Safe testing

Materials World magazine
29 Oct 2018

Iain Wood, Regional SHE Manager at Element Material Technology talks to Ellis Davies about the health and safety involved in materials testing.

First, tell me about your career to date?

My background is in chemistry, which opened up lots of potential avenues for work, but I eventually joined the oil and gas division at Element Materials Technology as the quality manager. When I started this role, my manager saw that I already held the NEBOSH National general certificate in occupational health and safety and asked if I wanted to take on the health and safety responsibilities for the division too. I jumped at the opportunity and here I am, the health, safety, environmental and quality (HSEQ) manager, oil and gas, Europe at Element, providers of testing, calibration and advisory services.

What’s been a career highlight for you?

I would say that two things definitely stand out. Firstly, I am proud that the number of accidents at Element has reduced significantly since I started my role. This is a result of dedication to the job and employee engagement through proactive reporting.

The second highlight is purely on a personal level, which is when I won the Best Candidate Award for Unit D of the NEBOSH diploma in occupational health and safety. This means that I was the best performing student of the year for the project I undertook.

What does your role encompass?

My role involves supporting the European Oil and Gas labs for HSEQ. Primarily these labs carry out destructive testing, so the locations may be performing work such as hitting test specimens with a rather large hammer or exposing materials to hydrogen sulphide (H2S) which is a very toxic gas even at low levels. With this in mind, I ensure that there is good employee engagement, develop safety, health and environment (SHE) procedures that are implemented in a consistent manner, ensure risk assessments are suitable and sufficient, investigate incidents and complete root cause analysis as required.

I also act as the safety and health competent person working with the laboratory management, advising on how we can best operate in a safe manner. It is a tough role, but it is always interesting.

Was it daunting taking on the health and safety responsibilities at Element?

Initially yes. It was quite a task, but I welcomed it with open arms. I had not taken on an active safety and health management role before, however it soon became apparent that the knowledge I had gained from my NEBOSH qualifications and from working in various hazardous industries in the past had given me a significant amount of experience.

Your safety and health knowledge is never complete, and you continuously learn on the job. So while I was prepared and excited to take on the Element safety and health responsibilities, I am even more prepared and experienced now than ever.

Just how dangerous is the world of materials testing?

It’s an industry that has the potential to be very dangerous due to the possible risks of the work environment. We are constantly working with heavy machinery and hazardous materials, so as you can imagine there is potential for significant incidents. However, that is where I come in, to make sure these unique and individual actions are done safely and properly, meaning the level of associated risk is reduced or eliminated. I am also lucky that the Element leadership team believes safety is the number one value within the business. This is much more than words – safety and health is always at the top of its agenda and team members are well trained, competent individuals who work with suitable equipment and dedicated processes to reduce the likelihood of these risks being realised.

Was health and safety considered an after-thought in the past?

Perhaps in some industries or regions, but wherever I have worked, safety and health has always been high, if not top, on the agenda. It’s really pleasing to me that Element is no different to this rule. Safety is at the top of all meeting agendas and Element is consistently prioritising safe working practices, looking at how and where they can be improved.

How has the health and safety environment changed over the years?

As you would expect, safety and health culture has matured over the years. It has certainly moved from a very mandatory ‘you will’ attitude to a ‘have you thought about the consequences?’ culture. New technologies and fast reporting methods have helped make the business of safety and health smoother and more accessible, but I still believe that staff engagement remains the key to a good SHE culture, within any organisation. The safety culture is established by the leadership but owned by every individual.

Just how important are qualifications in improving health and safety standards within the industry?

Vital. I can’t be any clearer about it. If you are a health and safety professional, you need to have the appropriate qualifications, skills and knowledge. It is not just yourself that you are responsible for, it’s everyone else around you too.

As I said above, I already held the NEBOSH national general certificate in occupational health and safety before I was offered a role at Element, but the fact I had it meant that I was immediately trusted to take on more responsibility. It also meant that the senior management team knew I had the knowledge and skillset to perform this role, without having to know too much more.

I am very much of the opinion that within the safety and health world, you can never know enough. There is always room to improve and it moves so fast, that something that worked five years ago, might be old news by now. With this in mind, I took the NEBOSH National diploma in environmental management too. This was the perfect next move for me, and I would recommend it to any practitioner looking to progress and enhance their education.

I’ve been very lucky as I have been able to put my education and skills into practice. Interestingly, the work and regulations we have put in place over the last three years have led to a 30% reduction in accidents requiring first aid. This is heart-warming, not only because my skills are being used practically, but also because we are keeping people safe by addressing issues and areas that were in need of improvement.

What would you like to see happen to improve health and safety practices even more?

Picking one thing is really difficult because I feel that with the right qualifications and training, any organisation will benefit, but if I have to only choose one it is the continuation of employee engagement programmes. It is imperative that we ensure everyone is aware that they are responsible for their and their colleagues’ safety, health and well-being. This responsibility is really an obligation that must be taken seriously every day.

As I have said, your knowledge is never complete and people must remember this. There will be regulations, technologies and schools of thought that will change the way in which the safety and health markets work, and as safety and health professionals we must stay at the forefront of everything that is going on.