As a graduate engineer at a previous company, Tom Kitching, Senior Consultant in the Mergers & Acquisitions team at ERM, stopped construction work on a project to ensure those completing the work remained safe. Here he shares how this, and other experiences in his early career, gave him the confidence to speak out if something doesn’t feel right and why health and safety (H&S) at work is important to him.
When I joined ERM, it quickly became clear how conscious ERM is as a company in ensuring that everyone is empowered to stop work if something doesn’t feel right. This was a lesson I had already learned many years ago, as a recent graduate working at a mechanical waste treatment plant in the UK.
The company I was working for at the time was responsible for ensuring that construction was completed safely and in accordance with design on behalf of the client etc. We weren’t directly responsible for H&S on site, although if the team did spot anything, we would bring this to the attention of the management team. Waste is very unpredictable, and often materials could come in that would block the machinery. On one such occasion, during testing, this happened on a conveyor. I happened to check a CCTV monitor and saw that two contractors had jumped onto the conveyor and started trying to remove the blockage.
This raised immediate red flags in my head.
- Firstly, the conveyor they were working on was raised 10 meters off the ground and the contractors were not wearing any harnesses or attached to anything for support – a fall could have led to serious injury, or even death.
- Second, I could not tell whether the conveyor had been isolated correctly (it turned out it hadn’t been), and anyone could have switched the conveyor back on whilst they were still working on it.
- Finally, the equipment directly downstream, a waste trommel, which rotates like a large washing machine to separate out different sized material, was still operational – once again a fall into this would have led to a serious injury or fatality.
Even though I had no authority over these workers, I grabbed the plant manager and we radioed the contractors straight away to stop the activity and to get the workers down safely. This gave me the confidence to ask questions if I was unsure of how something was being done and whether it was truly safe or not, without fear of being told off for stopping work or asking for clarity on something. But I also took another lesson from this experience.
Perhaps the obvious thing to do might have been to have the workers removed from site for not following their permit and for serious negligence. However, because the contractors were highly experienced in their work, but did not have a background of being trained in UK H&S procedures, I felt education would be a better course of action. We held a workshop explaining the site permit procedures as well as precautions to take on live equipment. I also worked with the contract company to ensure that the equipment could all be safely maintained, including ensuring that all equipment could be accessed, and that people could clip on with a harness where needed.
ERM follows a similar H&S education culture – sending weekly emails on issues that have arisen and appropriate actions taken, or lessons learned from where procedures have not been followed. Shared learnings are important to keep developing and advancing our H&S culture, and ensuring that we do not start going backwards.
ERM has a high level of H&S procedures in place to ensure that everyone has an appreciation of any risks or hazards when conducting site visits, or even being in the office. Before undertaking any visits or travelling, we have to conduct Travel Risk Assessments (TRA) and Health and Safety Plans (HASPs). At my previous companies, perhaps because they were solely employing engineers who were assumed to have an understanding of H&S procedures from their university courses, I’d have to ensure I understood the risks myself. Whereas, at ERM, the procedures we have in place are more proactive in ensuring that all risks are considered before site visits are signed off on. For example, I have recently returned from the Philippines and as part of my TRA process I had to go through vaccination status, medical risks, security risks etc, to ensure that the less obvious risks are not forgotten.
At times it can feel almost arduous to go through all of the H&S procedures and processes at ERM. However, these are in place for a reason. Despite considering myself as somebody with significant background and experiences in H&S, there are many, many things that I do not know – again, the visit to the Philippines highlighted this. I highly doubt there will be any employee at ERM that would appreciate all of the H&S risk of visiting particular sites, which is why our various systems are in place, and why it is important NOT to bypass them.
It’s really important to me that everyone, including myself, can return home safe at the end of each day. What really enforced this belief to me was after I had an incident. I crashed my car on the way back from one of the site project visits. I was exhausted after I’d been working multiple 60-hour weeks driving all around the UK and I briefly fell asleep for a couple of seconds at the wheel. Thankfully, no one was seriously injured, although there was damage to the car.
I think people can focus too much on other’s priorities at work, which affects people’s health and wellbeing. It’s important to achieve balance. At the end of the day, we all deserve to get home safely, but also healthy, so that we can do the things that are important to us in life.
Tom Kitching is a Senior Consultant in the Mergers & Acquisitions team at ERM, based in Harrogate, UK. Trained as a chemical engineer, he has experience of providing technical support for biomass, energy from waste and waste processing sites, as well as project managing projects in construction monitoring and lenders’ operational reviews.