An informal chat with Dr. John Hamilton, Director of Safety & Sustainability, Bellrock Property & Facilities Management and his journey to Chartered Fellow – IOSH
Dr. John Hamilton, Bellrock’s Safety & Sustainability Director has recently been elected a Chartered Fellow of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH). This is an incredible accolade and is only awarded to Chartered Members of at least five years standing, who have demonstrated outstanding dedication to the profession. John’s commitment in promoting and leading the highest standards in the OSH profession makes him a role model for others, within Bellrock and the entire occupational safety and health community.
Tell me how you first got involved in Health & Safety?
I started off working in property and facilities management as an operator. I was head of facilities at a UK bank whose health and safety systems and processes were below par. Health and safety is intrinsic to running buildings, and because I had worked in property for some time, I knew what good looked like, I knew operationally, what needed to be done. They gave the responsibility to me to improve the health and safety operations across the bank, and, as such, thus began my professional transition. I moved from being an operational facilities person to being the ‘health and safety guy’. From there, my desire to learn led me through various qualifications to becoming a chartered health & safety practitioner.
Do you have a memory that has driven you to succeed in this profession?
When I was very little, at the bottom of the stairs at my grandparent’s house, hung a framed certificate. Being so young, I didn’t really know what it was, only that my grandfather had been successful at achieving something important. Eventually, I came to learn that it was actually his Chartered Fellow of the Institute of Electrical Engineers certificate given to him in 1967. I’ve kept that certificate and it hangs in my study.
The thing about being a Fellow, it’s not an academic achievement. It’s about your outstanding contribution to your profession, being elected and voted in by your peers. Sadly, my grandfather was killed in a car crash when I was only 8 years old, and we were very close. Today, I still wear his long-service watch awarded to him. So, being able to frame and hang my own Fellow certificate alongside of my grandfather’s is a pretty big deal.
What has surprised you most about working within the Health & Safety industry?
What surprises me most is the actual difference that you can make. It never ceases to amaze me when we come up with new ways of working or new processes to try and safeguard people and then lo and behold, sometime down the line, accident statistics / incident statistics drop. For instance, when I worked at the bank, one of the things we did was implement a new road risk policy and driver risk assessments. A driver handbook went out to every member of staff and insurance claims in the next 12 months dropped by a third. It’s really quite humbling to know that what you’ve done has really made an impact. That’s always the nice thing, and that’s why I do the job, because I want to make a difference.
The Health & Safety profession sometimes get a bad rap, referring to the familiar phrase ‘Health & Safety gone mad’. What do you think about that?
What you must realise, is that we really do save lives. If you go back to the early 1970’s, there were over 1,000 workplace deaths a year. The latest statistics show that in 2019/20 there were 111 deaths. A large part of that drop is because we’ve had a change of industry in that time; we don’t dig things out the ground, we manufacture less, we do jobs which are less dangerous than we did back then. But a huge proportion of that reduction is because we are much better at managing risk. Bottom line, we stop people from hurting themselves, so you have to rise above the negativity.
What do you find most challenging?
I suppose one of the most challenging things is to translate something that can be quite technical into a language and approach which is easy for people to understand without being patronising, which can sometimes be a very fine line. Training is a real challenge too because you’ve got a real cross-section of people in terms of their understanding, experience, ability, or even language. We’re forever trying to find new and improved ways to communicate with people that minimises the ‘boring factor’ that gets across the essential information.
A good example is Bellrock’s e-Learning programme. Modules have been streamlined and tailored to suit an individual’s circumstances or requirements. We recognise that some people don’t have access to technology to enable them to engage with these training modules online, so we made some changes and deliver training face to face when required. The underpinning messages are the same. It’s just the method of delivery that’s the challenge. We also have language challenges as well; we recognise that some of our delivery staff do not have English as their first language. The challenge is finding a way to communicate the messages appropriately and effectively.
The strapline on Bellrock’s Safety & Sustainability logo is ‘Changing Perceptions’; what does this mean?
‘Changing Perceptions is about an outcome. It’s not an input. And we achieve that by doing the job smarter in the first place and that then changes people’s health & safety perceptions. Our e-learning is a terrific example. If you look at if you look at how e-learning is often was rolled out, it can be a one-size-fits-all roll-out of a large number of modules in one go, with no tailoring, customisation or prioritising for the business. What we’ve done at Bellrock is completely redesign the modules to make them much quicker to get through with the greatest amount of understanding achievable, streamlining future rollout sets at designated times throughout the year. You set out to do the job better in the first place, right? And the effect is that people’s perceptions change about how and what, health and safety is.
The focus and interest in health & Safety seems to be growing. Why do you think that is?
The first question organisations ask themselves now, more than ever, is ‘how do we operate our business safely’. The challenge going forward in a post-Covid world for safety professionals is to continue that momentum and not let it slip. The fear is that it will, at some point, move back to the old way of doing things. But we’ve still got to be pragmatic and sensible about the way that we push the safety agenda. At the moment, we don’t have the need to overplay it because Covid is everything at the moment; it’s the single most important factor in running the health & safety agenda for businesses. Health & safety professionals are centre stage right now, but there’s a fear that businesses might eventually say ‘yeah, we don’t need you anymore’, and that’s going to be the challenge. We recognise that there will inevitably be some slippage, and that’s probably rightly so because many businesses operating in the UK are relatively low risk, so therefore you don’t need to overplay. If you yap on about the safety card all the time in a business that’s low risk, people get blind to it. I think what we’ve got to do is switch attention. We’ve got to start concentrating more of our efforts on mental health and well-being and the fallout of Covid.
How does the new normal of ‘working from home’ fit into Health & Safety?
The well-being of staff working from home has taken a big leap in priority. It’s no longer only about whether they have the right equipment or having the proper DSE assessments. It’s also about staff still feeling part of an office community; those informal conversations around the water cooler, catching up on last night’s TV, the football results, stories about kids and pets – it’s finding ways to replicate the social side of what going to the office entailed. I don’t think Teams or Zoom can replicate that, and therefore some will want to return to the office environment. The problem is for businesses, who for cost reasons, are downsizing their offices, knowing that they can trust their employees to be able to work effectively from home. So mental health and well-being will be more in the health & safety spotlight going forward. But that’s a good thing.
What do you think will change within the industry over the next five years? Do you see any emerging trends?
The next five years will be recovering from the fallout of Covid. Mental health will become more important than ever before. As safety practitioners, we put a huge amount of focus on physical health. I’ve even had conversations with other safety practitioners who felt that stress and mental health isn’t even proper health and safety. It’s almost like if it doesn’t fall on you and kill you, it’s not important, a ‘not our job’ area. I think it’s as much our job as much as it is anybody’s, as well as a partnership approach with HR colleagues, senior leaders and managers. It’s a tidal wave that’s already starting to hit and we need to be prepared.
How does knowing that you have been recognised by your peers for your outstanding contribution to Health & Safety make you feel?
It’s not just being told that I’ve done a good job, it’s a sense of personal satisfaction, knowing that it wasn’t an exam that you had to pass, but recognition by your peers for what I’ve put into the profession. I’m heavily involved within my community, risk assessing my local community centre, chairing a social enterprise that runs forest schools for underprivileged kids as well as working with a children’s BMX club doing pre-event checks and assisting with PPE issues. In addition to this, I’m proud to be able to offer my mentorship with future safety practitioners, helping them progress through their professions and sharing with them my published research papers.
So how does it make me feel? Yeah, it feels pretty special.
”I am delighted to see John being recognised by his institute; he is a rare example of a health expert who also understands the commercial dynamic in which we operate. I extend many congratulations on this well-earned Fellowship, as I am sure Bellrock colleagues and customers will benefit from your expertise in the years ahead.David SmithCEO, Bellrock Property & Facilities Management
Dr John Hamilton is the Director of Health, Safety, Environment and Quality at Bellrock Group and a Chartered Fellow of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH).
John has extensive experience of delivering successful risk management strategies across large, complex organisations in both public and private sector. He has a pragmatic approach to risk management balancing an organisation’s legal, financial, and moral obligations with its operational and commercial business drivers. John is a dual qualified chartered health and safety and HR professional, with a master’s degree in health and safety and environmental law and a doctorate in organisational health and wellbeing. He is also Chair of the Board of Directors of Get Out More CIC, a social enterprise on a mission to help people engage with nature through getting outdoors.