Ask health and safety practitioners how they ended up at the top of their profession and many will tell you candidly that it was by accident. Health and safety has always been a career that anyone can progress into if they have the interest and the aptitude, and the lack of barriers to entry mean that many of today’s most high-profile and influential safety professionals started out ‘on the tools’. But then they were asked to take on extra responsibilities, or they witnessed an accident that could easily have been prevented, and they discovered that health and safety is a subject far more broad, challenging and important than most tabloid headlines will allow. 

The openness of the profession – which stems from the fact you can learn and study on the job – has also made health and safety (and risk management more broadly) a popular choice for a second career. Individuals can often move from professions that may not at first glance seem to be obviously linked, but on closer inspection have much in common in terms of transferrable skills and relevant experience. It makes the health and safety profession a diverse one in terms of educational background and career history.

In recent years, there has been a growing emphasis on the personal attributes – in addition to the technical skills – that safety professionals need to be successful. Increasingly, employers understand that to be among the best-performing companies in health and safety terms, their advisers need to be expert communicators, as confident talking to the board as they are to workers on the ground; skilled at influencing; on top of their own subject area, but also aware of the competing demands of different business areas and different business risks; and, on a personal level, both innovative and inspiring. A tall order.

Service leaver to SHEQ Director

Many careers lend themselves to the demands of the profession as it looks today – not least the military. A steady flow of ex-forces personnel pursue a health and safety career after leaving service, among them Adam King, Group Safety, Health, Environment and Quality (SHEQ) Director at Renewi, a leading international waste-to-product business with 198 sites worldwide.

Abandoning a law degree in a “reckless moment”, Adam signed up the Royal Marines and spent four years as a Commando, serving all over the world and training for desert and Arctic warfare. Having got the military bug out of his system, Adam left the Marines and took a job at a power station where a growing interest in health and safety matters saw him take on inspection responsibilities and begin studying for the NEBOSH National General Certificate in Occupational Health and Safety. Further NEBOSH qualifications followed, most significantly the NEBOSH Occupational Health and Safety and Environmental Management Diplomas, steering Adam’s career path into different managerial positions before he secured his current role.

For Adam, success in the profession is about how you use your technical knowledge – for which his military background was an ideal foundation. “After all,” he says, “no matter how intelligent you are, if you’re not capable of applying the right information to a real-world scenario and in real time, how are you going to achieve a safe and sustainable environment?”

Maintenance to manager

For some, the career move to health and safety comes from an interest cultivated while working in industry. Through much of his working life, SHE Manager Bill Alhadad – previously a maintenance technician at pharmaceuticals giant AstraZeneca – was determined to switch careers. Bill had taken on various safety responsibilities, including permit-to-work systems and risk assessments which gave him the “the health and safety bug”.

“Because I’d spent a lot of time developing others on the engineering side, I decided it was time to develop myself. Engineering provides a good background for health and safety and I realised that where I worked offered the perfect opportunity to apply almost all aspects of SHE knowledge. I just needed to start learning.”

Not one to do things by halves, and benefiting from the support of his employer, in 2015 Bill embarked on both the NEBOSH Diploma in Occupational Safety and Health and the Diploma in Environmental Management. He did the double (one of only three students to do so that year) and, subsequently, secured the roles of SHE Facilitator and then SHE Advisor with AstraZeneca. Since then Bill has achieved a Masters of Research that NEBOSH offers in partnership with the University of Hull. Bill’s dedication was, once again, rewarded with a promotion to SHE Manager.

Administrator to Award winner

Vanessa Hill

Of course, any successful practitioner requires a good deal of technical knowledge too – of the hazards in a particular workplace, how they can be controlled, and the relevant regulations. Vanessa Hill knew she had the personal attributes to succeed in a health a safety career, but gaining the technical knowledge gave her the confidence and credibility to be effective. Having become disillusioned with a career in banking, Vanessa had taken an administrative job at her local wind farm where she became increasingly involved in health and safety. But an employee’s comment during a site inspection provided the incentive for her to formalise her on-the-job learning with qualifications.  

“Someone on site, who didn’t agree with what I was saying, asked: ‘What qualifies you to say that?’” she recalls. So she began studying for NEBOSH qualifications, ultimately achieving the Best Candidate Award in 2018 having scored the highest mark of the year in the NEBOSH National Diploma in Occupational Health and Safety. “It is vital that people genuinely trust in your professional opinion,” she notes. “It’s essential if you really want to make a difference.”

Shop floor to safety

Matt McDonnell

Indeed the ability to build trust – to take people with you – is the quality that tips the balance when it comes to engaging workers. Matt McDonnell, who had a successful career in retail management before switching to health and safety and securing the role of Health and Safety Adviser at DIY chain B&Q, is a firm believer that what his colleagues need is not rules and regulations but advice and guidance.

“I absolutely love this job, especially when you give someone a little nugget of safety advice and you see the penny drop,” he says.

“As a safety professional, you want to make a difference and you want your colleagues to respond positively. For me, this is the key to protecting everyone from harm.”

For more information about NEBOSH qualifications visit here.