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A day in the life of Matthew Holder

02 May 2019

Each issue HSM puts the spotlight on a health and safety worker by speaking to a member of the British Safety Council about the challenges and rewards of working in this field. This time we talk to Matthew Holder.

What is your job, and where do you work?

I am head of campaigns and engagement at the British Safety Council, a safety, health and wellbeing charity based in London. 

What motivates you to get out of bed on a work day?

Working with people who care about the safety, health and wellbeing of people and who want to tackle injustices or inequalities associated with work. At the moment my motivation is all wrapped up in a campaign to better protect staff who work outdoors from the dangers of ambient air pollution. We’re calling it Time to Breathe and I’m really enjoying collaborating with workers, academics, business leaders, other campaigners, press and trade unions. 

What does a typical day entail for you?

There is no typical day. Generally though it will involve meeting with an external expert to look at research results and share ideas on how to develop the campaign. I could be meeting a business leader, discussing press opportunities with PR lead, preparing a presentation for a speech, planning launches or reporting progress. 

What is the top priority on your work agenda at the moment?

To make all businesses in the UK understand that ambient air pollution is a risk to their staff, particularly those who work outdoors and who drive and bring this topic top the attention of policy-makers. On top of this general awareness, my focus is to persuade as many businesses as possible in London to use Canairy, our new mobile app that gives outdoor workers and employers insights into pollution exposure and a tool to help tackle it. 

What skills are key to your role?

Infinite patience, creativity and passion. You campaign on those intractable issues that are subject to long-standing conflicting interests of various groups and stakeholders. This is unavoidable – you don’t campaign on easy-to-fix problems. The British Safety Council spent nearly 30 years campaigning for mandatory seat belt laws – so things can take a while! In practice writing is a core skill, video making is useful (I can create narrative, shoot, cast and edit) and public speaking. 

What route did you take to working in the field of health and safety? 

I worked as a policy officer in HSE before doing various communication jobs in other parts of the Civil Service, including on Climate Change for the FCO. I enjoyed the creative side of communicating – far more working on a message than digesting research reports. 

What advice would you give a person thinking of working in the health and safety industry?

Keep your eye on the real reason why health and safety is important: it’s a hard-won human right which, in an age of populism and the bottom-line, can be quickly rolled back. I say that it is thoroughly political (if not party political) and for me – when health and safety can seem technocratic or process-driven – this is important to hold onto. As Lawrence Waterman says, health and safety people are human rights activists!

When did you last laugh in work? What made you laugh?

With a colleague who when asked to do something impossible, replied ‘I do maintenance not miracles.’ Last time I cried – when I saw 70 people in Oxford Circus dressed at outdoor workers, calling out slogans with real passion and belief for our campaign launch. It was very moving – and I was exhausted!

What is the best part of working in your field?

Breakthroughs after a period of stasis. In campaigns, getting people onside to support or contribute is vital and for days or weeks it can seem that nothing is happening: suddenly you meet someone who gets it, is influential and can unlock something new. Good feedback from the people you are trying to help is the other best thing. 

What do you see as the biggest challenges to health and safety at work currently?

Brexit is a challenge – organisations holding off investing in people and, of course, the lack of certainty about the future regulatory framework. Changes to the workplace – for example increasing automation and growth of insecure contracts (gig working) – is already having a big impact on our health and wellbeing.