Q&A Series #23: Interview with James Pomeroy

GRT Q&A with James Pomeroy - Semiotics Meet Occupational Health and Safety.

About the guest

James Pomeroy is the Global Health and Safety Leader and Director for Arup, a London based global technical and business services organisation focusing on advisory services, buildings, digital, infrastructure, planning and technical consulting. James is a true professional risk engineer who has a deep knowledge of his own subject areas together with a practical understanding of how this can bring real benefit to clients. He has an ability to crystalise complex issues and requirements into practical and implementable solutions. An engineer by training, James has been involved in leading and transforming global HSES programmes for over 20 years. James holds an MSc in HSE management from University of Greenwich, an LLM in environmental law from Aberystwyth University and an MBA from University of Durham. 

The topic of discussion: Where Semiotics Meet Occupational Health and Safety. 

Do workers perceive what semiotics want to convey? For most of us there are just signs, whether visual, written or digital that present information we are supposed to be aware of. A lot more goes into the perception of the messages which can even be influenced by factors such as: 

  • cultural differences
  • word associations
  • languages 
  • colour 
  • images
  • visual structure 
  • typography

The Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) profession has established itself globally over the last couple of years. A global professionalisation strategy in underway in most developed countries with some developing countries slowly catching up to the demands of the OHS field.

The OHS profession requires a joint effort of government, universities and industry. The OHS profession requires regulation of obligations, education, and licencing. 

The strategy aimed at increasing the professionalisation of the OHS profession has taken place through concurrent programs of professional certification, university curriculum accreditation, and the development of an ‘OHS Body of Knowledge’. It would be rare, if not impossible to find a medium to a large public, private or government organisation without an OHS professional department.

Semiotics meet OHS in achieving the expected safety culture of different organizations. It is important to minimize risk in the workplace and the zero-tolerance to safety incidents should not only be approached from word of mouth but also semiotics that take into consideration how the message would be perceived based on some of the factors given above. It is important to make it easier for people in the workplace to understand the information. 

In this article, Global Road Technology discusses semiotics and OHS with James Pomeroy, the Global Health and Safety Leader and Director at Arup in the London Area, United Kingdom. 

1. What drives and inspires James Pomeroy and what have been his roles and contributions in health and safety leadership spanning across the many years?

Listening, engaging and understanding the challenges people face. The people element is what drives improvement in process and delivery of set objectives. It is very important to ensure that what is provided is risk-focused and designed around user need. The core of my roles has always been to provide solutions that consider all aspects of health and safety. In embracing technology my drive always has been digitalising processes so the simple way is the safe way. 

2. What are the several applications of semiotics within occupational health and safety? 

Semiotics is about how people make sense of information. This could be visual, written, digital, etc. At lot of times in safety we assume people understand the information in the way we present it. For example, we introduce a procedure, training material or a dashboard and we think people think like us. Semiotics helps unpack the meaning people take from information. Semiotics is contextual, so it helps us better understand decisions at a point in time, such as looking back at an accident or thinking about a critical decision. One of the more obvious ways we could apply semiotics is through better design of information – making it easier for people to understand information.

3. In a typical mine, quarry or construction site. Where do semiotics meet dust control? 

I will answer these with questions that interrogate the influence of semiotics on dust control as part of a mine, quarry or construction site. Is the information on the dust control measures well designed and understood? Does the control and instrumentation for dust control incorporate good visual design and have feedback mechanisms that signal the user that it is functioning? Is the information in written guidance, training and procedures presented well in a clear, logical and easy to understand way i.e. designed for users not auditors? Are users trained on the visual signs of excess dust and know the tell-tale signals? These 4 questions seek to interrogate further the synergy between ones unique use of semiotics in a dust control environment.

4. What aspects of the human element contribute to a better safety culture from the day one is interviewed for a job to how they handle themselves in their safety occupation in the workplace?

Showing care and compassion – getting to know the individual and their interests and background. Managers being empathetic and using storytelling to engage and make it real.

Ensuring training and comms is well designed and interesting and most importantly, listening to the experience from the frontline.

5. In retrospect, what are some of the challenges you have faced in your many years as a safety and health practitioner?

There are several challenges I have faced in my many years of experience as a safety and health practitioner. Some of the challenges of note include:

  • Apathy and complacency
  • An over-reliance on paperwork
  • Assuming competency
  • Inadequate consideration of behaviours

6. How best can practitioners use technology to advance occupational health and safety to  save lives?

Focus on really understanding the problem – why it exists, in what circumstances and how. This is important as the temptation is to focus on the solution and then go looking for a problem. Go and perform the job to get a real feel for the issue. Run focus groups to listen. Understand the contextual parameters, for example dust explosion risk and ExProof, charging, WIFI signals and Faraday cages. Break the problem down. It’s unlikely one technology will fix all the issues. Can one technology address part of the issue? Often incremental changes are easier and enables better understanding of an issue. Learn from others by networking. It’s likely someone has addressed this before. Start small: Run small pilots on 2-3 options to try it.

7. What future do you envisage for global occupational health and safety and are we thriving or just surviving? 

The safety professional has to modernise and embrace new technology and ways of working.

The days of writing procedures to communicate safety requirements or PowerPoint to training are coming to an end. We need to embrace more digitalised and engaging methods of communicating. Similarly, we need to rethink long-standing problems. Too many high risks are being managed through inherently weak control measures. New technology enables us to reappraise how we’re approaching specific hazards.

Keith Nare

Technical Head of Communications for GRT, Keith leads GRT's content strategy across various platforms, whilst coordinating internally to build the voice and opinions of the GRT team. Keith is a product of Nelson Mandela University and his PhD work focuses on Polymer and Physical Chemistry. He was a Research Associate at SANRAL in South Africa and later spent time as a Visiting Research Associate to NTEC at the University of Nottingham in the UK. He is a former Director of Communications for CALROBO in the USA.

Keith is passionate and enthusiastic about health and safety, sustainability, networking and finding synergy through conversations.