Chris Evans - Making NZ a safer place

Sunday, December 17, 2017

In the January-February issue this year we announced the appointment of Chris Evans as health and safety stakeholder manager at EROAD. We were intrigued by the appointment and impressed with Chris’ credentials. Spend half an hour chatting with him and you’ll want to turn it into one hour, then two, then three ...

From the moment we heard about the appointment we were keen to learn more about the man and the position, and when you listen to Chris Evans’ work resume you wonder how he’s ended up here in New Zealand. In a roundabout way we have Waiheke Island to thank for that – which we’ll get to later. Another reason was EROAD’s thinking about the job scope: ‘...to influence the health and safety thinking of a nation’, which as a concept was simply too juicy to pass up. And he may just be the right man at the right time. A couple of sentences in a white paper Chris recently wrote read,

“The key lies in assurin competency, which comes from a blend of knowledge and skill, obtained through experience and training”.

Is that music we can hear? Read on.

“Team members are much more likely to retain knowledge by being shown and then doing the task themselves – and even more likely if they are being taught by a colleague, particularly a peer.”

Okay, so now there’s a full-blown choir singing. After reading that you can be slightly forgiving of the fact that Chris will still cringe if you mention ‘common sense’, but the reality is, this affable man, willing to genuinely listen to what you have to say, seems to have a grip on how the bulk of the driving industry’s most skilled and respected exponents were taught their craft – and, more importantly – places true value on it. Part of that may have its roots in the fact he is the son of a truck driver.

Chris was raised in the Midlands, in England. His father, Bob, drove a concrete mixer for most of his working life in both fleet and owner driver situations. Chris recalls that he and his siblings were on a weekend roster as to who spent the day with Dad.

“Not only was riding in his truck fun, it gave you an insight and respect for what Dad did.”

Chris graduated university with a degree in chemical engineering, but found out shortly after putting it to use that, in reality, it was too much about chemicals and engineering (cigarette filter development in his case), and not really about people. One undergraduate paper Chris had found interesting was on industrial safety. A mate steered him toward Paisley University in Glasgow, and a master’s programme they were running on the very subject, and off he went.

Unlike his fellow graduates, Chris went straight after the senior safety roles in bigger companies. He wanted to influence policy and execution directly rather than enforce a prescription; however there were lots of rejections on account of his inexperience. Chris then saw a role advertised at Wickes Building Supplies (like Bunnings here) for the national safety manager role, and decided to take a slightly more adventurous approach.

“I went and bought a folio and typed up a safety and security lockdown audit. I went into their Stoke branch and told the management I was from ‘health and safety’ and was there to do a site safety audit for the company. When I was asked at the interview what I knew about their business, I said ‘more than you think’, and plonked the audit on the table. Suffice to say it caused a bit of turmoil, but I got the job. Trouble is, when I asked the boss some weeks after starting if I could spend time at the coalface to better understand the issues, he said ‘Yep, report to Stoke on Monday.’ Things were a little tense at first to say the least, but after a clearing of the air a couple of days into it everything settled down. The manager and I went on to become great mates.”

Chris started at Wickes in April 1994 and quickly realised the inadequacy of a formal education when it comes to real world application. His learning curve was almost vertical.

“After a few days the boss asked me ‘Chris, what are you actually doing?’ ‘Waiting for instruction,’ I said. His response was clear and direct: ‘I’m paying you to be national safety manager, now get out there and manage safety!’ I realised then I had a mandate to effect and implement change. From that moment it was great.”

Two and a half years later at age 26, European logistics firm Christian Salvesen headhunted Chris. The role was initially head of health and safety in the food and consumer arm, but it wasn’t long before Chris was appointed to a group-wide position. As time went on he became progressively more disillusioned with the lack of hands-on work at a senior level and so cast his net out for something more ‘gritty’.

That opportunity came in the form of DHL (UK) in 2004, and a role that involved strategy, application and getting management on board with the health and safety programmes developed. Things got really ‘gritty’ when Deutsche Post, which owns DHL, bought the UK firm Excel Logistics. In the UK it was a David-buys-Goliath type of scenario (6,000 staff at DHL UK versus 110,000 staff at Excel). The company then wanted Chris to manage health and safety for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The job would have required him to be in three different countries every week with no guarantee of being home at the weekend. It was again time to reassess. Long stints without seeing wife Kim and their daughter Rebecca was not an option.

It happened that DHL had recently taken on a 4th party logistics (4PL) contract in the Middle East for Petroleum Development Oman (PDO), an exploration and production company in the Sultanate, 60% owned by the government. Chris asked if he could take this role and move the family out there and head the health and safety programme. So in May 2006 it was to the golden sands they headed.

Once again it was a steep learning curve – for everyone. PDO had brought in DHL on account of their logistical expertise, but oil field logistics – moving 250 tonne rigs etc – was totally new ground. The 4PL was the new kid amongst the seasoned third party providers, with no direct authority over them. “It was a case of management by persuasion” as Chris puts it. The experience proved a great learning tool, replacing a traditional dictatorial approach with one of understanding, where everyone gets the ‘why’.

“I always go back to first principles,” says Chris. “A law or regulation is there for a reason and if you can work out why it is there, you can generally work out what the risk is, and say ‘how then can we control that risk’. You can apply that principle to almost anything.”

In 2007 Chris left DHL to work for PDO directly, specialising in managing road safety across 55,000 company and contractor employees.

“There were a lot of issues around driving and speeding. With long stretches of straight road in the desert some folk stay in the opposing lane to avoid continually diving in and out to overtake, choosing instead to return to their lane only when there’s oncoming traffic.”

The year Chris started, 26 people within the ranks of company and associated contractors had been killed in driving and vehicle-related incidents. Historically, health and safety systems had been developed and applied on a ‘knee-jerk’ reactive basis rather than a proactive mind-set.

Chris made a request to the board for a year’s grace to enable him to develop sound systems, processes, and training practices to avoid repeating the patch-up mentality. The result was the implementation of a practical hands-on driver training programme for the workforce in order to solve the shortfalls found in many foreign drivers’ competency. A driving assessment scheme – independent of the training – was implemented, and the assessors had a mandate to only pass the best 80% of drivers they assessed – essentially moving the bell curve continuously and driving the pass mark ever higher. This was complemented by an internal, company and contractor-wide road safety policing force able to impose contract fines and stand-downs. The result in the succeeding years were stunning, with two stints of 500 million kilometre being driven without work-related fatal incidents. Their management team became significantly more competent and new robust investigation processes fleshed out the root cause of incidents instead of just the perpetrator.

By the time Chris left PDO last year he was one of a few senior health and safety managers in the business who managed a team of 240 health and safety professionals. He also played a central role in the development of new health and safety national standards and was devising a health and safety apprenticeship scheme for the country.

The departure from Oman was for family reasons. “We’d been out there a long time and frankly the heat was getting to the family.” Having spent a number of holidays on Waiheke Island staying with Kim’s sister, Lucy, and with Rebecca now in nearby Tasmania, New Zealand seemed an obvious choice.

“Finding work wasn’t straightforward,” said Chris. “mainly due to being an unknown entity in New Zealand. The EROAD job selection process was rigorous as they have a policy of employing only the best in any field. The thought of working with small and medium enterprises as well as the big boys was really appealing, but what clinched it for me was the ‘influence the thinking of a nation’ line. I’ve worked in some pretty big organisations but the thought of influencing the behaviour of an entire country is too good an opportunity to miss. Initially I looked at the internal safety culture, making sure it’s aligned to what we then take outside.”

Chris’ role will be to ensure that not only is EROAD’s product suite delivering data that supports a best practice health and safety programme, but also to support its customers to ensure their health and safety programmes are best practice, enabling them to make optimal use of the data that’s available. Chris Evans is an interesting appointment and there’s no doubt that he’s a vastly experienced and valuable addition to the health and safety ranks, both at EROAD and nationally.

But with statements like “A system that focuses on simplicity and is sustainable for your health and safety culture, size, complexity, and risk profile will deliver the best safety outcome for your organisation”, he may just be a golden arrow in EROAD’s quiver.