Interview with Martin Bardle – Global Health & Safety and Quality Compliance Director, RB – Reckitt Benckiser
To celebrate being 15 years old this month, we’ve interviewed a number of key Health & Safety professionals and have asked Martin Bardle to look forward 15 years and tell us what he thinks 2035 will bring for the profession.
What will a Health & Safety Director be doing in October 2035?
I’ve been a Health & Safety professional for 20 years; prior to that, I had 15 years in the army, which gave me an incredible training and skill set. What I’ve discovered during the current COVID-19 pandemic is that people seek the advice of the H&S Director on every topic under the sun. The H&S Director of the future will need to navigate, at pace, multiple health and safety issues at the same time. Whether that’s the translation of legislation, guidance on human rights issues in emerging markets, or human resources working on site and remotely; they will need to have advice and information ready at the blink of an eye.
Increasingly, H&S professionals will have links to other internal or external professions, for example, lawyers and HR experts. They will need to understand and then distil information into something their company can use, creating company-wide protocols. H&S professionals will be embedded in an organisation at a Director/Senior Leadership level, with responsibility for risk management and rapid response to an ever changing global situation.
What changes do you expect to regulations, the economy and company procedures in the next 15 years that will impact the role most of all?
From a global perspective, the major change will be to human rights and how they are enforced. Up until recently, there have been a number of countries in the world that have allowed companies to operate in an unsafe manner; in 15 years’ time the exploitation of emerging markets will have been constricted, and this is something that is already changing fast. What was acceptable 10 years ago in these countries simply won’t be in 2035. The consumers of the future will want to know not only what a product is made of, and where it comes from, but also how sustainably and ethically it is produced, i.e., what is the human footprint behind a product.
In terms of the UK, I think we can expect changes in regulation as we come out of Europe. The rules around Health & Safety will evolve – depending on the particular Government, and our approach to the economy after the impact of COVID-19. I think the UK will see less focus on manual and service industry work. I think we will see the development of more agile, smaller businesses, together with home working. Manufacturing will move to a far more automated position than we see currently. There will be less tolerance of harm in the workplace and tighter regulation. We are already seeing the general population are less accepting of harm at work, in the old days there was an acceptable risk in certain industries; in 2035 there will be no tolerance of workplace injuries. Part of the Corporate Manslaughter Act states that a company found negligent and prosecuted under the Act may be forced to publish details of the offence and any fines incurred. I think we will see this become more widespread and companies held far more publicly accountable.
With regards to company procedures, in 15 years’ time, I anticipate a more connected world; therefore, even before you join a company you’ll receive a full briefing of the health and safety regulations and this will be an interactive process whereby individuals will have to sign off that they have understood all the terms. The whole on-board process will be more rigorous, with greater responsibility pushed on to the individual to alleviate the pressure on companies.
Indeed, organisations will not want to directly employ thousands of people, but will instead utilise a more independent self-employed workforce. COVID-19 has accelerated the interconnectedness of the global workforce, utilising platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom; I see this expanding to the point where an H&S Director no longer sits in a company office with a team around them but instead directs individual self-employed experts to carry out procedures for the organisation when and wherever they’re needed, be it locally or globally.
Do you think H&S will merge closer with Quality, Environment and Sustainability or will they become separated disciplines?
As an H&S Director you are currently expected to have knowledge of not only Health and Safety but also quality control, environmental issues, sustainability and even security. No one can be fully capable and competent in all those areas and it’s unrealistic to expect a person to encompass all this. Going forward, I’m hopeful that organisations will recognise that you can have a Director responsible for all those areas, but they will need well qualified professionals underneath them to supply the depth of knowledge and infrastructure within each field. It is lazy and dangerous to bundle them all together because no one could be sufficiently qualified at a high enough level to supply a proper level of service.
What key experience and skills will the 2035 H&S Director need?
They will need the ability to navigate rapidly changing Health & Safety regulations, and to a certain degree Human Resources; I foresee a blurring of those roles. Increasingly organisations are becoming the triage for the community, with large companies helping employees with everything from giving up smoking, improving their mental resilience, to getting treatment for a bad back. With the fabric of national healthcare services breaking down, companies will be expected to provide a welfare and wellbeing support service for their staff. By 2035 an H&S Director will need to make reasonable adjustments for people with a raft of different needs whether that be health, safety, occupational health or hygiene. Soft skills will become increasingly important within the H&S remit.
What advice would you give to those looking to enter the profession now – what will their roles be like in 15 years’ time?
Currently, people within the profession do not tend to prioritise developing their leadership acumen as much as they do getting their Health & Safety qualifications. How you translate your technical skills into useable information for a CEO to act upon is key. It is easy to say H&S personnel need to work on their presentation or communication skills, but the long term infrastructure isn’t there to support them. I had a coach and mentor early on in my H&S career, and he gave me the advice and navigation skills to develop and pursue my long term goals.
The future H&S professionals need to concentrate on planning their careers, developing their leadership potential and finding suitable mentors - hands on experience is crucial. There are no shortcuts to get to the top of the Health & Safety tree. Do not skimp on the foundational elements of what it takes to be a global leader if that’s what you want; work in and out of the function to broaden your knowledge and skillset - sideways is sometimes better than up if you want to lay the right foundations for the future. At the Director level, the breadth of competence is vital, it’s about having a broad spectrum.
Those developing their careers need to use social media wisely, as there will be far more management focus on your social media portfolio in the future. We already use firms to trawl social media to see when a CEO is mentioned or a product is named in the press. In the future, an individual will have this evidence trail linked to them. Young people need to start thinking about developing their story positively; companies will be requesting a digital portfolio in their application so they need to start developing it now!
Future H&S experts shouldn’t be afraid to say they work in the field. It used to have a reputation of being the anti-fun, clipboard brigade. Now it has a really positive image, you are protecting the welfare and wellbeing of your fellow employees, as well as protecting the company from the legislation.
With all the new soft skills the profession has taken on, we mustn’t lose sight of the need for H&S experts to be responsible for employee training, implementing the latest regulations and undertaking risk assessments. Personal resilience is a key attribute for an individual working in H&S. You have to recognise that if there is an incident you will be the first person called on site, whether that is because someone has fallen off a roof or been run over by a lorry. You have to understand the impact such events have, from being interviewed by the regulator, dealing with solicitors from claimants for harm done, and reporting to your own board.
You can’t buy experience – you can have all the qualifications and leadership attributes – but you need to have the life experience to apply to Health & Safety at the top level. The foundational elements of H&S leadership should never be forgotten.