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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

Visible leaders, invisible leadership

Lawrence Waterman OBE tells JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM why the best safety leadership is that which can’t be seen.

Lawrence Waterman has an enticing way with words.

Simple stories are told in ways that make you want to listen, and serious truths delivered so naturally you almost think they’re your own idea.

He’s in Auckland to tell Safeguard conference delegates how, under his direction, the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) managed to complete the massive London 2012 construction project without a single death, and only a handful of reportable injuries. Of course there were strategies and systems aplenty, but after half an hour in his company you start to think that the real secret to the project’s success was this man’s rare gift for engaging others.

To say Waterman’s CV is impressive is an understatement. He is a past president of IOSH, the largest OHS professional body in the world, and, before the Olympics project, was a health and safety advisor on both the Channel Tunnel and Heathrow Terminal 5. When he discusses his back-story, however, he has an air of happy amazement, as if he can’t quite believe how fortunate he’s been.

“You know the way it works,” he says. “When you look back on a career it looks as though it’s a completely designed trajectory without any bumps in the road, but the truth is that there’s quite a lot of contingency in there.”

As a new graduate, with a Masters degree in history, philosophy and science, he was running a laboratory in a training establishment when a chance occurrence set him on course for a career in health and safety.

“I came across a chemical that had long been banned because it had been associated with bladder cancer in the rubber industry, so shouldn’t have been in the college chemistry store,” he says. “When I went to the principal and pointed out the issue, he asked me to do a general safety review.”

Waterman so enjoyed the project that his next job was with the UK’s regulatory agency, the Health and Safety Executive.

A few years later happenstance again shaped his career when, as health and safety advisor for British Airways, he was required to oversee the construction of hangar extensions.

“That was my first construction project, but I’ve been involved with health and safety and, to a greater or lesser extent, with construction, ever since.”

He was appointed head of health and safety for the ODA in the autumn of 2005, some seven years before the games, and only weeks after London was named as the Olympic venue.

Building the facilities was always going to be a formidable task, but London 2012 had a raft of special requirements so punishingly difficult they could have come straight from the script of a television game show. The brief was not just to build sports facilities, but also to redevelop of one of the Europe’s most deprived urban areas.

“If you travel from Westminster Station to the Olympic Park in Stratford, East London – ten stops on the Jubilee Line – you reach a population that’s got a life expectancy more than seven years lower than that in Westminster.

“The whole reason for putting the Olympic park and village in that area was as way of leveraging finance into a poor part of the city.”

The 260 hectare site that was placed in Waterman’s hands was choked with noxious weeds, covered in rubbish, and had contaminated soil. If that wasn’t enough, environmental authorities had pledged to reuse or recycle 90% of material from the 200-plus buildings that were being demolished, even though some contained asbestos.

It meant a lot of extra manual handling and prolonged exposure to the toxic soils, as bricks were cleaned, concrete crushed into fill, pipes dug up, and even the soil itself taken away for cleaning. By the time the work was complete, however, the recycling target had been exceeded by 8.5%, with less than 7000 tonnes going to landfill.

The construction project that followed was immense by any measure. Some commentators compared it to building two Terminal 5s in half the time, but rather than being a single project it was a series of inter-related ones, all of which had to be synchronised and interlinked. Many of the component parts were significant works in their own right too. The pair of 6km tunnels that carry power lines across the site required two years of major civil engineering, while the 3000-unit Olympic Village was the largest housing development being built in Europe at the time.

By opening night the statistics spoke for themselves: sixty thousand workers, six years of difficult, dangerous work, and only 128 incidents of reportable harm. Tomes have been written about the strategies and structures that helped achieve this result, but for Waterman it all comes down to one key factor – “visible, impactful, committed leadership.”

“This is what makes almost all the difference in an organisation,” he says. “It provides a foundation on which you can build to engage your workforce, and create a positive, prideful attitude where health and safety is seen, not as rule-following, but as the way we do things properly round here.”

Good leadership, he says, creates a strong team spirit so everyone wants to be involved.

“In any business activity – and the construction industry stands out – working safely is all to do with team members supporting each other and cooperating to get the job done in such a way that no one comes to harm.”

It is, he says, really very simple. Skilful leaders merely create the context where people want to work safely.

“In such an environment health and safety becomes invisible because it’s just the way things are done.

“I had a great meal last night at The Grove and was chatting to the staff about the quality of the ingredients and the way they prepared each dish.

“We didn’t talk about food hygiene or separation of raw from cooked, because when you’re pursuing excellence you leave all that compliance stuff behind. It would be unprofessional to mishandle the ingredients, and I think it’s the same in any industry.

“When you get a group of people who take pride in being professionals you leave the talk about regulations and enforcement behind, because you’re committed to excellence.”

One of the best things about an environment if this sort is that it is self-perpetuating, he says.

Workers get personal satisfaction from their achievements and develop a team dynamic where poor practices will not be tolerated.

“This enables you to recruit people into the team without diluting the culture. The team might change over a period of time as new expertise is brought in, but all the time it is underpinned by this sense of “We do things the proper way around here”.

“Paradoxically, while really good leaders are very visible and impactful, they also create a situation where their staff feel all the ownership and pride in the success, so in a way they are both visible and invisible at the same time.”

The London 2012 project managed to create this sense of personal pride, not only among its workers, but also in the community where construction was taking place. With 16 schools within a 5km radius, problems with children coming onto the site, causing damage or suffering injury, might have seemed almost inevitable. However an innovative initiative delivered through the schools not only taught the children about the dangers of such actions, but also helped them feel personally involved with the project.

“We employed a small theatrical company to go into the schools and perform an interactive play about a group of children breaking into a construction site and having an accident. Part way through the performance the children in the audience got to decide what was going to happen next. We used that to reach out to young people in the area around health and safety, as well as around the construction for the programme, and it worked very well. We didn’t have a single case of a child getting into the site, and there was real community positivity around the whole programme.”

During his New Zealand visit, Waterman has been to Christchurch, to meet with the Safety Leadership Group, the organisation establishing the OHS parameters for the city’s rebuild. He describes the experience as “heartening”.

“What most impressed me was that the people I met understood the importance of making declarations of intent. Not vague generic ones – ‘We’re going to try to do this safely’ – but to be specific, which is just how we did it.”

The real challenge in Christchurch, he says, will be to get a relatively small group of people – representatives of the main contractors, ACC and EQC, private insurers, CERA and one or two government departments – to develop the means to lead and influence the thousands who will be involved with the rebuild over years to come.

“That’s why this focus on leadership is so important.”

A year after the Olympics, and almost eight years since he started work for the ODA, Waterman is still heavily involved with the project. These days he shares his time between the ODA and the London Legacy Development Corporation, overseeing work to convert every facility on the Olympic site into community assets – housing block s, employment hubs, parklands, and smaller scale sport and recreation facilities.

The first areas in the redeveloped Olympic Park were opened this summer, and families will move into the refitted athletes’ village – now known as East Village – by the end of the year.

Next on the plan is construction of another housing development – Chobham Manor – containing 1000 units.

“Over the next few years the whole of this area of East London is going to be redeveloped, with new community, residential, leisure, retail, and employment facilities. It’s going to be quite an invigorating and invigorated area.”

And, if Waterman has anything to do with it, it will pride itself on being one of the safest suburbs in London.


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