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Life as a Health and Safety Officer at A.S. Watson: Where Managing Risk is Elementary, My Dear

Health and safety are three words that have both positive and negative connotations. The tabloid press loves to feed the notion of uber-regulation and nanny state gone mad with questionable stories about overzealous council health and safety officers stopping children playing outside or going on school trips. These stories—often mixed in with more than a dash of anti-European prejudice about Brussels’ interference and EU regulation—make great headlines, but negatively feed the public consciousness to the point that we all forget the positive role that health and safety officers manage in the workplace for the good of both the employer and the employee. It was only a century ago that children were in the line of fire on a daily basis in the cotton industry, the so-called “dark Satanic mills” of William Blake’s Jerusalem, where infant mortality was high and education low.

The rise of health and safety as a discipline shadowed the ascendency of trade unionism and has not only kept workers safe, but also acted as a check and moral compass to thwart the excesses of market forces and capitalism in industrialized western Europe. It also introduced consequences to the unbridled pursuit of profit. These consequences come in the form of fines and, in extreme cases, imprisonment for the breach of health and safety regulations. The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act introduced in the UK in 2007 is the embodiment of penalties to punish companies whose corporate cultures are so at odds with the safety of their workers or customers that they would endanger life in pursuit of profit, either overtly or through willful negligence.

Health and safety also feeds into the total retail loss scenario of protecting brands from so-called non-malicious damage—that which they can do to themselves through their own actions or inactions. It is not always what is done that causes the damage, but what is not done to prevent it happening. A fatality in a store, for example, has long-term implications for a brand that may have spent years building a strong market reputation.

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In a number of high-profile cases, risk was not identified in time, health and safety regulations were not adhered to, or the in-store audit or paper trail was found wanting. In one recent tragedy, a four-year-old boy died when a giant mirror that was not secured to a changing room wall fell on him while his father tried on a suit.

In another case, a piece of masonry fell from the frontage of a store in strong winds killing a passerby. In the first case, the store was not able to demonstrate that it had complied with its own checks and was heavily fined as well as suffering a severe body blow to its international brand reputation. In the second case, however, the health and safety team were able to demonstrate that checks had been carried out regularly on the signage fixings that were attached to the affected masonry, so the store was absolved from responsibility for the death.

Elementary Health and Safety

If Sherlock Holmes were a real detective, as opposed to a fictional character, he would take no time at all working out why A.S. Watson, the major international health and beauty retailer, remains at the top of its game as far as health and safety is concerned. “Why, it is elementary, my dear Watson,” he would rebuke his long-serving and suffering sidekick as he offered a lengthy explanation as to why a company that operates in fifty countries, employs 120,000 people (12,800 of whom are in its native Hong Kong), and made almost $158 billion in 2015, has a healthy outlook. It has, he would point out, put corporate governance at the center of its being and, especially in the case of A.S. Watson, its very “well-being.”

In its own words, “At A.S. Watson, our brand is embedded into our DNA. We engage in a management style that promotes teamwork as well as a scientific mentality in our decision-making.” In other words, the company forensically manages its brand portfolio expecting the best of its people and its customers, whether they work at Superdrug, Savers, or the Perfume Shop in the UK, Dragus in Lithuania, Spektr in Russia, or at any of their other stores.

Part of the giant telecom group CK Hutchison Holdings, A.S. Watson is well known in the UK for Superdrug, Savers, and the Perfume Shop. Superdrug, which is one of the UK’s biggest health and beauty brands, alone employs 14,000 staff in the UK and Ireland.

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So if corporate governance—managing your brand carefully and strategically—lies within the DNA of the business, who are the gatekeepers, the individuals who provide the cultural compass?

A.S. Watson’s Estate

Darryl Parker is head of health and safety at Superdrug, Savers, and the Perfume Shop (TPS). He and his team are responsible for hundreds of Superdrug stores, Savers, and TPS outlets, as well as managing the risk at two distribution center (DCs) and one trunking operation.

A Yorkshireman through and through, Parker took a circuitous journey to retail. From an industrial and health background, he built his career in the Sheffield steel mills and, more recently, the National Health Service where he cut his teeth on health and safety and welfare issues. Health and safety is a group function at A.S. Watson that brings a consistency of approach across a diverse product range, from hairspray to handsets.

Although it sounds like a tall order, Parker applies an intelligence-led model to map risk across the UK. “We uniform and risk model the stores and manage the issues by applying science and consistency. When we have an incident we use an incident reporting model, which enables us to react accordingly. It is intelligence-led and identifies where the risks lie and how to manage them with uniformity. In short, there should be no surprises. It is about the culture of the company—it comes from the very top of the organization,” explained Parker as we sit in an office overlooking the vast warehouse space at Superdrug’s cavernous distribution center in Dunstable, where high-visibility clothing, hard hats, and high-bay materials handling equipment is the order of the day, every day.

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“It is all about consistency, whatever the product or store or brand,” he added. “The risk management team looks at everything and anything from fire safety to asbestos or bad weather damage to our properties, to fleet drivers on the road, traffic or store accidents involving staff or customers—there are no two days the same as we put in place the procedures and protocols to make our stores a safe place to shop and keep our staff safe, wherever they are.”

An example of a health and safety officer’s diverse day job came a few days before our meeting, when his team was called to investigate a suspected carbon monoxide alert, which was something that had never reared its head before. But, true to form, the issue was managed safely with no harm to staff or customers.

Consequently, there is no such thing as a typical week for the head of health and safety, although Parker attempts to build some structure into the week for himself and his team that is comprised of health and safety managers, fire safety officers, and additional administrative support. The team is rather like Swiss army knives in terms of their multiple memberships, qualifications, and accreditations in health and safety—from IOSH (the Institute of Occupational Safety & Health) to IEMA (Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment) to RICS (Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors). Indeed, being part of the health and safety community is rather like learning another language comprising mainly of acronyms such as RIDDOR—the Reporting of Injuries Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations—one of the main guiding codes to which all practitioners in the UK must adhere.

“We have everything from Victorian terraces and listed buildings to shopping centers and state-of-the-art modern units in London’s exclusive Shard building, for example, so the buildings themselves can keep us busy making sure they are safe environments for customers and staff alike. With older buildings, there are inherent risks when you start adapting them as you may uncover asbestos, for example.”

Secondly, Superdrug is a retailer dealing with multiple other risks, including prescribed and over-the-counter (OTC) products and services. It also operates out of hours, and its pharmacy units manage needle exchange programs, while off the shelf it sells do-it-yourself hairdressing and skin care products and offers health advice to customers, all of which can, if not managed properly, carry their own health warning.

Parker’s day job does not start and end with the hundreds of thousands of products and services or even with the operating-at-height regulations in the numerous DCs and warehouses under his control. His job provides the health check for staff procedures, including left-field areas of the business such as A.S. Watson’s fleet drivers and, more importantly, its “gray fleet” drivers, those members of staff who use their own vehicles on company business. This could be moving stock between stores or his own role: a health and safety officer traveling the length and breadth of the country. But the rules are clear: drivers must have their driving licenses checked as well as making sure that their vehicles are roadworthy and that the insurance policies they drive under cover business use. Parker must make sure that drivers are safe during their journeys and that they are not breaching the laws on the use of mobile phones and satellite navigation or other distractions. Any route deviation from this compliance journey could end up in a head-on collision with a corporate manslaughter writ, purely because a business could not show the correct audit trail—it had not adequately trained or communicated its fleet procedures to ensure compliance.

Primary Authority Status

As a national UK retailer with more than 1,500 stores crossing a number of local authority, police force, and fire brigade boundaries, A.S. Watson needed to ensure that its policies and procedures applied equally from Fort William to Falmouth, Norwich to Neath, a tall order when different environmental health and safety officers apply different rules and regulations in different parts of the country. A.S. Watson was at the vanguard of driving a consistency message with the establishment of what is now known as the primary authority status. This meant that one local and fire authority could assess and sign off its fire and environmental procedures so that if an enforcement notice was applied in a different part of the country, the primary authority could overrule the decision to avoid inconsistency.

“We work with Slough for health and safety and Merseyside for our fire risk,” said Parker, a lifelong Liverpool fan. “Primary authority provides us with a powerful audit tool, which is helpful across our broad estate and keeps health and safety uppermost in people’s minds,” he said. “It means that when we are carrying out any work on a roof, for example, the same protocols apply across 2,000 other roofs, and that consistency offers the clarity that helps us to protect staff, customers, and premises.”

“Although accidents are an inevitable part of retail industry, they are in context part of a process and, as such, managed on a scale of seriousness from category A (loss of life)—which we would always fully investigate—to less serious in-store incidents that can be managed on a regional level through our large risk management team. Consequently, our RIDDOR rates are half of the industry standard, a figure we are extremely proud of and something we achieve by working closely with the teams to reinforce health and safety messages every day. As I said, it is all part of the culture.”

This proactive approach includes dealing with new phenomenon including the health and safety risks around store events. “We have held conferences to provide advice on the pre-Christmas Black Friday, for example, and to make sure that temporary staff taken on over the festive period are fully inducted in health and safety. In addition, the team carries out monthly meetings, training, and development with new store managers as part of the bigger picture of keeping them safe. We are all about assisting the business rather than a barrier to sales objectives. It is about business culture, and as head of safety, I take it very seriously.”

Apart from internal policies, Parker and his team have reached out for wider industry support. A.S. Watson has formed a collaborative partnership with Liverpool John Moores University, which delivers undergraduate courses to future UK enforcement officers.

In this capacity, Parker has been undertaking guest lectures for a number of years covering various risk management topics. This was a role he first undertook in his previous job as group health and safety manager at value retailer Matalan, a title he held for just under a decade.

“Since I joined A.S. Watson, there is a real appetite in the business to build and develop my long-term relationship with the university, and we have hosted seminar days to get regulators and retailers in a room to play out scenarios, so everybody gets a true perspective from both sides on management and enforcement of safety in retail.”

Another extracurricular learning tool has been Parker’s involvement with ORIS Forums, the not-for-profit retail groups that share intelligence and best practice to reduce retail risks. As the chair of the ORIS Health and Safety Forum, Parker regularly shares information with his competitors to raise the safety standards across the broader retail industry.

“I was proud to be elected chair of the Forum. Although we are all competitors, around the table we share the common goal of being responsible for the health, welfare, and brand reputation of our companies. And while individually we understand our businesses, we need to work together to share best practice to prevent accidents and protect our staff and customers.

“During the last year, I have learned a lot from my peers and been able to share my experience with them. It is a very collaborative approach.” Now living in Runcorn with his wife and grown daughter, both of whom work in caring professions, Parker lives and breathes health and safety and relishes the task of managing the risk of the world’s biggest beauty retailer, a role that is a far cry from the dystopian view portrayed in the tabloid press.

A.S. Watson’s approach to health and beauty is well documented across the world, but it is its attention to detail around health and safety where its reputation extends beyond elementary. It is hardwired into the cultural DNA of the organization and physically embodied in the role of its dedicated personnel who not only evangelize about its importance to the business, but also practice what they preach.

This article originally appeared in LP Magazine EU in 2015 and was updated May 18, 2016.

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