Joe Docherty - Why I wanted to become vice chair of Safer Highways

Joe Docherty is a man anyone would want on their team. Enthusiastic and effective, he speaks with passion about an industry he clearly loves beyond the many responsibilities of the day job.

That is one of the many reasons he has just taken on the role of Vice Chair of Safer Highways and he is looking to further support the organisation as it enters a period of growth and development, resulting in a raft of new members since the start of year and a list of several important programmes, such as the on-going industry-led Stamp It Out campaign-set up to eradicate abuse of road workers.

As a member of the Executive Team for Transport Infrastructure at Amey, he leads on ensuring the health, safety, and wellbeing of the Highways, Waste Collections, Power Major Projects and Rail sectors which span geographically across the UK and Ireland.

Having been one of the founder members of Safer Highways, he is keen to lend his experience to help support the organisation in its next phase of development.

“We are very much at the point now where Safer Highways has hit a rich vein with lots of activity that goes across both the local and strategic networks and from tier 1 to tier 3. For me, this success goes right back to the beginning of Safer Highways and the ethos of all members companies leaving egos at the door. What that does is enable honesty and integrity and enables the industry to get together, competitors or not, to collaborate and deliver better ways of working around health, safety and wellbeing. Commercialism and safety performance shouldn’t come into it-Safer Highways is driven by collaboration, innovation and communicating both of those effectively to the wider highways sector, with a goal of shared learning, best practice and outcomes.”

Mr Docherty thinks the important work on mental health that Safer Highways has undertaken over the past few years has been ‘game-changing’ for the sector. “It has opened the door for discussions on the subject in an industry that didn’t speak about these things before. But more importantly, it has been about changing the approach to how we address mental health and how we communicate that effectively.”

"The change started in 2008 with Dame Carol Black’s report into improving health, work and wellbeing set out recommendations for reform. The Review Team also commissioned a supplementary report on mental health and work because mental health problems have a greater impact on people’s ability to work than any other group of disorders. While the work was fundamental in helping to bring about change, it wasn’t until the independent review of mental health and employers by Lord Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farmer that we saw the true impact and the challenge which lay ahead.. Thriving at Work sets out what employers can do to better support all employees, including those with mental health problems to remain in and thrive at work. It includes a detailed analysis that explores the significant cost of poor mental health to UK businesses and the economy as a whole. In 2017, it was calculated that poor mental health costs employers between £33 billion and £42 billion a year, with an annual cost to the UK economy of between £74 billion and £99 billion.

"The realisation of the founding members of the impact of mental and wellbeing has across our sector was the catalyst for Safer Highways to be established. Now, the organisation has just launched its third Thriving at Work Mental Health survey aiming to yet again improve on the sample it took last year of the 250 biggest organisations who work, not only on the strategic road network, but also who serve to maintain our local roads to establish where we, as a sector, sit against the Thriving at Work report. The intention now is to benchmark that work against other sectors, firstly starting with in the infrastructure industry and then other industries completely.

“It’s a chance to go further still,” says Mr Doherty. While we have a wide representation in the survey, we still don’t reach every part of the sector so there is work to do there, especially around those working on or helping support the local networks and direct delivery models. The work undertaken around mental health to date is something Safer Highways should be proud of as it is making a difference in a big way and the amount of organisations in the sector that are benefitting from that work is phenomenal.”

Mr Docherty also believes because it is independent, Safer Highways will play an important role in helping the industry collaborate further. “As an industry, we still need to be focusing on changing from an outputs-based sector to outcomes and that only comes if you firstly collaborate effectively and then communicate what you are doing and the reasons why you are doing it. With a collaborative approach to shared outcomes that’s when you see sparks of innovation and develop new ways of working. Through the work of the Highways Sector Council, we are getting a step closer to securing a sector deal but there is more work to do. It isn’t easy in highways. Unlike rail, aviation and maritime there is no real rulebook for highways to assess standards and ways of working-nothing that holds infrastructure companies collectively to account and I think we need to consider whether we want to have that moving forward if we want to drive standards and work more collaboratively as a sector.”

Equally, Mr Docherty says, communication in the industry also has to get better.

“I don’t think any company in the industry can afford to adopt the silent approach. How can you influence and effect change unless you become part of the that and using your voice to tell people why we are here and what the benefits are of our work is.

“That is why Safer Highways is so important for Amey. Firstly, it has enabled us to collaborate more and more effectively with the SMEs who have an approach and flexibility that any Tier 1 contractor could only dream of. Secondly, it has enabled us to lift our head up as an organisation and see what is around us. Amey has become a trusted partner in the communities that we work and serve, meaning we have the ability to influence and bring about change. Being a part of Safer Highways means we can learn from other members and share what we are doing. It is so important to remember that no one company has the answer to everything so learning from each other is a vital part of collaborating effectively.”

That is also why being an integral part of campaigns such as Stamp It Out is so important for Amey. “There is a real focus by the team to ensure Stamp It Out changes the approach the treatment of roadworkers and beyond the obvious harm it is causing our workers, it is another example of collaboration at its best with a real outcomes-based approach to changing something collectively and identifying new ways of working. I like how each of the Safer Highways’ programmes although different in many ways, also feed into each other,” he adds. A good example is the work around incursions which has an obvious sinology with Stamp It Out.

Mr Docherty also thinks there is an important piece of work to be done around safety and design.

“I think there is a real opportunity with the way technology and innovation is moving at such a fast pace in the sector, to work on more effective ways of ‘designing out’ poor safety concerns and risk on projects before they even get to works on site,” he says. “If we can get that right, then we will see a real reduction in safety incidents because the risk should fall significantly. Once again, it will take collaboration to deliver it though.

He says he has learnt a lot that can be applied in highways from the other sectors Amey is involved with as a business.

“Rail is a new environment for me but already we are seeing a lot from some of their recent learnings in the art of the possible. Sustainability will also define us as an industry. We need to be credible in terms of what we are seeking to do here as a sector and not simply play lip-service to it. We need to deliver an output that is meaningful, create an environment where people want to continue to work and get all organisations that are responsible for managing our road networks to shift aside that cultural approach that has gone before and embrace new, sustainable ways of working that become ingrained in everything we do.”

Coming out the other side of covid-which was a challenging time for Safer Highways, but Mr Docherty thinks the organisation is in an even stronger position then before.

“It was important that the sector wasn’t paralysed by the pandemic and thankfully due to the commitment and hard work from all of our operational teams it wasn’t. It did mean Safer Highways did have to re-evaluate its focus and while at the same time build on what had been achieved before and move forwards. I think we have done that and came out stronger the other side. Now, in the new role as Vice Chair, my challenge is how do we appropriately pick up the pace and deliver even more?” While some of the work will be cross-sector and even in different industries in the future, there is still much Safer Highways can do in the highways sector before that is even considered-watch this space!!

Author - Adrian Tatum

Development Director

Safer Highways