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October 12, 2010

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Managing projects – Making molehills out of mountains

Nick Bell suggests how practitioners can improve their management of health and safety by viewing initiatives as ‘projects’, adopting a structured approach to managing them, and involving health and safety committees in the process.

A ‘project’ is a set of inter-related activities that are designed to achieve specific objectives, using defined resources, within certain time constraints. Project management is the discipline of using a structured and systematic approach to maximise the chance of successfully achieving the objectives of the project.1 All health and safety practitioners will be involved, at some level, in the management of projects, such as preparing and implementing a new arrangement.

Experience shows that some projects succeed while others struggle to achieve their goals, or might fail completely. There are some widely accepted reasons why projects fail:1,2

  • Different ideas about what the project is supposed to achieve;
  • A lack of measurable steps or stages (or a failure to measure them), rendering it impossible to tell whether the project is on track or not;
  • A lack of relevant skills or experience;
  • A lack of understanding of the potential risks to the project;
  • Poor estimation of the time and resources needed to deliver the project;
  • Inadequate planning and coordination; and
  •   Senior management are not committed to, or personally accountable for the project.

This list will be familiar to health and safety practitioners, as similar factors are equally critical in safety management models, such as HSG65 (see below).

Of course, simple projects can be managed through application of basic management practices – for example, HSG65 encourages use of the plan-do-check-act model – but more complex projects need a more robust approach.

There are various project management methodologies, ranging from relatively simple models, freely available online,4 to highly detailed and prescriptive methodologies, such as Prince2.5 Project management models have broadly similar stages: planning, delivery, closure and review.


All projects have to begin somewhere. For example, there may have been a spate of accidents and ill health related to manual handling. There may consequently be a proposal to review accident reports, procedures, risk assessments, working practices, equipment, and training in order to create a plan for improvement.

Even at this early stage some important questions need to be asked, such as: how large and complex is the project likely to be? Is it fundamentally achievable and useful? Who will decide whether to turn this into a project? If it becomes a project, who will manage it? 

Most health and safety professionals are in the advantageous position of having an existing body comprising senior management, employees and other stakeholders: the health and safety committee. The committee could be an ideal body to discuss (or generate) project proposals and provide support and leadership for worthwhile projects. If there is no appetite in the health and safety committee for a particular project, it is likely to be a thankless task to pursue it.

An active committee might embrace the idea of being a ‘project board’, overseeing and assisting a range of health and safety projects. This change of emphasis could help reinvigorate a dormant committee.

If the basic project proposal is accepted, a project brief (or terms of reference) should be produced in consultation with the stakeholders. Prince2 suggests that the brief should cover the why, what, when, how and who of the project. If the project directly relates to health and safety management, the brief should naturally align with HSG65. An amalgamated approach leaves us with a project brief covering the following issues:

  • Why? Present the background and an overview of the current situation (e.g. accident rates, non-compliance with statutory requirements, etc.) and the perceived benefits of change. The ultimate justification for the project should come from the health and safety policy, as this sets out the organisation’s duties to manage the issue in question.
  • What (will it achieve)? Explain the scope of the project and its specific, measurable objectives. This could be presented in terms of reduced incidents or claims, or more proactive measures, such as demonstrable compliance with specific standards.
  • When? Propose project timescales with key milestones and stages.
  • How? Outline the methodology to be adopted, as well as resource requirements (allowing you to present a basic business case, or cost-benefit analysis). This should explain how progress will be measured through the course of the project.
  • Who? Identify who needs to be involved and their roles (and perhaps any additional training they might need to fulfil these roles).

The Office of Government Commerce suggests that one of the key reasons for adopting a formal project-management approach is that it helps managers identify and control risks to the project. Even the very simple ‘SWOT’ analysis (Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities and Threats) prompts users, in the final step, to consider the risks to their enterprise. The project brief should therefore identify what could foreseeably cause a significant problem to the project (e.g. important resources not being made available, refusal to participate by key personnel) and explain how those risks can be controlled. Risk registers are maintained for this purpose and templates are freely available online.

For straightforward projects, the brief could serve as both a business case and a project plan and, if it is accepted by the project board, it can get started. More complex and resource-intensive projects are likely to require the development of separate business cases and project plans once the project brief has been accepted.

As well as providing a solid foundation for any project, a project brief can enhance the credibility of the proposal and be highly persuasive to senior management. (Previous articles in SHP encourage practitioners to present ideas in a manner that will be familiar to senior managers, particularly if they entail a request for finances.)6,7,8


Obviously, this is where the plan is put into action. If a health and safety practitioner is acting as the project manager their role will change from hands-on delivery to coordinating, delegating, monitoring, negotiating, facilitating, etc. A key role of the project manager throughout this stage is checking that the individual activities that form the project are being delivered to the right specification, at the right time, using the allotted resources. They need to ensure that these activities are properly coordinated (e.g. training in a new procedure should not start until that procedure has been ratified). They should also keep the risk register up to date.

Progress is checked against the project plan and if a task starts to deviate, corrective action needs to be taken to bring the activity back on track. The project manager should routinely report their progress to the project board and will need to verify that the board has approved any proposed changes to the project scope, objectives, resources, or timescales.

An example of the planning and delivery of a complex project can be seen in the development and implementation of the All Wales NHS Manual Handling Passport.9 All the NHS Trusts in Wales worked together to agree the core criteria for manual-handling training, adopt a single manual-handling risk assessment template, and develop person specifications for trainers. Trusts appointed and trained cascade trainers, who ‘trained the trainers’, and the scheme was then rolled out at ward level.

Closure and review

At the end of the project, project managers need to reflect on whether it kept to plan, explain the reasons for and effects of any significant changes or deviations, determine if the project met the stated objectives, and perhaps evaluate whether it helped realise other (maybe unanticipated) benefits. This could potentially mean that a project continues for months, if not years, after an intervention to collect data about its impact. If you can also demonstrate improved productivity or efficiency savings alongside health and safety improvements, future projects are much more likely to receive support. It may be appropriate to make recommendations for follow-up projects.


The Association for Project Management (APM)10 has developed the ‘wheel of competence’ (extracts of which are available on the careers pages of the APM’s website). The wheel identifies three broad categories of competence that project managers need: the technical ability to manage projects; the ability to manage people (‘behavioural competence’); and contextual competence. Among other issues, contextual competence includes a project manager’s understanding of the law as it applies to the particular project, and the application of appropriate health, safety and environmental regulations and guidelines to projects.

Consequently, while a conference organiser might provide evidence of technical and behavioural competence, there may be significant gaps in their ‘contextual competence’ if he or she were managing a construction project.
Similarly, if health and safety professionals lack ‘technical competence’ (in terms of project management), they may struggle to manage larger projects. In these circumstances, a health and safety professional should obtain support, or perhaps even outsource the project management function.

Members of IOSH who have produced (or are producing) a skills development portfolio as part of their initial professional development may find it interesting to see just how many of the performance criteria align with the competence criteria for project managers. Consequently, health and safety practitioners may have a basic foundation for managing projects but might consider supplementing this with formal training.

Working with project managers

Sometimes health and safety professionals will be part of a project team rather than leading it. For example, the planned introduction of a new manufacturing line could consist of a number of inter-related activities: design, selection and procurement of plant and equipment; construction work; commissioning activities; training of operatives and maintenance teams; etc. Health and safety will be an integral element of these activities, leading to close involvement of health and safety specialists (e.g. input into risk assessments that assist with equipment design and selection).

All project managers protect their projects from ‘scope creep’, as this jeopardises their carefully defined objectives, timescales, resources, etc. Consequently, a health and safety professional joining an existing project may receive a guarded response to their ideas, which can lead to misunderstandings and frustration.

The most effective way of addressing this is to ensure that health and safety considerations are included in the initial project brief. As an example, ahead of the redevelopment of its main campus, the University of the West of England (UWE) produced a list of 12 key principles around the planning (in terms of health, safety and sustainability) and coordination of construction work, which all project teams must incorporate into project briefs.11 An organisation could also stipulate that a health and safety professional be included on project teams (this could fall to a CDM coordinator on construction projects).


Ultimately, there needs to be an effective working relationship between the health and safety professional and project manager, and this might be best achieved by an open discussion around each others’ roles, responsibilities and expectations. Construction project teams that embrace the concept of ‘partnering’ may organise workshops12 to work through these issues.

With a structured approach, even complex health and safety projects can be broken down into a series of well-organised, resourced, and coordinated activities. There is no great mystery to delivering successful projects: take the time and make the effort to properly forward-plan. However, projects are collaborative efforts and a health and safety practitioner’s abilities to communicate, engage and influence are absolutely critical when developing the project brief, securing commitment to it, and putting it into action.

1    Office of Government Commerce:   Project Management – delivery_lifecycle_project_management.asp 
2    Office of Government Commerce (2005): Managing successful projects with Prince 2, The Stationery Office, London
3    Health and Safety Executive (1997):  Successful Health and Safety Management HSG 65, HSE Books – pubns/priced/hsg65.pdf
4    Businessballs (2010):  Project Management – project.htm
5    Prince2 was initially developed by the UK government for managing IT projects and is now widely used for all manner of projects by the public and private sectors – methods_prince_2__background.asp
6    Hutchings, I (2008): ‘Holding sway’, in SHP March 2008
7    Edwin, J (2007): ‘Fair share’, in SHP May 2007
8    Abbot, D (2005): ‘Proof positive’, in SHP October 2005
9    All Wales NHS Manual Handling Training Passport (2003) –
10    Association for Project Management –
11    12 Principles for Major Construction Projects, available under ‘s’ at –
12    Construction Industry Council (2005): A guide to partnership workshops –

Nick Bell is CDM manager, Estates Services at the University of the West of England – see page 4 for more information�

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