The Health & Safety officer

Nigel Ward's mission is to guard the safety of all VM's staff, but will they listen?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

With the synchronised beep of a thousand incoming e-mails, another of Nigel Ward's missives touches down in the inboxes of the hapless employees of VM Engineering. Sitting in his office, Ward smiles, a job well done.

He glances at the recently sent memo with paternal pride - it's a masterpiece of clarity: there is no mistaking its message, or its importance.

Yet few will read Nigel's note. Anyone with IT nous long ago marked as spam; and even those who haven't will likely delete it unread. Of the company's 1,000 employees, 50 will probably open it. And of those, 49 will scratch their heads and say: 'Doesn't he have anything more important to do?' The sole exception to this unanimous disregard is Karen, Nigel's PA and staunchest ally. For reasons unclear - and which do not bear close examination - Nigel, in all his V-necked glory, is her hero.

Anyhow, no, he doesn't have anything more important to do. For Nigel is the head of health and safety at VM Engineering, chief enforcer of the thousands of minor rules and petty regulations 'that exist for your own good'; in the parlance of the water cooler, he's 'the safety Nazi'.

Nigel hails from the Health & Safety Executive, where he worked variously in railways, petroleum and food. Before his arrival, VM's record in this area hadn't been all it should be and the thinking was that by bringing in an outsider, the company would soon be up to muster. Nigel has succeeded spectacularly, though not perhaps in the way the board might have hoped.

As one lucky line manager recently commented: 'It's like having a health and safety inspection every single bloody day.'

Nowhere is this more visible than when Nigel 'walks the values' with one of his periodic sweeps for those recidivists who treat his exhortations with cavalier disregard. Those new to VME often find themselves in one of those officious setpieces where they discover the true meaning of frustration.

Even the security guards - who after 9/11 discovered how empowering it could be to check the passes of VM lifers eight times a day - have nothing on Nigel. A typical newbie encounter starts with Nigel asking them to rectify a minor problem; they turn it into a joke; he counters with 'This is no joking matter', words that will probably be his epitaph. Nigel always wins in the end - he has the law on his side and the hierarchy, albeit reluctantly, have to back him up.

Nigel's punctiliousness is no respecter of rank. After he'd reproached the CEO over the plugging in of unchecked electrical appliances in his office, the boss proposed to the board that they put Nigel on one of their crack negotiation teams; no-one could argue for long against that kind of leaden pedantry, said the CEO.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with Nigel and his mission to 'make safety "job one"'. Accidents can be a real problem, particularly in the engineering sector. Even though the VME board fought tooth and nail against their introduction, they'll admit that measures preventing workers from falling into machines are probably a plus - especially with relatives so litigious these days. The problem is that Nigel, with his hard-wired regulatory mindset, enforces the diktats concerning hot drinks with the same zeal as those governing the use of 250-tonne presses.

But even though he is the man of the minutiae, the jobsworth everyone loves to hate and possibly the last person you'd want to go for a beer with, it's difficult to pick holes in Nigel's real accomplishments. VME is now one of the safest firms in its class: in the whole of the last financial year, there was but one accident, and that a minor one. When congratulated by the CEO, Nigel replied: 'That's still one too many.'

Any resemblance to a real person is coincidental and unintended

Ward a risk-free life

1962 Born 12 February, Boston, Lincs. Educated: local secondary modern; technical college

1981-87 Environmental officer, Lincs County Council

1987-95 Health & safety inspector, HSE

1995-2000 Health & safety adviser, HSE

2000 Head of health and safety, VM Engineering

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