Health and Safety is ‘just right’ for me!

Case Study: Barbara Derecka - JBT Food Tech

Barbara Derecka is a HSE Manager for JBT Food Tech. In this interview Barbara explains why health and safety is the perfect career for her and shares her tips for anyone with similar aspirations.

What made you decide health and safety was the career for you?

Before I discovered health and safety, I gained experience in a range of disciplines including finance, logistics, continuous improvement and quality. I kept switching roles because nothing seemed to be ‘just right’ for me. You spend too much time at work to do something you don’t enjoy so, like Goldilocks, I kept trying new things hoping to find my perfect match! For me finance and logistics didn’t offer enough variety, and though continuous improvement could be great, it very much depended on the project and its associated budget.

The path to health, safety and environmental management opened for me in 2013, when I moved to the UK and secured a role in quality. Over time I slowly drifted from quality towards health and safety as I found I enjoyed it more. Health and safety is nothing like how it is often portrayed; it is not prescriptive and all about rules and regulations.  I have found it to be a career that offers real variety and challenge. To create safer workplaces, you must work with others to problem solve and innovate. I am naturally a very curious person who asks lots of questions. I like deep diving into problems to try to solve and improve things, so I suppose my natural tendencies make me a good fit.  

How and when did you get your first break in the industry?

Before I left Poland, I completed a top up to my master’s degree which was a Level 7 qualification in integrated management systems. I enjoyed it and it helped me secure a role in a HSEQ department when I moved to the UK. My role was initially focused on quality, document control and maintaining ISO systems. However, as my employer was certified to three standards, including OHSAS 18001, I gained experience in occupational health and safety through my auditing responsibilities. Health and safety was officially added to my role when a colleague retired.

You chose to complete both the national and international general certificate. What made you pick these certificates and what did you gain from taking both variants?

After being promoted to HSEQ supervisor, I decided I should enrol on my first NEBOSH course – the NEBOSH National General Certificate - to improve my knowledge and understanding of health and safety best practice.

In 2017, I secured a new role with a different employer as HSE Manager for the EMEA region. I was responsible for four companies located in four different countries: the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, and Romania. It made sense for me to take the International General Certificate to supplement the National General Certificate, which is a UK orientated qualification. I hoped having an international qualification would help me in discussions with authorities and auditors in the countries I was responsible for. I discovered that attaining the International General Certificate meant I met the competent person requirements of VCA audits in the Netherlands.    

You went on to complete the NEBOSH Fire and Environmental Certificates too. How did these qualifications benefit you? 

Health and safety is a very wide discipline, and responsibilities can vary depending on the company, industry, and size of the organisation you work for. You can be responsible for just a small part of health and safety management or have a very wide remit which combines disciplines including fire, environmental management, quality, facilities management, security, wellbeing, and mental health.

I took the NEBOSH Fire and Environmental certificates because my role was a mix of everything. The knowledge I gained from the Fire Certificate helped me validate fire evacuation plans, conduct fire emergency preparedness assessments and implement suitable controls. My Environmental Certificate helped me understand the legal requirements, aspects and impacts, and life cycle analysis which were needed for ISO 14001 implementation.  

You went on to complete both the NEBOSH Environmental and Health and Safety Diplomas – what motivated you to do this?

I think that at some point every health and safety professional starts asking one question – what’s next? What do I need to do to get better and do more? My answer was to take my NEBOSH Diplomas. They gave me the knowledge I needed to manage complex health and safety situations effectively and increased my self-confidence in giving health and safety and environmental advice. For me completing these qualifications filled in many of the pieces of the puzzle of being a great health and safety manager. 

NEBOSH Diplomas are industry recognised qualifications that really matter to many employers, so attaining them increases your employability. Many completely new opportunities became options for me after completing these qualifications.  A NEBOSH Diploma also helps you achieve CertIOSH and CMIOSH status.

What would your advice be to Certificate holders considering taking their development to the next level?

Studying at diploma level requires a lot of time and commitment. It is a good idea to warn your family and friends that you may require their understanding and support while you are studying!

Make sure you access material from a wide range of sources to support your learning. Participate in health and safety events and conferences to keep up to date on the latest developments and utilise resources from reliable websites such as the Health and Safety Executive.

Did you attend a NEBOSH Graduation and how did you find it?

To celebrate completing both of my Diplomas I attended the NEBOSH Graduation ceremony in September 2022.  It was inspirational to see how many people graduated at the same time as me. It was special to be with peers who also want to change the world by making workplaces safer and healthier places to be.

You hope that the numbers graduating also indicate that organisations want professionals to manage health and safety and are seeking suitably qualified candidates or are supporting their employees’ studies.

You are always adding new knowledge and skills. Do you have any tips for keeping focused and motivated and for selecting what options are right for you?

I believe that since the world is constantly changing, I need to be constantly improving my skills as well. This is why I am always learning new things and undertaking qualifications and courses. If you are scanning for new developments in the industry this helps you identify gaps in your knowledge and what should be next in terms of your educational pipeline. 

What is next, in terms of your own professional development?

I am currently completing an MBA course to develop leadership and commercial skills that are necessary for more senior managerial roles.  My education in health and safety and environmental disciplines hasn’t finished just yet though. I’m considering undertaking a Masters degree later this year in occupational health and safety or a combination of both disciplines. In the meantime, I am looking to complete either NEBOSH’s wellbeing or stress management qualification.

How have your NEBOSH qualifications helped you?

Completing my NEBOSH qualifications allowed me to gain knowledge and build self-confidence. Through my studies I have also extended my professional network where I can share issues related to my work and learn from and support others.  I believe that my NEBOSH qualifications massively accelerated my career.  

You now work as a HSE Manager for JBT Food Tech – can you tell us a little bit about the company and your role there?

JBT Group is a leading global technology solutions provider to high-value segments of the food processing industries. JBT has offices in more than 100 countries and is growing both organically and by acquisitions. I am responsible for two of its subsidiary companies that both manufacture machinery, Autocoding Ltd and Proseal UK.

I spend most of my time at Proseal UK, which designs and manufactures high quality tray sealing and conveying systems. A variety of activities take place on site including metal working production, assembly and tooling, transport, and support functions. These wide-ranging activities and the large and engaged workforce make my work very dynamic.  From a health and safety perspective it is a perfect place to work.

What do you enjoy most about working in Health and Safety?

Every single day is different. I’m involved in setting up strategy, investigating accidents and incidents, conducting site safety walks, completing audits, analysing statistics, implementing improvements, observing processes to identify improvements, conducting risk assessments, and developing and delivering training.  Sometimes all of this takes place in one day! This is a very dynamic profession, and this is why I love it.

What would you recommend to someone who is just starting out on their H&S career?

Open your mind and the minds of others to what health and safety is all about. Some still have a misconception that we are blockers who see workplaces in black and white. This is not accurate, and we need to show this through our passion and professionalism.

This is not a desk job, and you need to get out and about to understand what is needed from a health and safety perspective. We need to put on our safety boots and PPE to experience what others experience. We need to talk and listen to people to understand their challenges and propose changes that will improve things.

Sometimes it’s going to be hard, sometimes you will have a feeling that the entire world is against you. When I have these moments, I look at what I have accomplished already and the impact changes I have recommended have had.

Health and safety is so diverse. Every day is different and the transferable skills you develop means you can work in any industry so the world is your oyster.

This is extremely rewarding career. Invest in yourself and learn, learn, and learn!