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A mountain to climb

Safety - Safety gurus need to get out of their ivory towers and incorporate safety into corporate business models, argues John Green. He tells Emma Crates why his safety sweep includes scrutinising the driving skills of directors

IF YOU want John Green to talk passionately about a subject other than safety, ask him what he does in his spare time. A keen climber, Mr Green enthuses about a planned mountaineering trip to Switzerland next year.

'I'd like to climb the Eiger but, with global warming, the face that used to be frozen now all too often has water and rocks cascading down it.

It's too much of a lottery to climb it now, ' he says.

It may seem odd that the man who is group director for health, safety and corporate responsibility at Alfred McAlpine should spend so much time doing something that is, at first appearances, so dangerous. But Mr Green's hobby is key to the principles he holds dear.

'Climbing is hazardous; you're at height, and you're having to rely on other people. But it isn't risky, ' he says. 'The risks can be managed.' When he interviews people for safety jobs Mr Green always asks what they do when they're away from work. Those who have active hobbies rather than sedentary ones score highly with him.

'This is not to do down stamp collecting, ' says Mr Green. 'But a hobby such as climbing demonstrates a frame of mind. It indicates that these people are into running their life in a managed fashion ? and not taking risks unnecessarily.' His role models are climbers such as Alan Hinkes, the first British climber to scale 14 of the world's highest peaks.

'He is a great solo climber who plans carefully and is always prepared, ' he says.

So how does climbing relate to Mr Green's day job?

'In climbing, as with safety, you are constantly making decisions, sorting the chaff from the wheat and focusing on what's important. You have simultaneously to be able to plan ahead and have clarity of what you need to do in the moment. Take the corporate manslaughter bill currently going through Parliament. No one knows what the impact will be, but every firm has to be ready to comply.' Mr Green's safety philosophy is honed from experience across a wealth of sectors. After working for the Health & Safety Executive for 12 years he worked as a safety expert in the oil, gas and petrochemical sectors before working for Motorola, British Airways and Severn Trent. He joined Alfred McA lpine in 2002 as director of risk for inf rastructure, and stepped into his current role last October.

This broad experience has led Mr Green to develop a strategy with the Alfred McAlpine group. He calls it 'Perfect Day' and credits a lot of its principles to his time with Motorola.

To have a perfect day for a business, three things have to be taken into consideration: there are no accidents; no complaints from the public and operational targets are met.

'If you look at any company, safety and business have grown up side by side. There is always a tendency to separate safety goals from performance.

This is a mistake, ' he says.

'Safety, customer satisfaction and shareholder value are entirely interdependent.' This may sound brutal to those who prefer to make evangelical safety speeches. But Mr Green is nothing if not a pragmatist.

'There is no point in preaching dogma if it leads to a highly inefficient business ? and businesses that are successful but unsafe don't exist any more, ' he says, adding that all too often safety is made the scapegoat for poor management decisions.

One example of the problems of separating safety from operational targets was the notorious 'hazard pay' he witnessed in the oil and gas sector in the 1980s. Hazard pay was a premium rate paid to workers to encourage them to undertake dangerous tasks.

'It was used all the time back then. The workers saw it as a way of earning extra money, ' he says. 'The mentality was that accidents happen to other people. But if a job's not safe at £1 an hour, it's still unsafe at £2 an hour.' Today, the problem Mr Green sees with most businesses is that, because safety is usually separated from performance goals, people are more in danger of sacrificing safety to productivity.

'There's a subliminal message problem. People are told by the business that safety is important, yet they are given too many jobs to do in one day. There's a disconnection between safety and targets which is a disaster. Safety has to be integrated into the business model, ' he says.

So, in Mr Green's ideal scenario, directors have to make it clear that the business would react in the same way when people take safety risks as they would if productivity were going down.

Historically one of the problems has been the cultural division between people who work in safety and those in production teams.

'Safety officers are often too academic, with no site exper ience. Or they may come from the business and understand, but not have enough confidence to argue their point in a boardroom.' Safety officers need a better understanding of the business and those in commercial operations need a better understanding of safety. So who would be the ideal safety representat ive on site?

'People often think it's a good idea recruiting from the operations side of the business. But poacher-turned-gamekeepers are not necessarily going to carry enough credibility with the workforce, especially if they're t rying to stop the very act ivit ies that they used to do.' Mr Green's safety sweep through McAlpine is also focusing on driving skills, with implications for non-site workers such as senior management.

He says that while there is often a big focus on site safety, the 'safety mindset' often shuts down as people get into their cars and drive away.

'The problem with driving is that it is indirectly managed. You give people cars and vans and don't see them until they get to site. We're assessing a person's driving ability both as a risk to themselves and to the business. Driving safely has now been roped into corporate manslaughter. And fleet managers have been prosecuted recently for mak ing staff drive beyond their legal hours limit.' The members of staff who are potentially more at risk could take lots of short journeys in the space of a day or have to drive long distances.

Those who have points on their licences are considered high-risk. Support is given in the form of training and advanced driving skills courses.

'Safety has to be a 24-hour preoccupation, seven days a week, ' says Mr Green. Overall the company's accident frequency rate (number of accidents per 100,000 man hours worked) has come down f rom 0.35 to 0.24 over the past five years, and he is aiming to reduce it to 0.1 by 2010.

'The Government seems to have the philosophy that all risks can be cont rolled to zero level. That's absolute nonsense. Risk aversion is not the way forward. All risks have to be managed, ' he says.