Keeping 50,000 students safe is no small challenge!

Monday, 25 February 2019

Stephanie Camm, Head of Health and Safety at Unite Students gives us an insight of the work of their health and safety team.

I was mid-way through my NEBOSH National Diploma in Occupational Safety and Health when I joined Unite Students as a Regional Health and Safety Manager. That was in January 2014. Unite – the leading provider of student accommodation in the UK – is an innovative, forward-thinking company, and that's what really attracted me to the role. At the time, Unite had a fairly small safety team, so I thought there would be plenty of opportunities for me to grow and develop; and I was proved right. After working hard and completing my NEBOSH Diploma, whilst also starting my family, I was appointed Unite’s Head of Health and Safety in 2018.


My team and I are responsible for the health and safety of a diverse and large mix of people: we have 1,400 direct employees; more than 50,000 students; and, daily, a huge number of contractors working at our properties across the UK to resolve a whole variety of issues. There's also the construction side of the business: we buy land, design properties and oversee their construction. We have a third-party company that manages this process, but the health and safety team are involved in safety related design tweaks.


As a company, we're very proud of our customer service. We promote the message “Safe and Secure”, as that's how we want our customers – the students – to feel when they're in our properties. But the Safe and Secure ethos isn't just for our customers: it encompasses our employees, contractors and anyone else visiting or staying in our properties; as you can imagine, students have an enormous number of visitors!


We're very insight-driven, and we invest a lot in learning about students' wants and needs so we can communicate with them in the most effective way possible. We produce an annual report that looks at what social media channels students are using, whether they use our MyUnite App and how they respond to our email correspondence. This insight helps us ensure the effectiveness of the two main campaigns we run annually. Each year we have one focussed on fire safety and another on personal safety.  


When you're dealing with a particular demographic, you have to work out the best ways of reaching out to them, whether it's social media or another form of innovative messaging. The challenge is to make sure you're in line with your audience. Tone of voice is important; we try not to dictate orders but advise and show students why the message may be important. Some of our properties are linked to our university partners, but others aren't so it's not about us telling people what to do.


As an example of how we work with different fire services in different cities, for the past four years we've run a successful fire safety initiative with Avon Fire and Rescue Service. Together, we’ve written a joint student fire safety campaign, and we provide lots of materials and information; we put articles on Instagram, Facebook and the Unite online chat forum. We encourage the fire and rescue service to come and do planned evacuation practices, (which are required quarterly in any case) and to directly engage with the students. We also provide practical information to students about fire safety in their particular property.


We're always trying to find different ways to get the message across in the best way possible, so we're looking at the possibility of putting QR codes and 3D graphics near fire alarms, so students can get further information just by passing a phone over the image.


The advantage of digital communication is that you can measure uptake. We can get exact figures for the number of impressions and interactions on social media, for example. When we email specific fire safety information, we can measure the click and call-to-action rate. Of course, it's harder to measure the impact of the campaign overall. With fire safety, it's not just about reducing the number of fires; it's about reducing the number of false alarms, and ensuring people evacuate efficiently and safely when required to.


In terms of current priorities, Grenfell has had a huge impact and, quite rightly, moved fire safety to the forefront of everyone’s minds. Wellbeing and mental health are firmly on the agenda: the health and safety team, along with HR, is responsible for employee wellbeing, while our Student Services team work with our customers around mental health issues. The safety team is also renewing its focus on the basics – the top risks in the business, including manual handling and work at height. Lone working is another priority; with a great deal of interaction between students and the general public, and lots of night-time activity, we focus on conflict management, violence and aggression training.


When I started working towards my NEBOSH Diploma, I'd already been working in safety for five years, which has certainly helped: it meant I could relate different subject areas to my practical experience.


I had a supportive employer who gave me the time away I needed to attend my course. Although I had some years’ of experience in safety roles, the Diploma really filled in the gaps for me. I already knew what I needed to do and how to do it, but the Diploma gave me the why, and the legal context. I'm now part of a Facebook NEBOSH alumni group, so that I can keep learning, and I'm also a member of the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management (IIRSM) and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) – as my background is environmental health.


For anyone starting their career in health and safety, I would say that you need to find a company that suits you and your personality. The company I work for is forward-thinking, and it's all about people – which is a really good fit for me. If you look, you can find safety in any business.


An example of one of Unite Student’s latest social media campaigns can be viewed at Unite Students Personal Safety Campaign.