they represent the vast majority of employers in Britain, it is vital to get them involved in order to achieve our stated aims.”
“Managing risk is also the right theme for the HSE to drive forward.
“We have some concerns over the HSE’s funding, which has been reduced over a number of years, and its business plan shows further funding reductions. I am also concerned about a change in the nature of the relationship that the HSE has with businesses, not just in relation to intervention, but the whole focus of the HSE: the added value issues. However, I know that the HSE is focused on ensuring that its role is not affected by any funding reductions.”
To get people to excel you have to inspire them and that’s about positive reinforcement.
You mentioned SMEs, how can we convey the key messages to smaller organisations?
“In some industries, the supply chain is absolutely critical, although I don’t think this represents the whole solution. Somehow, we need to better engage with small businesses.
“We have looked at research into SME engagement and we need to learn from it. That is why it’s so good that the HSE has risen to the challenge.
“The media and SMEs often get the wrong end of the stick. Overall, the health and safety profession has a poor reputation, which is dangerous and corrosive. Furthermore, it is enabling a small minority of people to damage the whole industry, by using health and safety as an excuse.
“I think the continuous efforts of the HSE to improve perceptions through things like Mythbusters is key. Even so, there’s a long way to go and it’s not going to happen overnight. Regardless, we cannot let a few people damage the reputation of health and safety. There is a very strong case for health and safety; it doesn’t have to be a burden.”
Safety Differently is a people-focused initiative that looks at the positive side of safety. What do you make of this approach?
“We support the legal, ethical and economic arguments for health and safety. The basic principle of focusing on the positive is important, since focusing on the negative won’t encourage people to comply of their own accord. To get people to excel, you have to inspire them, which is all about positive reinforcement.
“I think there’s a danger that people try and make this too complicated and over-intellectualise it. It’s about doing sensible things and working reasonably. I agree with much of what’s being said but I don’t think it should be packaged as a product or service, delivered by specialists. It’s basic common sense. I agree that the zero harm and focus on the negative is wrong and isn’t the way to change behaviours, yet I worry that the ‘movement’ or concept is being made into something it isn’t. This is not rocket science; it’s plain and simple.”
We cannot let a few people damage the reputation of health and safety. There is a very strong case for health and safety, it doesn’t have to be a burden.
The British Safety Council was involved in the London 2012 Olympics, which were very successful from a health and safety standpoint. What was the reason for this success?
“London 2012 saw a huge step forward in terms of health. Health was embedded in everything that was done, every process that was followed. The whole environment created an exemplar for how to do things. The health programme was fantastic and the feedback from the workers using it was great. It left a legacy that Crossrail have now gone on to use. Moreover, I believe that Thames Tideway will use the same principles. The British Safety Council provided training, consultancy and support for the whole programme and it was a fantastic achievement. It shows that with good leadership, amazing things can happen.”
How will the new sentencing guidelines help change the way people work?
“We welcome the guidelines and agree with their new terms and focus on harm, culpability and financial resources. The fines could put companies out of business, which is something we support, if it’s appropriate. The changes also reflect the views of the majority of our members.
“Will fines increase? Yes, they already have. The big question is whether they will change behaviours. The theory of sentencing is that a fine is not just a punishment, but should also act as a deterrent. If people are concerned about the size of the fines, they will change their behaviour. However, there is the risk that this will drive issues underground. Where we currently have managers and employees who are willing to raise a concern, they may be less inclined to do so if the fines are high and prison is a real possibility.
“The evidence from other industries tends to suggest that over time, high fines do change behaviour for the better, but only time will tell whether this will be the case here.”
Finally, what do you think makes a good safety leader?
“Honestly, I don’t like being asked about safety leadership. It’s about leadership. A good safety leader is a good leader. A key characteristic of a good leader is passion. Therefore, a leader in safety must be passionate about safety.
“Another way of looking at good leadership is to consider what makes a bad leader. In the context of safety, this could be anybody that says “safety is our priority” or “safety first”. I think they have fundamentally missed the point. Safety is a value.
“Good safety leaders understand organisations and people and have all the other qualities of a good leader. Leadership is about people; you need to listen to people and engage them.”
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