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Exclusive Interview with Gemma McDonald - Head of Health and Safety @ Action For Children

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11 months ago

by Liam Squires | Director @ Heathgate Search

Exclusive Interview with Gemma McDonald - Head of Health and Safety @ Action For Children

1.     How did you first become interested in the Health and Safety field? 

I was coming to the end of my career in the Royal Navy, I didn’t just want a job, I was keen to build a new career in a completely different field, health and safety was always the job that no one wanted, I had to support one of the Facility Managers in the naval base in a workplace audit and that was what spiked my interest in this field. I started to complete NEBOSH certs and a Diploma as part of my transition into civvy street and from there the journey began!

2.     What has been your career path in the industry so far? 

It really wasn’t easy to start off with, the volume of knockbacks or sorry, but on this occasion, you haven’t been successful was so disheartening, I had all the qualifications but lacked the experience. After about 70 applications I finally got some good news with Babcock Marine for a Health & Safety Advisor role supporting the build of a 250 Tonne crane on top of a barge that would go on to dismantle nuclear submarines. It involved confined space work, civil engineering etc. During my interview, the Health and Safety Manager Paul Hammock said how can you grow if no one gives you the chance. I was in your position once and I want to give you that opportunity. I am forever grateful for that, and what a job to cut your teeth in health and safety.

After two years in that role, I went to a different section of the Dockyard as an Assistant Safety Engineer, supporting the writing of safety cases for nuclear submarines. It’s fair to say that nuclear safety wasn’t for me and my heart was very much in conventional safety. I left that role and went to work for SSG Training and Consultancy, I was delivering all kinds of courses from risk assessment workshops, through to IOSH and NEBOSH courses. After two years of mixing both training and consultancy, I wanted to push myself more on the consultancy side. I got to work with so many different industries schools, retail, farming, ferries, warehousing, and transport. It was all such a good experience. Whilst I loved doing the consultancy and the teams at SSG I was craving an opportunity to be part of building solutions as opposed to going in and pointing out problems.

Along came the next role working as Senior Health & Safety Advisor for ISS and Client based at Morgan Stanley in Canary Wharf, this role involved CDM project management to ensure Morgan Stanley client obligations were met and health & safety management of vendors, including ISS, Mitie, CBRE, Securitas, Cushman & Wakefield etc. in addition, part of the role included supporting of all of the branches across EMEA to drive a consistent approach and assurance on health & safety performance. Exposure to a very corporate and incredibly fast-paced world really gave me experience in working efficiently and having to always be two steps ahead. Unfortunately, COVID hit at that point and a change in personal circumstances led to me having to look for another role. 

That’s when I joined UPP as a Health & Safety Business Partner and where there was a real shift in how a safe workplace is achieved, of course, there was still the need for the health and safety practices we are all familiar with, documented procedures, risk assessments etc. But the main drive was on behaviour and building a safety culture based on behaviour and through enhancing the wellbeing of staff, it was really quite a refreshing approach. 

My latest role is with Action for Children as Head of Health & Safety, it's such a diverse role, with 270 properties to manage across the UK as well as proving guidance and advice for some very bizarre fundraising events, the role is far from dull!

3.     What are your current responsibilities in your role as an industry leader

Coming into the role there have been some real challenges working with the property service to enhance statutory compliance across the property portfolio. Current responsibilities include lots of strategy writing around the delivery of safe places for the Charities children and young people. As well as strategies and work plans for the operational safety side of the Charity to ensure the management system and access to health and safety support is continually improving, whilst it’s there centrally there is a huge task of making sure it’s accessible to our operational teams doing all the work on the ground. 

4.     What do you consider to be the most important aspects of Health and Safety in the workplace? 

Quite simply transparency and trust. Transparency on what is going on from a health and safety perspective, on how things should be done and what future plans look like to gain both understanding of the bigger picture and where we want the Charity to be as well as buy-in from staff. Also, a culture of trust, where employees feel safe and have confidence in reporting health and safety concerns and issues to the health and safety service without fear of being reprimanded or blamed.

5.     How do you stay up-to-date on the latest developments and best practices in the industry? 

Industry magazines are always great for staying up-to-date, attendance at forums on relevant industry topics and LinkedIn always has some great articles. Working in the charity sector, I’m keen to start networking with other safety professionals in the same sector to discuss challenges, ideas etc.

6.     Can you share any notable successes or challenges you've encountered in your career?

My most recent notable success would be the health and safety team I recruited last year with Liam’s support. Both Senior Advisors have played an instrumental part in delivering the first two-year health & safety strategy and creating a safety platform for which there is now the foundation to grow and take safety across the Charity to the next level. 

7.     How do you see the future of Health and Safety evolving in the coming years, and how do you plan to stay ahead of the curve?

I think we will continue to see increased efforts where the focus is on employees and ensuring they are safe and healthy in all aspects, both in and out of work as ultimately this will result in individuals being safer at work. I think we can also expect to see more in regard to AI and safety management

8   Would you recommend Heathgate Search

Absolutely, Liam (Heathgate Search) has been a real strength not only in supporting me with my own career but also in recruiting an exceptional health and safety team. 

Heathgate Search is the leading Health and Safety Recruitment Agency in the UK & Ireland. Follow Heathgate Search on LinkedIn and check out our jobs page to view our latest HSEQ opportunities.

If you are an employer and you need specialist Health and Safety recruitment support, please call 0207 459 4073 or email

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