The mental health of employees is just as important as their physical health – that was a key message emerging from Utility Week’s Health & Safety Conference held earlier this month in Birmingham. Adam John reports.

Along with ageing asset infrastructure, the mental health of employees is important for companies to factor in when coming up with their health and safety strategy. And awareness of the issue has become increasingly prevalent in recent years.

Karl Simons, chief health, safety and security officer at Thames Water, took to the stage to speak about his company’s attitude towards tackling problems with mental health among its employees. “Understanding the psychological health of the business and the organisation comes as a result of understanding the psychological health of individuals,” he said.

Simons talked through Thames’ psychological health strategy, “Time to Talk”, which has trained more than 200 mental health first aiders. Thanks to the company’s mental health initiatives there has been a recorded 46 per cent reduction in work-related mental health absences.

Northern Powergrid’s director of safety, health and environment Geoff Earl was keen to point out that vast improvements have been made with regard to safety. In fact, he said, people joining the industry in 2018 are ten times less likely to suffer a reportable injury accident than in 1990. However, he said that “hard lessons” had been learnt along the way.

Meanwhile, Steve Crofts, head of health, safety and wellbeing at Tideway, gave an insight into his company’s immersive “Epic” induction programme – a compulsory course for Tideway’s employees that features live actors in realistic incident scenarios.

Another key theme of the conference was the role of technology in health and safety. Dylan Roberts, director of health and safety at Skanska UK, discussed how using tools such as augmented reality – a computer-generated image of a user’s view of the real world – can help industries see beyond barriers to ensure a safer working environment.

Using technology is beneficial in a health and safety environment because it allows workers in the utilities sector to see exactly where they are digging or drilling, so they are less likely to stumble across dangerous pipes or wires.

Tony Leach, UK BU health and safety director of Engie, spoke about how the company has used technology to improve the collection of data in its organisation. He emphasised how changing the way data is stored can help the sector innovate. “We have one single source of data and we are controlling that,” he said.

Utility companies know they have a duty of care when it comes to operational safety. During the afternoon session at the conference, Severn Trent’s head of health, safety, wellbeing and security Richard Rogers said companies need to have “adult-to-adult” conversations with employees over things such as changes to their personal protective equipment – a method he says is proving successful for Severn Trent.

Whereas before, all employees had to wear a hi-visibility jacket, gloves, appropriate footwear and a helmet whenever they set foot on site, the company realised this was not always practical and so changed the policy accordingly. “What we have seen so far is quite a bit of acceptance from businesses that it does take quite a long time to change things like this. Even though the admin took five minutes, the conversation, explanation and cultural side took a lot longer,” said Rogers.

Throughout the day companies were keen to emphasise the journey they had made in putting in place processes to keep their staff safe. While in the past there was the main focus of looking after the physical well­being of staff, companies in the energy and utility sector have realised that psychological wellbeing is of paramount importance too. This was clearly demonstrated at this year’s conference.

Geoff Earl, director of safety, health and environment at Northern Powergrid

“The most powerful leadership tool is your own personal example.”

Karl Simons, chief health, safety and security officer at Thames Water

“Risk visualisation is the key to setting any agenda that you have.”

Richard Rogers, head of health, safety, wellbeing and security, Severn Trent Water

“Safety performance and risk perception are critical to the cultural journey we are going on.”

Caroline McLeod, group head of occupational health at Kier Group

“If you have an occupational health nurse on site she is not there to save lives, so beware.”

Derek Field health, safety and environment strategy manager for Northern Gas Networks

“Getting people to do the right things can be really hard. It’s normally a balancing act, time versus risk.”

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