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  • Writer's pictureSafer Highways

Applying knowledge from the aviation industry to a career in the construction industry


James Bird is studying for an MSc in Aviation Safety Management, Risk and Regulation (ASMRR). Here he talks about his career in the construction and infrastructure services industry, how learnings from the aviation industry can be applied to his sector, and how he’s finding balancing work and study.


You’re head of the strategic risk and behavioural safety at Kier Transportation. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey into that role?

I started my career training as a shopfitting joiner straight out of school. I loved traveling the country and solving problems of fitting new kit to existing buildings, some historical, but I was given a foreman’s role aged 19 which I desired but was way underprepared for, so I fell out of love with the job.

In my 20s I moved into the world of traffic management, putting the cones out on the motorway. I always struggled with the paperwork and working practices, constantly making suggestions how the process could be sped up, done more efficiently, made less back-breaking, less ‘annoying’, but my voice was never heard. The safety guy seemed to be the one who could change things, so I saw this as an opportunity, to ‘join them’ and be heard.

I did my NEBOSH Certificate and was fortunate enough to join EM Highways, which has been acquired by Kier, as a temporary safety advisor in London. I was given mentorship and opportunities to explore business and industry problems, work with institutions to develop my knowledge and experience while providing real-world solutions to the business – and the guys on the ground.

I progressed through the business – manager, and senior manager and then branched off into human and organisational factors (HOF), something not really known in our industry, and I had two years developing HOF for construction. This led to including risk management and systems getting me to where I am today, developing the business strategy for health, safety, and wellbeing.

Why did you choose the ASMRR MSc course?

As part of my journey, I have done a number of academic and industry courses. I have always found the content and syllabus of aviation and petrochem courses much more in-depth, mature, useful, and aligned to my way of thinking, than those of construction and infrastructure. As a high reliability organisation, it is important that Kier has mature academic content to help us build systems, processes, and equipment for the future of work. We have a partnership with the business school – where I attended the senior leader’s development programme, and the course has a good reputation.

How does the course fit in with your other commitments?

The content of the course even as an outsider to the aviation world is directly relevant to my role, and it is helping to fill knowledge gaps and stimulate thought on solving problems we are currently addressing. If you can mentally translate job roles and assets between industries the lessons you can learn and apply are invaluable. The time commitment is significant, but the business has given me the capacity for off-the-job hours as the learning is in parallel to our improvement developments.

What have been the highlights so far?

The risk module really helped crystallise how information and data flow within a system effectively, and campus visits – while not in aviation I am an aviation fan!

What are your plans upon graduating?

I would love to go on and do a Ph.D. but I am not sure my family would forgive me – talking about theories at teatime!

What is your favourite thing about Cranfield?

The connections to like-minded and interested people and the campus facilities.

What would you say to others in your industry?

Stick your head up above the parapet, and start reducing those unknown, unknowns! What are your thoughts about the future of safety in construction and infrastructure services? I think it’s a challenge similar to engineering and ground handling services. We have a lot of people doing manual things, sometimes well controlled and planned, sometimes transient and emergencies, but all involving humans making decisions. I think there is a real opportunity to improve how we get good quality information to those who need it, engineer, and automate solutions to remove people from hazards, change and improve our performance monitoring from avoiding accidents to driving reliability.

Is there anything else we should know about you? I always love a challenge, whether trying to hike up mountains in the Alps or the Atlas, learning to ski, completing a 100km adventure race, or continuing to play rugby at my local club.

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