Health and Safety Gone Mad: Stories From The Front Line of Safety Regulation
To mark the International Labour Organization’s World Day for Safety and Health at Work, Acuity Law consultant partner Richard Voke shares his unique background in safety risk – and beyond.
“I’d never ever thought I’d end up being a lawyer,” says Acuity Law consultant partner Richard Voke. “I came to law as a sort of mid-life crisis in my 30s. I had a bit of a career before then.”
Richard’s “bit of a career” saw him teach science in Jamaica (and South-East London), then work at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) – the UK body that inspects, investigates and prosecutes accidents. Despite not yet being a lawyer, Richard’s science background saw him admitted to the HSE’s major hazards division as an inspector, and his HSE qualifications allowed him to prosecute cases.
It’s this background that brought him to the Texaco Refinery in Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire on June 24th 1994, when 20 tonnes of hydrocarbon liquid and vapour were released into the air and ignited, causing an explosion.
“I was the person attending that site with my little yellow High-Vis vest on while everybody else was wearing what looked like protective spacesuits,” Richard recalls. “That was quite a major learning process for me.” Who says health and safety is boring?
Richard left the HSE and went into risk management consultancy for AEA Technology (the consultancy attached to the Atomic Energy Authority), working as a risk consultant in the high hazard industries, including nuclear power stations and the atomic weapons establishment. His MSc in Environmental Toxicology even saw him take on the role of in-country leader on a World Bank-funded project to implement environmental disaster planning in The Gambia.
The call of the Law
When he decided to retrain as a criminal lawyer, Richard didn’t so much as turn his back on his fascinating career in safety and environmental risk, as augment it.
“These things come back not to haunt you, but help you,” he says, musing that such a unique grounding allows him to “think outside the constraints of a normal regulatory lawyer.”
His background has certainly been very pertinent to his caseload of criminal defence matters against his former colleagues at the HSE, as well as the Environment Agency, DEFRA, Environmental Health, the Fire Services, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, the police, local authorities… and even the former “Egg Inspectorate”.
On the non-contentious side, Richard leads investigations and provides risk management leadership, advises on the implementation of risk management systems, law changes, and risks arising out of changes to business such as new ventures or sites. He conducts health and safety, environmental, fire and anti-bribery and corruption risk due diligence for corporate and property deals, and also helps inward investors to navigate UK regulatory frameworks.
“In recent years, I have had to advise senior directors who were worried about whether they needed an overnight bag when they went to court”
His typical client is any organisation at risk of accidentally harming their employees, the public or the environment – which means he is often to be seen working in the construction, agriculture, food processing, and other process industries such as oil and chemical manufacturing. For an organisation in any sector, however, a workplace accident could result not only in closure of facilities, debilitating lost revenue, damaged infrastructure, insurance issues, adverse media coverage and reputational damage (as if that weren’t enough), but deaths, high fines, criminal offences and even imprisonment for leaders.
“In recent years, I have had to advise senior directors who were worried about whether they needed an overnight bag when they went to court,” says Richard.
Prevent, defend early and engage
His varied career has taught him to take a problem-solving approach to helping clients, which he uses to school them in the best ways of avoiding prosecution. He describes this as “defending early” – implementing good risk management systems; ensuring clients know, and, importantly, fulfil their duties; as well as communicating effectively with employees and contractors.
“This approach is geared to prevent mishaps in the first place,” Richard explains.
When accidents do happen, the “defending early” process allows employers to engage positively with the investigation, conveying to the regulator what a good organisation they are dealing with, and that the evidence or public interest does not require enforcement action.
On top of his substantial caseload for national clients – including defending several cases involving fatalities – Richard is a visiting research fellow at Bristol University’s Civil Engineering department’s Safety System Research Centre (SSRC). He recently contributed to a Royal Academy of Engineering paper on improving resilience to major safety events, using case studies such as the Hatfield, Buncefield and Columbia Space Shuttle disasters.
“I was the person attending that site with my little yellow High-Vis vest on while everybody else was wearing what looked like protective spacesuits”
Richard works hard to maintain his breadth of experience, juggling directorships (at Safety in Design, and a sustainable software solution organisation), a role as UK Council Member of the Overseas Security and Advisory Council (US state department) and as co-founder of a charity helping young adults with mental health problems.
“I do think a bit wider than just the legal sort of operations and keep a diverse perspective,” he says.
Richard Voke is co-founder of Acuity Law’s ESG advisory team. For more information on how we can protect your business from the risks of getting ESG wrong, click here. Richard is also the key contact for our Health & Safety team.