"Health and safety professionals are fundamentally risk managers, as we are in the business of managing and mitigating risk!"

Case Study: Nicola Curtis

In our latest interview, we spoke to Nicola Curtis who is Head of Health & Safety at Biffa. Nicola explains how her interest in health, safety was peaked whilst working in the rail industry and what she did about it!

Nicola, you have worked at Biffa since 2021, can you tell us a little bit about the organisation?
With over 100 years of expertise, Biffa is an established leader in sustainable waste management in the UK. Its purpose is to change the way people think about waste and our team of over 11,000 employees provide unrivalled end-to-end waste and recycling solutions for thousands of businesses and millions of households each day.

What does your role as Head of Health & Safety at Biffa entail?
I work in the Resources and Energy division that looks at the “processing” side of the business. We manage landfill sites, convert landfill gas to energy, manage mechanical and biological treatment facilities, operate material recycling facilities and we’re at the cutting edge of new technologies with our polymers facilities. I have a diverse remit which also includes household waste recycling facilities and anaerobic digestion plants. This variety means no two days are the same and makes my job an enjoyable and rewarding one for me.

Where did your interest to work within health and safety and risk come from?
When I worked for a Train Operating Company (TOC) in Scotland, I started reading the Railway Safety Case. I was fascinated by the level of safety management that is rightly in place within the rail industry and I trace my interest being sparked back to then. From that point on, I have just wanted to learn more.

What made you chose the NEBOSH National General Certificate in Occupational Health and Safety as the start of your health and safety personal development journey?
I did a lot of research whilst working in the railway industry and the same answer kept coming up – if you want to get into safety the non-negotiable qualification you need to have to get in the door is the NEBOSH General Certificate. I was very fortunate to have a very supportive boss at the time who agreed to fund my National General Certificate studies at night school.

How did achieving this NEBOSH National General Certificate help you in your career?
My experience backed up what I had read as achieving the NEBOSH National General Certificate helped me to break into the profession. Studying in my own time demonstrated my drive and commitment and achieving the qualification showed I had valuable and relevant knowledge for the safety jobs I went on to apply for. I would say my NEBOSH General Certificate is the foundation of my journey in the world of safety.

You went to complete the NEBOSH HSE Certificate in Process Safety Management. Can you explain why you decided to take this qualification and how it has helped you?
I had been introduced to the concept of process safety when I worked in the utilities sector. When I moved into waste management it became a bigger part of my role, as I was leading a health and safety team supporting the build and management of Energy for Waste (EfW) plants. I was really keen to secure this qualification, so much so that I had my name down for the first ever course run at the Health and Safety Executive Laboratory in Buxton. I came out of studying this qualification with a changed perspective and was fully focused on process safety.

The NEBOSH HSE Certificate in Process Safety definitely enhanced my career. I started to look at safety at my facilities differently and made it my mission to increase everyone else’s knowledge of process safety. It is integral to how my part of Biffa works, so this qualification had a huge impact for me and our operations – it was a win-win for all of us!

You recently chose to take the NEBOSH IIRSM Certificate in Managing Risk how did you find it?
After studying for my NEBOSH General Certificate, I went on to complete my post-grad in safety and risk management, so risk management has always been close to my heart! It is one of my favourite subjects and is on a par with process safety!

For me, health and safety professionals are fundamentally risk managers, as we are in the business of managing and mitigating risk! This made studying the NEBOSH IIRSM Certificate in Managing Risk a natural choice.

This qualification gives a good grounding of the management of risk within an organisation from a broader perspective than safety alone.

What do you enjoy most about your health and safety career?
I like working in a supportive role to my operational colleagues. I see my role in health and safety as an integral cog in the success of us all and the company. We are not a standalone function, we need to embed ourselves in the work of operations to understand it so we can make a difference.

Choosing to make health and safety my career has led me to have so many great opportunities from secondments in Spain to being guest speaker at various conferences in the UK and Europe.

I also like being on site, and trying to make a difference, that is all I can do, try to make a difference and when you do, the buzz you get is amazing.

What advice would you give to someone at the start of their health and safety career?
Get your qualification foundations in place, be prepared to start at the bottom if you are starting out or changing career like I did and cultivate your soft skills – don’t just run for technical qualifications. Oh, and enjoy the journey, it will be a roller coaster!