I love it when a plan comes together

Case Study: David McCulloch

For our latest interview we spoke to David McCulloch, Group HSSEQ Manager for NRC Environmental Services Ltd about his career and the part NEBOSH qualifications have played.

When did you know that you wanted your career to be in health and safety?

It was back in 2001.  I was working for an NVQ training provider at the time, which was part of a civil engineering group.  I was friendly with the health and safety team and they suggested I get myself on a one-day foundations of health and safety course that my employer had organised. I was immediately hooked, and all career decisions from that point on were focussed on making health and safety my career. 

How did you get your first role in the industry?

I played the long game.  In 2003 I completed the NEBOSH National General Certificate and started looking for entry-level health and safety opportunities.  I was working as a training coordinator at the time and saw a vacancy for a similar position but with a much larger organisation. I thought to myself, “they’ll have a sizeable health and safety team and if I get my foot in the door I will be well placed to apply for any health and safety positions that crop up”.  A year later a Safety Advisor vacancy did arise, and I got the job! As Hannibal in the A-Team would say, “I love it when a plan comes together!

So, the National General Certificate was the first NEBOSH qualification you completed? How did you find it?

I found it challenging because it was quite a step up from the one-day course I had taken previously.  I enjoyed it but heaped way too much pressure on myself.  My employer had funded my training on a day release course, and I saw passing as the first milestone in my ‘grand career plan’. As a result, on exam day I froze and failed both papers.  I was devastated but not surprised.  I reflected, adapted my approach, and made sure I was ready for my re-sits. I went on to pass both exams with credit.

Why did you choose to take the NEBOSH Fire Certificate next?

In my first advisor role, I provided health and safety support to public visitor centres, shops, and cafes. I wanted to provide the best service and felt completing the Fire Certificate would help me do this.  The course broadened my skills and knowledge, and I gained the confidence and capability to carry out fire risk assessments and provide competent advice on fire risk control measures.

I can see you have also completed the Oil and Gas Certificate.

When NEBOSH launched the International Technical Certificate in Oil and Gas Operational Safety it was immediately added to my CPD course ‘to do’ list. I have been fascinated by the Oil and Gas sector since my dad worked on the North Sea oil rigs when I was growing up. He had stopped working offshore when the Piper Alpha disaster happened, but it still felt close, and I followed the investigation with interest. 

Early in my working life, I did consider working on the rigs myself, but it is a hard sector to get into without experience.  I enjoyed learning about the high-hazard aspects of oil and gas operations, even though I was working in civil engineering at the time. I felt it added another dimension to my capabilities and, to some degree, it reshaped how I looked at operational safety in my sector.

I can see that you have worked in a range of sectors including Utilities, Construction, and Highways. Is it easy to move from one to the other?

In my experience no.   The principles of good health and safety management are universal and portable from sector to sector, but there are huge differences in how they are applied.  Expectations and prescribed ways of planning, managing, and executing works vary between sectors so, what works in utilities would not necessarily be acceptable in the rail sector. When I have moved between sectors, I have had to adapt and contend with some very steep learning curves.  The flip side is that when you change sector, you have a fantastic opportunity to use your experience to provide a new perspective.

In 2019, you secured your current role as Group HSSEQ Manager for contractor NRC Environmental Services Ltd. Can you tell us a little about the company and your role there?

NRC Environmental Services Ltd is an international group of companies that provide specialist environmental, industrial, and emergency solutions to our clients. We provide services to organisations operating in the Marine, Oil and Gas, Petrochemical, Renewables, Utilities, Civil Engineering, Local Authority, Government Agencies, and Construction sectors. We have operations in the UK, Turkey, Georgia, and the UAE, and deploy personnel to service contracts in the Caribbean, Africa, Middle East, and Far East. 

I love working for NRC as, although we are part of a huge global family (US Ecology Inc.), we are a relatively small close-knit team of around 250 employees. This means we build and maintain strong internal relationships that help us work very lean and efficiently.

As Group HSSEQ Manager I provide support and leadership to the group and I enjoy my very varied hands-on role. I provide day-to-day Health, Safety, Security, Environment and Quality (HSSEQ) support to our management teams in Oldmeldrum, Birkenhead and Milton Keynes, maintain our sector-specific pre-qualification scheme memberships, provide information for client-specific supplier questionnaires, carry out inspections and audits, and am a member of our GDPR/Data Protection steering group.  To ensure we retain our key ISO certifications I manage and maintain our Integrated Management System and support our operations teams to deliver an excellent service to our clients.

I also have HSSEQ oversight of our non-UK operations. I got to visit our high-performing teams in Turkey and Georgia in 2019 before COVID-19 restrictions were put in place. I hope to visit them again and also our team in the UAE once the restrictions are lifted.

I view my role as being an ‘enabler’.  I help the business to operate efficiently and provide an excellent standard of service, whilst causing no harm to human life or the environment. I firmly believe that the NEBOSH qualifications and varied work experience I have gained over the past 18 years, help me provide a high-quality service to NRC and our clients across an array of sectors.

Since joining NRC Environmental Services Ltd, you have taken three more NEBOSH qualifications focussed on Process Safety Management, Health and Safety Leadership and Incident Investigation. Can you tell us the motivation for adding these and how they have helped you?  

Whenever NEBOSH launches a new qualification I am interested, particularly if it has been jointly developed with Great Britain’s health and safety regulator, the Health and Safety Executive. I enrolled on these three relatively new qualifications in August 2019, as I was working away from home a fair amount and wanted to ensure I used my downtime productively!

Over the years, my interest in leadership, culture and behavioural safety has increased so I was keen to take the NEBOSH HSE Leadership Excellence qualification. It was a thought-provoking course which challenged me to reflect on my own style of leadership.

I enrolled on the Introduction to Incident Investigation qualification out of curiosity really, as I have been on numerous courses on this topic over the years. The NEBOSH and HSE introductory course acted as a good refresher and I found I learned a couple of new things too which was great!

I thought it would be beneficial to take the Process Safety certificate to refresh and expand the knowledge I gained from the Oil and Gas Safety certificate.  There is some overlap, but completing both qualifications helped me to engage more effectively in operational discussions with Oil and Gas colleagues.

 What do you enjoy most about your HSE career?

I get a great deal of personal satisfaction from my work. Knowing that what I do enables and empowers my colleagues to carry out their work successfully and go home in the same condition at the end of the working day is so rewarding.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into health and safety?

Ask questions and learn something new every day.  Be curious about things even if they are not health and safety specific. Seek understanding, not just knowledge; and do not be afraid to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get right back to you”.

Be mindful of your current limitations. If you identify a gap in your knowledge, look for ways to fill it and do not be afraid to invest in yourself! I have now completed several NEBOSH qualifications, five of which I’ve self-funded. I have never regretted investing in myself and making time for my own professional development as gaining relevant qualifications has supported my career progression!