Barbara Davenport, Head of Occupational Health at South West Trains explains the ins and outs of her job including the responsibility to ensure consistency of fitness standards for safety critical employees across the regions and how she changed hearing-safety standards by challenging an ancient law.
Performing first aid for factory workers injured after handling prosthetics seems a cruel irony, but this is exactly what Barbara Davenport did following a three year stint at St. George’s hospital in south London.
Davenport, who first qualified as a nurse in 1984, gave up on the artificial limbs business after just six months, however, deciding that shift-work wasn’t achieving the work/life balance she craved. Returning to the NHS in an Occupational Health post, paid dividends though and gave her the opportunity to balance home commitments with work, as well as offering her invaluable exposure to a holistic approach to providing healthcare advice.
After a year, Davenport took maternity leave and on reflection felt it was time to move elsewhere.
Railway OH was to be her next challenge and Davenport was faced with a wide remit:
“I had to set up a service which looked at managing sickness, monitoring absence and rolling-out counselling as well as conducting home-visits.”
Impressed by Davenport’s work, her former HR Director, who had by this time moved to South West trains recruited her in to manage a similar service.
“When I joined there was a welfare department with four people providing counselling support. The counselling function was restructured and I was brought in to work alongside the external Occupational Health provider.”
Daily ins and outs
Davenport explains that employees in safety-critical posts including train drivers must meet statutory requirements for fitness.
“Drug and alcohol testing is also a big issue. We randomly test 5% of staff in safety-critical posts every year, alongside pre employment and for cause testing.”
Today the OH outfit consists of a head of department and three doctors working four days a week on a shift basis together with two OH practice nurses who work full-time, one OH care adviser and two admin staff.
The team looks after a 5,300-strong workforce.
Re-deployment of ‘unfit’ workers is one of the most challenging elements of the job, Davenport admits.
“We have to conduct medicals on a periodic basis. There has always been a procedure to re-deploy people who are unfit to work in their current job but are fit enough to do something else within the business. It can be very hard to tell someone they haven’t met the required fitness standards.”
Assisting with the re-deployment process, Davenport has worked hard to remove some of the barriers that stop people being re-deployed effectively including the creation of job shops and helping HR to re-design the process to include a stricter time-scale for those taken off safety-critical jobs to secure alternative work.
“One of my main achievements has been to challenge the standards regarding the wearing of hearing-aids for workers in safety critical-roles.”
The Railway Safety and Standards Board ensure a consistent approach; all safety-critical workers must reach minimum levels for vision and hearing.
“There were forty people in safety-critical posts who failed to reach the hearing standard. That might not sound like a lot but I worked out that this was costing the business substantial sums in salary and cover costs.”
Davenport soon discovered that the clause had remained unchanged since the 1970’s.
Working with the RNID, representing those with hearing impairments she looked at the issues of safety-critical workers wearing hearing-aids.
A pilot was rolled out and a sample of workers fitted out with digital hearing aids.
“Following the trials, and with risk assessments in place, the scheme was found to be a success. So long as our staff working in safety-critical posts can reach the minimum hearing standards with aids in place then they can be deployed to work in those posts.”
Davenport tells me that the freedom to undertake projects to improve the bottom line and employee well-being is the job’s greatest asset.
“I’m currently looking at mental health issues using HSE guidelines. Managing stress in the workplace is an enormous issue and I find it very rewarding to look at the strategic business needs and see how OH can have an input.”
Why not OH?
Being tough on fitness, however, isn’t always as pleasant.
“It’s difficult dealing with employees who disagree with our findings. We often find that they have been certificated by their GP as unfit to work and we find the other. This can cause disputes and we have to involve managers to resolve the issues.”
Davenport explains that in most situations, OH leave the final decision to line’s managers discretion.
Davenport, herself has had a varied career and she advises would-be OH practitioners to get some wide-ranging experience under their belts.
“Working for the NHS is very different from working for a private company for instance and even within the private sector there can be degrees of difference. The railways for instance could be classified as light, industrial work.”
Davenport who completed a diploma in OH mid-career when it was made available, suggests this is a necessary pre-requisite to getting a foot on the ladder.
A strong constitution, an ability to deal with people, balance employee well-being with business needs and show care are qualities that Davenport doesn’t elude to but it is clear she has these in abundance and they in turn have helped her to the top as they may for others.