Claire Walsh

Head of Occupational Health and Welbeing at BAE Systems Naval Ships, Claire manages the Occupational Health contracts for the Shipyards in Glasgow.

BSc (Hons) Environmental Technology

What is your current role and what does it involve?

My role is to manage the externally provided occupational health contract at Naval Ships' Govan, Scotstoun and Rosyth sites, delivered by our partner organisation. I am also responsible for developing and implementing the health and wellbeing strategy within the business to keep our 4000 employees “happy, healthy and here” over the 8 UK sites that Naval Ships employees work at, and as a result, I do a fair bit of travel. I provide strategic advice and guidance to the business on all things health related – from work related aspects such as the control of substances hazardous to health, to non-work related aspects – such as how the health of the local population that forms the backbone of the shipbuilding industry in Scotland can affect performance and productivity. Occupational health is about the effect of work on health, and health on work, and the West of Scotland is well known for its taste for the unhealthy! A particularly interesting phenomenon is something called the “Glasgow Effect” – the difference in life expectancy between the leafy suburbs of Jordanhill and Milngavie in the north west of the city, where men live on average age of 75.8, compared to the poor life expectancy in the south east of the city, where men who live in the Bridgeton area, where it is a startling 61.9 years. Researching information like this, and bringing it to life in a way that makes business leaders sit up and take notice, is a key skill I think you can develop at university.

What's the journey been like between leaving Abertay and taking up your current post?

After I finished my degree, I did a short post grad qualification in “Industrially Related Technology”. Working with the Waste Water Technology Centre, I carried out research on a new piece of equipment to control pollution to watercourses from sewage during storm events. I was then invited to work at the company who invented the equipment (a heavy engineering company who manufactured pressure vessels for the oil and gas industry), and joined them as their Environmental Manager in November 1996. With my scientific and technological background from my degree, I very quickly became interested in the health and safety aspects of the work. I then became their Health, Safety and Environmental (HSE) Manager. From there, I moved to light engineering, in the same type of role, then via a 10 month hiatus to deal with and recover from cancer, I joined a 3rd sector organisation who worked with the long term unemployed, helping them back to work. Again, my role was in the HSE team, and I found this to be an extremely rewarding place to work – getting people who had been unemployed for years back to work, and understanding how to do it safely, was really satisfying.

I then joined a local authority as a Health and Safety Officer, and was promoted the following year to a senior role, leading a team of 7. After this, I moved to a facilities management company in central Scotland, and eventually became Group SHE Manager when the separate support teams over the different businesses in the organisation merged.

I joined BAE Systems Naval Ships in March 2016, so back in heavy engineering – it feels like I’ve gone full circle! I sit on various committees at a BAE UK corporate level. I’m Chartered Member of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health and Member of the Institute of Risk & Safety Management, and an Associate Member of the Institute of Leadership and Management.

What have been your biggest successes and challenges during your professional career?

I’ve been involved in the Safety Groups movement in Scotland for many years, and was on the working group for the award winning HSE/SCHWL/RoSPA/SCOS “Health Risks at Work – Do you Know yours?” toolkit. I’m currently involved in a British Occupational Hygiene Society steering group, developing the Breathe Freely campaign for the manufacturing sector, raising awareness of the respiratory hazards from welding fume that the estimated 190 000 people in the UK who do some kind of welding are exposed to. In the UK, there are an estimated 12 000 deaths each year from work related respiratory diseases – but the focus for years has been on “safety”, because those are the things that can cause an immediate injury – a broken leg, a cut finger. People don’t think the long term health hazards will ever affect them, but in reality, there are more deaths from these long latency diseases that there are from accidents at work.

I know that the work I do makes a difference – I firmly believe that everyone has the right to go home from work in the same condition they started off in. I’ve spoken at a number of conferences on the topic of respiratory hazards and work related mental health, and take great pride in the fact that I’ve made a change in what was a very macho environment, enabling people to talk about the “Elephant in the Room” and break the stigma of mental ill health.

The biggest challenge? Being female in a male dominated profession. It has changed over the years, but in the beginning, I was frequently the only female in a room of grey men in grey suits. I remember a particularly grumpy older gentleman, who, when I instructed him to put his hearing protection on, told me he “wasn’t taking orders from a schoolgirl”. You learn different ways to deal with and influence people over the years, and although there is much more diversity and equality in the workplace now, there can still be an underlying, unconscious bias towards men.

What are your future career aspirations?

I sometimes wonder what else I would do if I wasn’t doing health and safety. I genuinely can’t think of anything else I would rather be doing! HR or law would probably be the next options, with the relevant top up qualifications, but ultimately, I want to be happy, and spend time with my family and friends. I have a bit of a workaholic streak, so I genuinely would like to get a better work/life balance.

Although I’m not working in the exact field I studied, the transferable skills you gain during a degree can be used in all sorts of ways.
Claire Walsh | BAE Systems Naval Ships | Head of Occupational Health and Welbeing

How did your degree help prepare you for what you now do?

My degree gave me a good base understanding of the impact our activities have on the built and natural environment. From there, it’s a relatively easy step to then think about how activities affect human health and safety. The technical report writing and presentation skills are something I use every day – although we’ve come a long way from overhead projectors and acetates!

Was there anyone or anything that had a particular impact on you during your degree?

Working with the Wastewater Technology Centre, in particular, Prof. Chris Jefferies and Prof. Richard Ashley had a very positive impact on me. If I hadn’t worked with them during holidays (even the overnight shifts down sewers in the East Neuk of Fife in February for the princely sum of £1.75 an hour via ESF funding!), I wouldn’t be where I am now. Their commitment and belief in me set me on the right road for a successful career. I bumped into Chris Jefferies at Edinburgh Airport about 4 years ago, and he remembered me – so I must have made an equal impression on him!

What’s your lasting impression of Abertay?

Physically, as I spent a lot of time in the old Civil Engineering building and the Wastewater Technology lab, an overwhelming smell of cement and sewage! I really enjoyed my time at Abertay (or Bell Street Tech as it was when I started) - I fondly remember the old Student Union, and once abseiling off one of the main buildings on Bell Street for charity. It had a friendly atmosphere, and I particularly liked the proximity of the campus buildings – you never had to go far. Our class sizes were really manageable as well; my brother is a Senior Lecturer at another university and his class sizes seem enormous in comparison.

How did you find the transition between University and the real world of work?

Although I’m not working in the exact field I studied, the transferable skills you gain during a degree can be used in all sorts of ways.

Life changes, and you need to be resilient and versatile to cope with those changes. University is a valuable stepping stone to developing those coping mechanisms to prepare you for the world of work.


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