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March 26, 2024

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SHP’s Highly Commended Trailblazer, Shonagh Methven: “I am a different kind of health and safety person – I am an activist”

A political background is not common in a health and safety practitioner, but Shonagh Methven is doing full circle and taking her fight for equal safety measures for all people right back to the House of Commons.

Shonagh Methven

Shonagh is lobbying the government to recognise the different needs of individuals in an effort to improve fire evacuation procedures in buildings across the country.

Stirred by the devastating lack of plans before the Grenfell tower fire in 2017, her tireless work since landed her a highly commended place in SHP’s Trailblazer award.

Here we take a closer look at her lobbying cries.

Differing needs

Shonagh’s changes to fire safety measures in her role as head of Health and Safety for social care provider United Response has been person centred.

Following Grenfell, she was moved to revise all evacuation plans and coach the charity’s 450 managers in differing Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPs) that detailed how – not if – people would be supported to evacuate in the event of a fire.

And since then, Shonagh has seen first hand the difference a specialised evacuation plan can have for people with differing needs.

United Response supports 1500 people with needs such as learning disabilities, complex needs, acquired brain injury, physical disability, dementia, mental health needs and autism. Each PEEP focuses on the abilities and the needs of the individual person, with support and access to appropriate equipment to enable their safe and speedy exit.
“People, all people, are entitled to be safe,” Shonagh said.
“Some of the managers I work with face huge challenges – all very different depending on the individuals they support and in the event of a fire, at a time people are most in danger, they may not react to the fire alarm as we would expect. We have to plan for that.

“We need to know whom we need to attend to first, as some folk can’t be taken outside on their own. Some people may respond to the sound of an alarm, others may need visual or vibrating alarms instead – it depends on the person.

“I came into this role with a general knowledge of the law, best practice and guidance, lots of general health and safety experience, but I came into a sector built on empathy.

“Health and safety people, including myself, are not generally like that, we operate in a legal based logistical way, so I have had to learn to work with people who look at the world differently.

“As a health and safety professional I know what should happen, but there is a huge difference between work as designed and work as performed. I knew what needed to happen, but it was the question of how.”

SHP announce its Trailblazer of 2023

Impact of adaptation

Shonagh implemented a change of procedures across United Response’s 450 centres which was adapted to meet the needs of each person who found themselves in a challenging situation.

She believes every staff member and every person they support each ‘deserve her best’ and her engagement with staff is what helps to make the biggest difference, implementing change without scaring either staff or the people they support.
This was purely displayed when regulator the Care Quality Commission (CQC) sent an inspector to a United Response house in Blackpool and asked residents about getting out in a fire.

Kyle, a person with learning disabilities, explained what would happen and physically took the inspector to the assembly point. This was just months after Kyle refused to leave his room and did not understand the danger when he heard the alarm – but changes to plans meant he now does.

Kyle, 24, said: “I have been listening to instructions recently and learning more about it. I am being more mature and grown up, I am getting more confident to stay safe.

“I am now responsible enough to listen and I know what I’m doing now and I like to help other people.

“If I can carry on being like this now and I can be confident, then I can be more happy than unhappy too.”

Sharon McBride, a staff member at the home where Kyle lives, added: “We have seen increased confidence across all parts of his life.

“In the last year his behaviour has changed, he joins in more around the house too and he’s a good helper.”

Shonagh usually sits at her desk just hoping to make a difference – but she said hearing this story was a ‘moment of magic’ for her and a real display of her plans in action.

“It is a moment of magic that I don’t usually get to share in, I’m not usually on the front line to see,” she said.

“But I was over the moon to hear this – somebody’s life has been made better.”

Relationship centred

“This change to procedures will only work if staff trust me and know me,” Shonagh added. 

“When a staff member emails the head of health and safety it can feel scary as they may think they are going to get told off for something they are doing wrong

“I never take that trust for granted. My job is to tell people it’s ok to do things differently but that takes trust and you then need to stand by your word and put what you say in writing.

“We tell our staff to act reasonably and we will be committed to them – that is true from a health and safety perspective too.”

Wider problem

But Shonagh knows that acting reasonably can be a huge challenge to staff if the PEEPs are not in place for each individual’s needs in case of a fire.

She now wants to drive this change and influence others in the health and safety sector and beyond.

She was invited to be part of the Home Office’s Evacuation & Fire Safety Working Group and is lobbying government for funding and to recognise the need for change.

“People in any organisation need a workable plan that is practised and known,” she said.

“We need to improve the ‘nothing’ in place for people who are elderly or slower on their feet – how can we make it safer and more likely that they get out in a fire?

“We saw a huge tragedy in the Grenfell fire because people were told to stay put as it wasn’t known how it was best for people to get to safety, the fire service didn’t know each person’s needs or the layout of the building. 

“The premise that the fire service knew how to help at Grenfell is unreasonable.

“When it comes to the government, more funding in social care is needed to make the necessary changes and when it comes to other social care organisations – it is power in numbers and a joint voice, pull together to say ‘you need to pay attention to us’.”

Reflection of past 

While Shonagh has been making a huge difference at United Response for 23 years, her activism is a clear reflection on her previous roles in the 1990s.

After completing a politics degree, Shonagh worked for Battersea and Wandsworth Trade Council in the role of ‘stirring things up’ for the Tories.

She organised sit-ins and protests and incited change. 

Following this, she spent seven years at The London Hazards Centre – a collective of people who worked on behalf of those who couldn’t afford health and safety consultants.

It was in this role Shonagh’s passion for safety grew – she took in all the knowledge from those around her and knew everything health and safety by the time she left.

Having not studied with a view to do this job, Shonagh said she brings a different perspective to the role.

“I am a different kind of health and safety person,” she said.

“I am an activist and I am bringing that passion to this job.

“My skill is to now translate my knowledge into something that is practical, from logistical into empathetic practical actions.”

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