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SHP speaks to Carolyn Smith, Health, Safety and Wellbeing Director at The VPS Group, about the positive lessons we can hold onto from the pandemic and how she believes the perception of the health & safety profession is changing.
Carolyn comes from a legal background, her previous career was in corporate law, before moving into safety following the birth of her children. “I’ve always had quite a structured and disciplined approach to things, I did used to run for Great Britain, and health and safety to give me what I wanted”. Carolyn started off as a health and safety manager, joining VPS in the middle of the pandemic, in July 2020.
“VPS takes safety extremely seriously, putting me on the senior leadership team for the UK and part of the senior management team for Europe. Safety is first on the agenda with everything that we do.” She told me how the culture has really changed since she joined the business. “I went in and made an effort to really get involved and get the intel from the guys who are the experts. It’s made a real difference. We wanted to be seen as a team that was support function that are there to help educate and facilitate.”
Carolyn explained how the business has bought into the structure she has helped to implement and that it has been met with little resistance along the way. “What I’ve found is when you go and build relationships with people, they will ask you more and more. I like to emphasise that no question is a silly question and that I need them as much as they need me. It’s ended up that I get questions all the time, which I really don’t mind.”
When changing or introducing a new culture within a business, Carolyn was keen to highlight that it was not her place to tell people how to do their job. “They are the experts. I just want them to do their job safely. So, if there was something that they disagreed with, or they thought that we needed to add, by giving them the chance to provide input, they know that they were being included and listened to.” That conversational approach brought about some interesting and unique ideas, which Carolyn has been able to implement.
Integrating into a new business
Despite social distancing measures and mandatory face mask wearing being in place when she started the role, Carolyn was fortunate enough that she was still able to get out and visit sites in her early days in the role. “Right from the outset, I wanted to get out there and meet people, understand their challenges and be vulnerable with them, as the newbie, to make them feel comfortable opening up and speaking to me.”
By understanding the challenges of each and every person, Carolyn was able to make a judgement from a commercial perspective, ensuring that anything she wanted to implement wasn’t going to negatively affect efficiency.
Perception of health and safety
During the pandemic, much of the focus was on isolation, but Carolyn that told me that she believes it’s also taught many of us about the value of helping and supporting each other. “Despite being locked down, it’s opened up the need to communicate and connect with people. When I joined to VPS, I wanted to be shape and transform their health and safety and it was amazing to get the staff on board. From engineers on site, to depo staff, to the senior leadership team, it was a case of reaching out to find out how to help them in everyday life. It’s also taught businesses that health and safety is there to help and that it’s not just about ticking a box. I’ve changed the way that health and safety is perceived, by letting people know why we are doing what we are doing, reaching out and making things that are tailor made to them to the company.
“I think the perception of safety used to be people walking around clipboards and picking faults. What we’re trying to instil in our businesses, is that health & safety is there to support people. At the end of the day, they want to go home to the families and I want to go home to my family.”
Hear Carolyn speak as part of a panel discussion on this subject on the Safety & Health Podcast…