How Rothamsted Research ensures its world-leading research is conducted safely

Case Study: Dr. Sam Benson, Head of Health, Safety and Biosafety at Rothamsted Research

In this interview Dr Sam Benson, Head of Health, Safety and Biosafety at Rothamsted Research, discusses his career and gives an insight into how the health and safety training priorities are established for his organisation.

Can you tell us a little bit about Rothamsted Research?

Rothamsted Research is a world-leading research centre, with a history of making ground-breaking discoveries in agricultural science since it was founded in 1843. At the heart of all our research lies the need to feed a growing world population in a more sustainable manner.

We aim for our research to raise the productivity of crop and livestock systems; tackle weed, disease and insect resistance to agrochemicals; improve soil health; enhance natural capital; reduce agriculture’s carbon and nutrient footprint; and add novel nutritional, health, and bio-economical value to crops and other products.

To support our work, we have access to numerous multidisciplinary scientific research laboratories, controlled environments, scientific workshops, biological and chemical analytical equipment, and biological containment facilities. 

How did your career direction change to health and safety?

It happened naturally and one might say dramatically! I used to work as a scientist myself and was part of a research project, funded by the Carbon Trust. The research aimed to establish if algae could be genetically modified, mass produced and then used to produce biofuel.

We used chemostats, which are huge glass containers that can regulate the conditions within. One day, at the start of our lunch break, my colleague and I removed our PPE, which consisted of a simple lab-coat, gloves, and safety spectacles. As we were leaving the lab, she noticed the alkaline solution was not reaching the culture and the pH was falling. Without putting her PPE back on, she lifted a line from the pump to check the disc filter. I foresaw what was about to happen and called out for her to stop, but it was too late. She was sprayed in the eyes and face with sodium hydroxide from a split pressurised tube. Knowing the potential effects, I applied eyewash from the first aid kit, and when this ran out, I helped her wash her eyes at the sink before taking her to hospital.  Although she made a complete recovery, I will never forget that day. It could have ended very differently and could also have been so easily avoided.

After that incident, I became very good at reminding people to wear safety spectacles and my involvement in health and safety grew from there. I started championing best practice, encouraging colleagues to complete risk assessments, use fume cupboards and instigated training for myself and others on COSHH and other safety regulations and practises. I progressed from research technician to laboratory manager and took on health and safety coordinator responsibilities without anyone needing to ask! I had two great mentors who helped me understand biosafety in a clinical setting (if you are out there, thankyou Chris and Jeff!).

When a Health and Safety Advisor position at Rothamsted Research came up specifying the successful candidate would need to know about plant biology, photosynthesis, and genetic modification it felt it was meant to be, as I have a PhD in the former. I applied and secured the role. I found my line manager Professor Angela Karp (Director and CEO of Rothamsted Research) was very safety conscious and supportive.

You have personally completed NEBOSH qualifications including the General Certificate and have just submitted the last section of your Diploma. Why did you choose these qualifications to support your own development?

For me, NEBOSH qualifications are considered the standard for anyone aspiring to become a Health and Safety Advisor, especially in scientific research. When I joined Rothamsted Research I had very basic qualifications but lots of enthusiasm and relevant experience. I was very fortunate that the organisation supported me and funded a broad range of qualifications, including the NEBOSH General Certificate and Diploma. This training has enabled me to develop a portfolio of knowledge that covers many areas and, looking back, I think I have needed all of it!

In 2017, you were appointed the organisation’s Head of Health, Safety and Biosafety. Can you tell us a little bit about your role and responsibilities please?

Around this time, the functions of biological safety, biosecurity and health and safety were brought together to form one team. As you would expect, because of this, my responsibilities are far reaching and complex. I am very fortunate to have an excellent team and we receive help and collaboration from colleagues across the organisation and from other research institutes, such as John Innes Centre.

I would summarise the main responsibilities as:

  • Writing the Institute’s health and safety strategy and the policies, procedures and guidance that implement it
  • Overseeing the Institute’s health and safety committee structure, membership, organisation and supporting documents. We have the support of a director level health and safety champion who I am assisting to review the structure and operation of these committees
  • Maintaining the health and safety risk register
  • Assisting in the development of emergency incident arrangements and our business continuity plan
  • Dealing with all aspects of biosafety and biosecurity, from plant and fungal pathogens to GM work in contained facilities
  • Ensuring compliance with the Nagoya Protocol (Biological Material Import/ Export) (
  • Contributing to environmental protection as a member of the environmental working group
  • Creating and maintaining a comprehensive health, safety, and biosafety intranet
  • Putting systems in place to ensure compliance with legal regulations and conditions of held licenses or grant funding
  • Acting as the main point of contact for all regulatory and enforcement bodies, as well as our insurers
  • Leading our internal programme of inspection and audit.

To deliver these responsibilities its vital we get our communication right at all levels of the organisation, including the board of directors, senior management, colleagues, students, and visitors. We produce focussed reports for the board and committees, maintain a comprehensive health and safety and biosafety intranet, and regularly speak at ‘Town Hall’ all-staff meetings. I have worked hard to win the trust of my colleagues and maintaining an open-door policy has been key. This would be one of my tips for fellow professionals. Make sure you are approachable, so colleagues include you and consider health and safety when projects are in the planning stage. Its better to be involved from the outset to avoid things going wrong.

Like all health and safety teams, we are also here when things go wrong and to help in an emergency. Such circumstances are exceedingly rare here, but we’ve always tried to encourage staff to ask, ‘what if’ and submit those near misses.

How do you go about identifying health and safety training priorities at Rothamsted Research?

We already had a training process in place which I have clearly benefited from myself since joining the organisation. However in 2019, I needed to look at this again, starting with a blank sheet of paper. It turned out to be a very interesting project that sounded straightforward initially, but soon became complex.

I began by looking at all our activities that carry risk, the regulations that relate to them, and the training available. This information helped me produce a training needs list, which was applied to our job description/responsibility matrix. This identified what training we thought was needed to safely undertake each job/position within the organisation.

The outputs of this exercise were shared with our area managers and heads of departments who were asked to sense check and add any additional requirements. After their suggestions had been incorporated, we shared our proposal with the safety and other senior committees who approved our plans.

The next step was to share with every colleague the training we felt they required based on their role. Our business management software brought these individual plans together and now gives us visibility of how many people need each course at any given time. Linking this information to level of risk helps us to prioritise. Some of the training is delivered by our in-house team and others training is delivered by our preferred training suppliers including accredited courses. The training we offer our teams is extensive, in fact we have over 500 including our digital courses.

I understand that in 2020 you began rolling out the NEBOSH Health and Safety at Work qualification.  Can you tell us:

What training need you were looking to address through the training?

We wanted our committee chairs and all my team members to have broad, industry recognised and succinct Health and Safety qualification. Getting this training approved was easy because it was clearly justified from an operational, moral, and legal perspective.

Why was the NEBOSH Health and Safety at Work qualification chosen in particular

I had taken this qualification myself earlier in my career and found it beneficial. I recall the confidence it immediately instilled in me because of the knowledge I gained, and I wanted the same for my colleagues.

How many learners you will be putting through the training in total?

I am still establishing this for the Health and Safety at Work qualification to be honest. I feel that once you manage or are responsible for people, you must have a rounded knowledge of health and safety to ensure you can care for your staff. It is my ambition that all our people managers get to take the qualification. This type of training delivers business efficiency and improved relationships onsite, so it’s easy to justify a wider rollout. 

If the participants who have taken the course (which is being by NEBOSH Gold Learning Partner, Safety Rocks) so far have found it useful and enjoyable?

For me Carla Crocombe at Safety Rocks Limited is one of the best trainers, who has a genuine interest in people. I once watched her turn one of the grumpiest scientists onsite into a health and safety volunteer and they now work full time in a senior health and safety position!

The colleagues who have taken this qualification so far have gained what I hope from completing this qualification! Confidence and knowledge.

What Rothamsted Research have gained to date by offering this qualification to your team?

The importance of competence in health and safety cannot be overstated in a business like ours. Scientific field work is the home of creativity and home-brewed equipment. By having sensible people in every team and H&S qualified colleagues in each department, the business retains its staff, injuries go down, we enjoy excellent relationships with regulators, and I sleep a lot better at night. Its as simple as that!