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A Day in the Life of Phil Roberts

26 October 2016

Each issue HSM speaks to a member of the BOHS about the challenges and rewards of working as an occupational hygienist. This issue we talk to HM specialist inspector of occupational hygiene for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Phil Roberts.

How early do you rise?

Pretty early (four and one year old sons help with this!) about 6 am. I help my wife get the boys ready and if I’m going to the office I aim to be on the road for 8am.  If I am visiting a site I will usually be en route earlier as I tend to have an ongoing battle with junctions 18-20 of the M6!

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

I’ve always been an early bird, my mother used to say it was because I was so nosey that I didn’t want to miss anything. These days I have a lot to do before I start work, but I feel that I get the most during mornings, due to higher energy levels, fresh coffee etc. If I am visiting a company I always try to get there as early as possible so I can take a look at as much as I can, and get a representative view of any process.

What do you do?

I am a specialist inspector for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). I am a trained health and safety inspector, but my specialist area is occupational hygiene. I have an MSc in Occupational Hygiene from the University of Manchester, and am a Chartered Member of the Faculty of Occupational hygiene within BOHS. My role has a number of strings including research, policy and guidance development, but the majority of my time is spent assisting HSE’s regulatory inspectors in areas related to occupational hygiene, for example exposures to carcinogens, respirable crystalline silica and other substances hazardous to health.

Where do you work?

I work for HSE, the regulatory body for Health and Safety in UK industry, and my role is to assist regulatory inspectors in issues that may result in ill health for employees as a result of exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace. HSE covers all of the UK, but I am based in Bootle, Merseyside and I assist in the Midlands and south of England. HSE has a number of offices around the UK and we try to have an occupational hygiene specialist inspector in close proximity to support each one.

What does a typical day entail for you?

My days are very different, which is something I thoroughly enjoy, and therefore they pass very quickly as I tend to have a number of things on the go at the same time. If I am in the office then I try to get in for 8.30am, and once I have a coffee at the ready I begin to get on with business. Office based work includes writing visit reports, speaking with colleagues about ongoing cases, contacting dutyholders and also preparing for any upcoming visits. As a specialist inspector I also have a duty as an expert witness to the court for any HSE prosecutions. This involves providing an independent expert opinion on a case and writing a report that can be used in court. If requested we can be called to the court during the case, and be questioned on the report.

If I am on a site visit then my day will probably start a little earlier (and finish a little later) as I will need to travel to the site, and ensure I have all of the correct information and inspection kit if required. A typical site visit will involve a brief introductory meeting with the dutyholder to explain the visit, and then I try to look at the process as soon as possible and for as long as I can. I will then summarise any issues with the dutyholder, take any immediate action that is required i.e. enforcement, and let them know what happens next. Site visits can be beneficial for both parties and we try to assist the dutyholder as much as possible by providing advice on what they could/should be doing to control worker exposures. I find that in the majority of cases the dutyholder appreciates the advice we provide.

What is your favourite piece of work equipment?

As I am only on site for a relatively short amount of time there are a few little tools that can be used quickly and provide a visual demonstration of where control equipment may not be functioning as well as it could. These are a dust lamp, smoke tubes and an anemometer (a piece of kit used to measure airflow on extraction systems). The dust lamp can be used to show a dutyholder where airborne particles are present in the workplace and, along with a bit of smoke from the smoke tubes, we can demonstrate the path the air takes during the process, for example when sanding wood, and can then conclude whether the control system is adequate. These relatively simple visual demonstrations have a positive impact on the dutyholder.

What would you be lost without in work?

My colleagues and professional contacts. One of the most interesting aspects of being an occupational hygienist is that there are so many different processes, which may present an exposure to a hazardous substance, that it is impossible to know the best control option for all of them. This is why it is very important to have a good network of contacts that can assist. I am very fortunate to work within HSE as we have a number of occupational hygiene specialists who have a wealth of knowledge. It is a case of picking up the phone and having a chat with them to ensure we are advising on the best control option. As a member of BOHS I can also rely on a network of peers who are always willing to assist. The good thing about occupational hygienists is that we all tend to enjoy the challenge of providing the correct control solution for a process we may be unfamiliar with.

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

I enjoy a good rapport with my work colleagues and we have a good laugh in the office, but one example of a recent incident always makes me chuckle. I will not include names to protect those concerned (especially as one is a member of my management team). On a visit to a site in the north of England we stayed in a hotel overnight. In the morning I told my colleague I would pick him up in front of the hotel and I informed him what my car looked like. I waited at the front of the hotel for a few minutes, but he did not appear. I then spotted him getting out of a similar car in front of me, apologising profusely to the driver. I can only imagine what the driver of that car was thinking as a man dressed in a dark woollen jacket and a dark woolly hat clambered into the back and shouted ‘Right, let’s go’. Still makes me laugh now.

What is the best part of your day?

It is all dependent on what I have been doing on the day. If I have been working on a report or presentation then there is always that moment when it has been completed, signed off and a line can be drawn under it. However, I think the most rewarding part of my role is when I am on site and I can demonstrate to the dutyholder that they can improve the control system by taking relatively simple measures, and how this will reduce the risk of ill health for their employees. Employers often think that to improve the system will cost thousands of pounds, but in a lot of cases relatively simple, inexpensive improvements can be made. It always feels good leaving a site when you know the employer has understood your suggestions and is confident they can implement the changes accordingly to protect their workers.

What advice would you give a person thinking of becoming an occupational hygienist?

I would advise them to seriously consider it. If they have a scientific, engineering or health and safety background and enjoy problem solving, meeting new people, helping to improve the health of workers and earning a good living as well, then - do a bit of research, contact BOHS and speak directly to a hygienist if possible. No day is ever the same, in a good way.