Career Spotlight - Steff Williams, a Farm-Hand to Global Safety Leader

by Sophia Darwin

At HSE Recruitment we work to develop long lasting relationships with our candidates and clients alike, and nothing delights us more than seeing someone's career progression and success.

We have known Steff for a number of years now and he is ever present at our HSE Leaders and roundtable events. He is from humble beginnings, starting out his working life as a farm hand in Scotland and through putting people first, determination and passion he is now a Global Safety Leader for Sonoco.

So Steff, How did you get started in a career in health and safety?

I had worked all of my career up until 2010 in direct operations (Transport, Warehousing and Logistics). As part of the Talent Management process run by Coca Cola when I worked for them, I was “identified” as being a Manager who always thought about people first – so whenever we looked at projects to increase productivity, reduce costs or structural changes etc, I was always the one to put the people card on the table for discussion. So as my career progressed, the suggestion was made to try some time in Health & Safety! My only regret is not doing it sooner – as I absolutely love it!


“I was 'identified' as being a Manager who always thought about people first”


What paths did you take to get into health and safety?

To be honest I had never even thought about a career in Health & Safety, despite having interacted with Safety departments throughout my various operations roles. I think my feeling was similar to others who do not work within H&S – that it was very complicated and burdened with red tape. Quite the contrary once you get into it!

Can you please tell us about your job now?

I currently work for Sonoco, who are a Hartsville, South Carolina head quartered organisation, and have nearly 400 locations around the Globe. We are an extremely diverse company, specialising in packaging virtually anything! I am responsible for two divisions in Europe, the first one being the Paper Division where we produce a heavy brown paper board which is then shipped to the other division who convert it into Tubes & Cores of all different shapes and sizes. I cover 35 operations across 16 countries, spread from Russia, through the Nordics, Central Europe, down into Greece, Turkey and the most recent operation in Saudi.
I have a team across the regions who support and deliver our agreed Safety Plans and Strategies, with our aim being to make our operations safer every day wherever we can.


“Our aim being to make our operations safer every day wherever we can”


What are the biggest challenges day-to-day for you as a health and safety professional?

Cultural differences – respecting the fact that people are different, it is very difficult trying to influence people’s way of thinking and doing in other countries, where the standards from a Health & Safety perspective are very different to the UK. This also makes my Safety Team’s role very difficult, because they know what I need them to do, and they have the task on a daily basis of implementation! As one example of differences, in Turkey the average amount of people killed at work on a monthly basis, is more than the UK suffers in one year – and that’s just the numbers that are actually known about.


“influence people’s way of thinking”


What do you find most rewarding about working in health and safety?

I often say to people – What can be more rewarding than making sure that your people do not get hurt, or are not made ill at work – and out of work where possible!
So the reward is far more reaching than just the single individual, because you are also helping their friends and families by keeping them safe and healthy. You only have to look at the effects a serious injury or illness has in someone’s life to continue driving Health and Safety with 100% passion and energy!

What do you feel is the most important thing when trying to get people on board with health and safety?

Making it personal. If you can get Health & Safety to become each person’s habit, you’ve cracked it! This is why I’ve made the reference earlier to what each person does in their personal lives – it makes the whole situation easier if they don’t have to think about “being different” when they arrive at work – it’s just “normal”.


“Get Health & Safety to become each person’s habit”


What would be your top tips for someone about to start out in health and safety?

Never be afraid of asking what may appear to be “obvious” questions about a process or task to fully understand why things are being done in a particular way. One of the most dangerous responses you will get is – “That’s the way we’ve always done it….” This does not mean it is the safest or most efficient way!
I also always encourage using the power of any type of Business Scorecard, which exists in every business, to measure performance in all areas. If you get Health & Safety in order, you improve all other areas of the business – Team Engagement, Better Productivity, Improved Quality, Less Absenteeism, Reduced Cost……and so on.
If this can be demonstrated from an early stage, the rest of your career will be much smoother! Not easier though, because it is relentless!!

What (in your opinion) makes a good Health and Safety professional?

Being pragmatic, open minded and approachable. Although the law is clearly set, and must be obeyed, the “traditional” Health & Safety Professional who would turn up with clip-board, and quote all of the legislation section by section is thankfully becoming a thing of the past. This type of approach, in my opinion, does not engage workforces, and actually does quite the opposite. Get to understand what challenges the teams face in their daily work, and work with them to find solutions – if the ideas come from them, they become far easier to implement and sustain.


“Pragmatic, open minded and approachable”


What is your career plan over the next five years?

I would ideally like to move into a Director role, in the same field of expertise – Health & Safety.

Thanks so much Steff for taking the time out to speak to us - if anyone has any questions for Steff, leave us a comment below!

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