Change for the Better

08 Feb 2018

Former Health & Safety Authority Assistant Chief Executive Brian Higgisson looks back on some of the changes he witnessed during almost two decades with the organisation. 

Ireland’s new Rail Commissioner Brian Higgisson is no stranger to change. Indeed, it has been a hallmark of his career over the years.

“I have during my career on a number of occasions changed direction primarily to challenge myself,” he says. “I enjoy applying my experience and skillsets to different areas. However, working in the area of compliance with standards, specifications and legislation has been a common theme.”

His scientific background saw him join the Irish Dairy Board, now Ornua, early in his career. He worked in quality assurance and new product development there for several years before moving into a trouble-shooting role.

In quite a sharp change of direction, he left to join the Health & Safety Authority (HSA) as an inspector in 1999. During his time there he rose to become Assistant Chief Executive, and he embarked on yet another change in direction when he became Rail Commissioner towards the end of 2017.

Change was also a feature of his time at the HSA with the safety landscape evolving and advancing quite significantly during that period.

“On the construction side there were a number of major changes on the regulatory front,” he recalls.

He refers specifically to the 2005 Act and the 2013 Regulations.

“They put a much greater onus on the key duty holders including The Contractor and The Client, Designers and Project Supervisors. They also introduced the role of Project Supervisor. The whole idea of safety awareness training was also brought in as was the Construction Skills Certification Scheme for people carrying out safety critical tasks in the industry.”

He believes heightened awareness to be one of the most important changes to have occurred over the years.

“Heightened awareness of safety has been one of the key changes. Safety is now built into contracts. If anyone passes a construction site now and sees it without evidence of basic personal safety such as someone without a hard hat, they would be surprised. The use of personal protective equipment (PPE) is just the physical manifestation of this increased level of awareness.”

Another manifestation comes in the form of the statistics for fatalities in the industry.

“Back in 2002, fatalities were being recorded at between 18 and 20 a year,” says Brian Higgisson. “They have now come down very substantially. Last year, there were six, and in 2016 there had been nine. It’s all about taking ownership of safety. However, a concern has to be the continuing fatalities and serious injury as a result of falls from height and excavation work seen in recent years.”

He pays tribute to the Construction Safety Partnership and the Construction Advisory Committee now amalgamated, which, he says, put in a lot of very hard work over the years, with the outcome of very high safety standards on Irish construction sites. “The standards are very high on large sites,” he notes. “There is work still to be done on smaller projects and one-off housing.”

Another key change he has witnessed has been a growing recognition and appreciation for the business benefits of high standards of Health & Safety. “Across all sectors, the Health & Safety function is now understood as being as important as finance or HR to organisations. As a result, Health & Safety practice is now moving from reactive to proactive. Back in the early days, you reacted when things went wrong. Now, it is much more proactive with Health & Safety plans and strategies in place to make sure that every effort is made to prevent accidents. The changes that the HSA has been bringing in over the years have been all about preparing, being ready and implementing controls, rather than just reacting when something happens.”

These changes include both online [] and printed tools [Safe System of Work Plan (SSWP)] developed by the HSA to assist firms with the implementation of SSWPs.

“It absolutely is recognised now throughout the industry that good Health & Safety practice contributes to the bottom line,” Brian Higgisson concludes. “If Health & Safety is managed properly it not only benefits employees but benefits the company as well through improved performance, financial results and staff retention.”

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