Stephen Williams has just been appointed head of construction at the Health and Safety Executive. As Building discovered, he is a man with an intense interest in the industry – and plans personally to visit as many sites as possible.
Standing on a south London street, arms folded across his burly chest and craggy features set in a determined frown, Stephen Williams cuts a commanding figure. But it seems the new chief inspector of construction at the Health and Safety Executive does not rely on appearances to command respect. “I personally stopped work on a site recently,” he says. “I was on my way to the hairdressers and I walked past a project where a man was riding along in the bucket of an excavator. One slip from the driver and he could have died. I walked over, told them I was from the HSE and asked them to stop. I was dressed in shorts and T-shirt at the time, but they did as I said.”
This incident, which occurred before Williams joined the HSE’s construction division in September, highlights the chief inspector’s commitment to improving safety awareness in an industry that currently kills about 70 site workers a year. It is also an example of Williams’ personal involvement with the industry, a stance he intends to maintain during his time at the top.
This style of management will be in vivid contrast to the distance that has existed up to now between the HSE’s generals and the infantry at the industry’s front line. And that shift could improve the awkward and sometimes confrontational relationship between the HSE and the industry.
“I certainly intend to get out on site with the inspectors,” Williams says firmly. “I want to be a very visible presence in the industry, because I believe that’s the best way of hearing people’s views on what could be improved. I want to work in partnership with all sectors of the industry, and all levels of the workforce.”
For Williams to have such commitment to direct involvement may come as a surprise given the perceived aloofness of former incumbents of his position. Kevin Myers, who left the chief inspector’s role in May after five years in charge, was not noted for his site visits. Williams cautiously acknowledges this.
“I think Kevin did an extremely good job in showing leadership and getting the industry to recognise that health and safety is an issue,” he says. “I’m very keen to continue his work, but obviously we have different styles. I’m not saying that Kevin didn’t work in partnership with the industry, but it is something that I am particularly keen to drive forward.”
Such comments inevitably raise the question of increasing the number of HSE ground inspectors. Williams says he supports the HSE’s commitment to 60% proactive work, 40% reactive enforcement. But he also admits greater resources wouldn’t go amiss. “Any health and safety organisation would say it wanted more resources,” he says coyly.
Williams’ hands-on approach is understandable, given his background. At university he studied a degree in industrial technology and management, which involved two placements in industry. One was working in a television factory, one for a lighting distribution company. “You need a broad knowledge to be a good manager,” he says.
Williams had his first direct involvement with the construction industry in his early days at the HSE, when he worked as an inspector in its South-east division. While there, he inspected ordinary sites and high-profile projects such as the Channel Tunnel and the Queen Elizabeth II bridge in Dartford. “That experience will be valuable, especially the conventional projects,”
I want to be a very visible presence in the industry, because I believe that’s the best way of hearing people’s views
he says. “A diet that consisted simply of the Channel Tunnel and the bridge wouldn’t have represented a range of construction work.”
Williams has had significant involvement in the industry since that time, most notably as the HSE’s head of construction policy in the early 1990s. After a spell as head of the rail division, Williams says he relished the chance to return to an industry that he praises for its “can-do attitude” and fantastic achievements – including, he says, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge.
“I’m passionate about construction. It’s fair to say that when Kevin’s job came up I was immediately interested. I believe I can make a real difference in the industry.”
Although he has only been in his position for three weeks, Williams already knows how he plans to make this difference. Top of his to-do list are the CDM regulations, currently under revision, which Williams helped to draft in the early 1990s. The CDM revision, together with the proposed corporate manslaughter bill, promises the biggest shake-up of safety legislation in recent times. Williams is particularly supportive of the manslaughter proposals, which aim to increase the responsibility of senior managers. “Those who gain financial advantage at the risk of lives should be dealt with. Nobody who makes honest decisions when in possession of proper information has anything to fear.”
There are a series of danger areas that Williams says have remained “stubbornly constant” since his involvement in the industry 10 years ago: work at height, transport, collapses and injuries caused when working on electrical supplies. He will also focus on occupational health, and it is here that he believes he can have the greatest impact. “Occupational health is an area in which we can drive change forward. Musculoskeletal problems, vibration injuries and trips and falls are things that can be prevented,” he says. In addition, Williams intends to work closely with the CSCS board and the CITB to ensure the skills cards are a “proper mark of competency” for the industry, particularly in trades such as operating tower cranes and heavy plant.
Williams hopes his emphasis on partnership will help the industry continue to help itself in these areas, rather than feeling its firms are being targeted by authorities. He says there are “occasionally” incidents where inspectors are abused when they enter sites, and “very occasionally” this abuse is translated into threats or actual violence. One such incident occurred in Norwich last week, when inspectors were chased off a site by workers who resented their intervention. The HSE has now involved the police in the matter. “We treat these incidents seriously,” says Williams.
He says he wants a situation where all sites recognise their responsibility to be continually improving safety, a point he says was emphasised by the recent death on Heathrow Terminal 5, an accident that coincided with his appointment. “I was as sad as anyone else when that fatality happened, especially as T5 has had a very good record for safety,” he says. “If the incident brought anything home to me, it is the need for all parties to be vigilant at all times.” And if anyone is not, Williams will be right on their shoulder.
Who’s in your family?
I have three grown-up children: two daughters and a son. I’m engaged to my partner, who has three children of her own, but we haven’t set a date yet. My children all studied English at university and my eldest daughter went to Cambridge. What college was it? It was … [long pause, then phones daughter to ask] Jesus … Jesus. That really isn’t a name I should forget.
What are your hobbies?
I enjoy mountain biking, which I do regularly with a group of friends. Some are from the industry, so occasionally we have a friendly chat about safety … I also enjoy sailing and music, and play the trombone in a brass quartet.
Any gigs coming up?
We’re playing at the weekend, if you’re interested. I’m singing too. The rehearsals have been very challenging.
What’s your drink?
A nice red wine, or at least that’s what they’d tell you around here if you asked.