November 17, 2022

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Innovation and creativity: Tiffany Argent speaks to SHP

On Wednesday 30 November 2022, Tiffany Argent hosted a webinar discussing a new report by Safety Culture, Feedback from the Field: Under Pressure, which reveals mounting pressure on frontline workers. The webinar revealed what these pressures are and how communication is key to ensuring your frontline remains protected. Make sure you watch the webinar here, which is available on-demand and download the report here.

SafetyCulture’s Tiffany Argent talks to SHP editor, Mark Glover, about women’s health, technology as an enabler, and how a tough time during Covid would shape her approach to wellbeing.

Tiffany Argent’s career might have been one of microscopes and dark rooms had things been different. Having started out as a scientific research technician, she (luckily) found her desk next to that of the lab’s safety manager, the rest is history as they say, and science’s loss would be health and safety’s gain.

She would cut her teeth at an aerospace manufacturing company, joining as the company braced itself for an investigation. “I hadn’t dealt with anything like that before,” she admits. “It was learning as you go.” The investigation passed smoothly, mainly due to an understanding inspector conscious that Argent was inheriting the issue, but it allowed her to see the HSE as humans rather than a police officer. It would also serve as a good grounding for the fast-moving nature of the profession, where anything can happen and to think on your feet is critical.

However, the firm’s relocation would see Argent in another role this time for a rubber production company, which would bring a slew of new challenges. Burns were commonplace as workers would insert their hands into hot plates in order to remove rubber moulds. Their nonchalant reaction shocked Argent and would mould her own attitude. “They said, ‘It’s just part of the job to get burnt and we’ve always done it this way.’ And at that point, I realised it was accepted but I didn’t think it was acceptable. I tried to explain to them that this was not right.

Furthermore, she helped to evolve the safety culture from that one moved away from blame, from a framework protective of its LTI figures to one of support and opportunity. “If an incident took place, she says, “then we have to own it and we have to learn from it and build upon it.” 

Despite the obvious talent beginning to blossom, she found her chances of in-house progression scuppered by old-fashioned attitudes. “It was a very male-orientated workforce and when I asked about promotion their response was, ‘Well because you’re a Mum you can’t 100 per cent put yourself into this role.’” 

She pauses slightly recalling the incident before continuing, “So, I actually bumped my head on that glass ceiling and I didn’t think that would ever happen. Perhaps I was just being naïve.”

She explains that the middle management and a handful of the workforce were fairly progressive, but those at the top were reluctant to look forward. As such (and quite rightly) she would move on, but her next position would open her eyes to the possibility of technology and lay the foundations for a new chapter. 

Creativity and innovation

Overseeing the health and Safety of a  freight movement company – a fast-moving environment peppered with risk – would see Argent hone her journey toward the safety professional she wanted to be. “It was here I could start to look at processes and start to learn what I’d taken from a manufacturing perspective and implement that in a different industry,” she says. “I could become that creative, innovative health and safety professional.”

Such innovation came to the fore when she successfully digitised the firm’s archaic paperwork system, specifically its checklists. “If there’s an accident, or there’s downtime for a forklift, where’s the checklist that the operator used that day from three weeks ago,” she says, going on to reveal the firm’s paperwork system wasn’t quite up to scratch. “I was shown into a room, I was pointed to the corner and told, ‘They’re in there somewhere.’ And you would see where people had ticked boxes and not properly looked at it…I thought there’s got to be a better way to visually find what I need.”

Digitising company checklists enabled Argent to use technology as an enabler and would eventually point her in the direction of her current role with SafetyCulture

It’s not unfair to say the sector has been slow to adopt technology. The profession is ultimately risk-based and taking up new ways of working is, for some, seen as a risk. However, technology adoption, in particular, digitisation (converting something into a digital format) lends itself given the vast amounts of information and paperwork it produces, but it often requires careful use-case testing.

Argent would be successful in her own testing and the technology was scaled out across the firm’s 28 sites across the UK and Ireland. It gave clear visibility of working practices with trends identified that would contribute towards new safety initiatives and improvements. The data would pinpoint one issue around forklift tyres which led to the solution of training – the insight established that engineers had not been inspecting the wheels correctly following insufficient learning.

It’s a great example of successful technology adoption and data as an enabler but how did she convince management that this was the way forward? “I just went ahead and did it,” she says, smiling. “I was maintaining the ISO systems; I found a process that was going to help, and it was that one use case that did it. But it was about going to the frontline and not necessarily the senior leadership team first, so I went from the bottom up.” 

It’s at this point that Argent goes from tech adopter to tech champion, conscious of its challenges but aware of its value – a trait she successfully used when selling the system to that other tricky corporate layer – a reluctant, tech-cynical workforce. How did she overcome employees who were baby boomers and gen Xers – a generation who hadn’t really grown up with technology? It’s societal’s uptake of the ubiquitous smartphone and in particular, its camera facility that would her way in. “I would explain [to the workers] that this is the same sort of camera you use to take a picture of your kids down the park, but in this case take a picture of a forklift. And just ultimately – but not in a condescending way – show them how it’s going to save them time and make it easier for them.”

Through such initiatives, Argent would transform the firm’s safety culture. However, after seven years and a difficult period during Covid (more later), she made the decision to leave and look for something that would challenge and engage her further. Sometimes opportunity comes out of nowhere, and for Argent, it would reveal itself when she phoned up her suppliers and partners to inform them she was moving on. One of those was an outfit that had helped digitise her safety checklists – SafetyCulture, who on hearing of her availability, made Argent a job offer.

“I was like, doing what? I didn’t know what the role was going to be, I’m a health and safety professional,” she responded, confused about how her knowledge would fit into a company that was essentially a tech start-up, and a million miles away from a rubber production factory.   

SafetyCulture wanted someone with industry expertise who had implemented processes using a digitised platform, and who approached things with a creative outlook – Argent was the perfect fit. 

Being able to influence on a larger scale also appealed. “Instead of supporting just one company – if I go and work for this tech company that supported people like me, how many businesses can I help? I just thought that would be so cool,” she says.

Argent admits she isn’t the most tech-savvy but it’s the company’s attitudes around innovation and a willingness to try new things that allows her own skillset to flourish. In particular, communication to the frontline, which despite iPad, apps and widgets, still needs a human, holistic approach. It’s a role, a year in, that she continues to embrace. 

The pandemic

However, two and a half years before Argent had that phone call, and with the world gripped by the pandemic Argent would face her toughest test as a professional. The freight firm were seen as key service, delivering food and PPE among other goods. As such, Argent was critical to keeping operations moving.

Staying on top of the constantly changing situation became challenging, however her grounding in science meant she studied more than most. “As a scientist I was reading the Sage reports and going deep into them. Every waking hour it felt I was thinking about it. How is it going to affect my kids? How do I keep people at work safe? What about people working at home? And then support the senior leadership team in making decisions.”

Argent would pore over scientific reports coming out from the pandemic

The pandemic has put a new focus on health and safety professionals. Management would count on their health and safety team to offer guidance on an issue that was changing day by day, hour-by- hour. Argent was leaned on heavily, “You’re the safety person. We need you to make these decisions. You need to keep operations going, support your team, and be that support to the business,” she pauses. “It became a lot.”

She was working seventeen-hour days, her team of four was halved through furlough, and she needed a break so took some leave. It was the summer of 2020, just as the country was emerging from the first lockdown, but it was this respite that would ultimately bring up issues that had been bubbling – perhaps even boiling – below the surface and would manifest physically. While at home, things reached breaking point. “I couldn’t focus on anything,” she recalls of that day, “the world was continually spinning. I was physically sick. I couldn’t walk.”  

An ambulance was called and the paramedics initially diagnosed a stroke. Having been rushed to hospital, and then to another for specialist tests, this was ruled out as results came back inconclusive. 

On the ward, a doctor quizzed Argent on her job. On learning of her pressures around decision-making; of literally being at the front of the pandemic – the doctor would put her condition down to stress. She had physically burnt out.

She was skeptical, yet acceptance would be transformational as she reframed her view of wellbeing. “I’d always said this would never happen to me. Because I’m strong and I can cope with these changes that work throws up. It was an eye opener and it made me think more about wellbeing…I thought if it’s affected me how many other people will it have affected so I started to dive into wellbeing. 

Argent continues: “What I’ve become more passionate about is that wellbeing isn’t just about mental health, it’s about your social health, it’s holistic, it’s physical, it’s financial wellbeing.

I ask if a new focus on wellbeing is a shift to the profession, she’s quick to correct me. “It’s not a shift, it’s an expansion of the health and safety role,” she explains. “So when we talk about keeping people safe, it’s not necessarily physical safety we’re talking about, It’s people’s wellbeing. So when people are happy at work, they’re going to be more productive, they’re going to be less likely to be in a funk and have an accident. It’s all joined.” 

Women’s health 

Yet while the stigma around mental begins to fall away, a reluctance to talk about womens’ health in the workplace remains. It’s a topic she’s keen to discuss.

Twenty years ago Argent suffered a miscarriage. She took six weeks off work to process her ordeal but by the end of this period was keen to get back to the office, to perhaps find comfort in the day-to-day, however, her return was a difficult one. “At the time, my manager didn’t know how to deal with it. It was very taboo.” She says. Colleagues were told to avoid discussing what happened with her and to let her get on with her duties because “they didn’t want to upset me at work”.

Times have changed and she brings up SafetyCulture’s own pregnancy and miscarriage policy as an acknowledgment of that. It’s perhaps something you would expect of a forward-thinking progressive company encased in start-up values, but as technology plays a more influential role in safety, are we going to see a reversal in the sector’s aging workforce issue as younger, tech-savvy graduates see health and safety as an attractive career choice? A reversal, I write, because Argent (47) finds herself as the oldest female member of staff at the Manchester office she works from.

It brings us onto menopause. Again, conversations are taking place, but Argent says women are still reluctant to be transparent in how they’re feeling. “If I’m having a particularly bad day, do I have that openness to be able to go, ‘I think my hormones are a bit all over the place today, I’m having a hot flush, how do I deal with this?’”

Dysmenorrhea is painful muscle cramps from periods and can range from dull aches to intense, unmanageable discomfort that can prevent women from coming into work, however, Argent says those that phone in cite food poisoning rather than dysmenorrhea which is “actually such bad period pain you can’t move but women aren’t open enough to talk about it? But why is that? If we’re talking about mental health and we’re talking about diversity and inclusion and [why are we] still not talking about something that half the workforce has”.

She tells me she has occasionally held herself back from making a particular point when at work, concerned that her viewpoint will get ignorantly interpreted as a product of hormones, often as part of a crass throwaway joke. “If I get impassioned about something, are people just going to think it’s hormones? She explains, “Do I rein it in a little bit but that maybe doesn’t get the point across just as well.

This admission is upsetting. How many women in the sector check themselves before putting their point across because their passion and enthusiasm are seen as something else? How many men would admit to commenting like this toward their female colleagues in the workplace?

I ask Argent what can be done. What can people do to change their mindsets? “It’s very challenging,” she admits, “but it’s about being able to be more open and honest with your colleagues.” 

The next generation 

“I love being able to help people in this field and being able to bring young people into safety.” SafetyCulture’s Tiffany Argent

Argent has recently become an IOSH mentor and she draws on this when I ask what inspires and motivates her to do what she does. “It was something I really enjoyed,” she smiles. “When I look back at the beginning [of my career], I didn’t think that was something that I could do…but mentoring becomes a symbiotic thing and learning goes both ways.”

I love being able to help people in this field and being able to bring young people into safety…now people are going to university to become health and safety professionals and that is great to see but how are we going to bring them into an industry where there are still some archaic aspects?  If we can mentor and bring people in at that early stage then that’s what it’s about.” 

It’s while I’m writing this piece, a week or so after we meet, that news comes through on her election as one of twelve IOSH council members. I phone up to pass on my congratulations. She’s excited, a little nervous but up for the challenge. One senses her values around young people, women’s health and wellbeing – not to mention technology – will be top of her agenda and will stay there until change happens.  Watch this space. 



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