Sunit Atwal, QHSE Manager at CBRE Global Workspace Solutions
Watch the highlights and learn what Beyond HSEQ means to Sunit:
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Sunit Atwal says she has always been obsessed with science and it’s what led her to studying Biochemistry at UC San Diego. It was then when she questioned what she should do next. Identifying her love for both Chemistry and make-up, Sunit decided to do her Masters in Formulation Science and moved to the UK over ten years ago to study at the University of Greenwich.
Fell into safety.
Upon graduation, Sunit’s first job was as a Scientific Officer at the University, 50% of which included looking after the health and safety of the research labs. She then went on to work in fragrance manufacturing as a lab supervisor.
“I learnt way too quickly that I talk too much to be stuck in a lab. I actually started thinking this safety stuff is fun… so I just fell into safety.”
“I was really curious so quite quickly become the health and safety officer for the business. I then started my health and safety qualifications which I self-funded because I was passionate about pursuing it as a career. During this time, I also got involved in external networks, including the International Fragrance Association. They had a technical advisory group which a vacancy came up for a health and safety expert. I wasn’t qualified at this point. I was just a young person in the industry trying to learn more about safety. But I got the role and started to build my network and knowledge around safety.”
Whilst admitting that the R&D side of pharmaceuticals was her happy place, Sunit started to get more exposure to the commercial side of the business.
“I got more curious. What’s outside of the science sector? What do the other industries do? How can I continue to expand my knowledge and skillset?”
After being approached by several different businesses, Sunit then went into Real Estate whilst still actively being involved in Future Leader programmes and external groups like the Health and Safety Network, which eventually led her to Beyond HSEQ and the Steering Group.
“It was important to me to venture out and meet leaders from outside of the sectors I worked for. It’s great to look inwards and learn from other peers in your organisation, but there is so much value in connecting externally to gain insights from diverse perspectives.”
Learning and influencing have always been and continue to be Sunit’s biggest drivers and it was important to her to try to break down the typical stereotype of HSEQ professionals. During her first role at Greenwich University, the students drew a picture of her in her role.
“I was in my lab coat with my glasses on and holding a clipboard. I will never forget that image. They would make police siren noises when I walked it. It wasn’t until I progressed in my career that I realised I was going around policing and forcing everyone to follow rules. I wanted this to shift to influencing and advising. I wanted to be a true advisor to businesses and help them utilize HSEQ to achieve their business goals.”
In her experience, Sunit has noticed there’s been more of a focus on “what they call soft skills and I call power skills,” during the last 5-6 years. This is due to a combination of newer qualifications, including NCRQ and the emergence of “rebel groups” that are challenging the norms.
“It wasn’t just about memorising and regurgitating information in an exam. Programmes like this have helped shift the focus away from just being blanket enforcers. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
“The catalyst for change was probably bubbling away before I entered the profession, but I believe safety professionals and businesses have realised that it just doesn’t work. No one is going to listen to you if you are just auditing and enforcing rules. We need to have a focus on holistic, human-centric risk management and organisational performance. What’s really going to make a difference to our risk profile and drive systemic change?”
When asked if she thinks change within the profession is happening quick enough, Sunit believes it varies by industry, sector and the HSEQ teams within them.
“In some areas, absolutely. They are well on track and pushing boundaries. However, some industries are not evolving as rapidly and will feel the effects of this quite soon. The focus on future leaders has also changed. There’s a real need to get fresh, diverse talent into the profession.”
QHSE professionals were there to ensure compliance – we’d do things a certain way. If we understand context more, we will understand risk more.
Sunit says safety professionals don’t always market themselves as best as they could and was why the ‘purpose’ theme at Beyond HSEQ’s first event really resonated with her.
“I’m really inspired with Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with WHY’.It was refreshing to be in a room full of safety leaders having this discussion. It’s all good for us to know our WHY, but what do our leaders think our WHY is? It’s their business so it’s important for them to be involved in the process.”
She believes this was a ‘penny drop moment’ and got her thinking about whether she’s ever gone to a President / CEO and suggested having a strategy day to define their purpose…
“I’m really fortunate at CBRE because they’re truly invested in safety and our teams and people. That’s why after the first Beyond HSEQ event, we invited our President and COO to our QHSE leadership strategy day. It was a great success. We worked together as a group to define our purpose. What do we want to do? What do our leaders what us to do? Everything we do now we align to that purpose. We ask the WHY for everything we do and measure it on that.”
CBRE’spurpose agreed upon that day is: 'To support sustainable business growth by helping people and organisations thrive'.
During the first Beyond HSEQ, the concept of hitting a ‘concrete ceiling’ was expressed by attendees. However, Sunit defied this when she implemented the ‘purpose’ exercise at CBRE.
“If that shows the power of Beyond HSEQ, even if it’s just one person who can take what we learnt and actually implement it in a business, it’s a huge win. I’m sure I’m not the only person who took something away from it. It’s such an amazing movement and we have so much potential. I hope that more and more professionals get involved and we can support businesses moving forward.”
“Since the conference I have received so much positive feedback and I thoroughly believe it was because of the ‘purpose’ piece I took from Beyond and applied at CBRE. My take-away from this is, define a purpose that connects with everyone, have the same goal that you are all working towards and genuinely feel part of one team within the business.
Be relevant and authentic. It is serious what we do in health and safety, but we support businesses that are operated by humans, not machines. If we take a more holistic approach and get a better understanding of context, we have the potential to achieve great things".
Thank you to Sunit for taking the time to speak Jonny about her journey into health and safety and the incredible journey she is now on. We look forward to seeing her at Beyond HSEQ on 4th May.