Health and safety heroine

Thelma Pugh, MD of Federated Employers Mutual, has had a 24-year career with the company.

Having only ever worked for the Federated Employers Mutual Assurance Company Limited (FEM), MD Thelma Pugh has health and safety running through her veins, writes GAVIN MYERS.

She is not sure if it was by accident or if fate intervened, but Thelma Pugh, MD of Federated Employers Mutual, is certainly glad she landed up at the company. “I was seconded to help with the financials around 1987 and ended up staying the course. The accounts area needed some assistance and I really enjoyed the challenge and the work, so I decided to stay to see how my career would progress,” she says.

Pugh’s history with FEM is a long and varied one. She started in the retention funds section before moving on to investments and eventually heading up the accounts section of the property division. “I grew with FEM as part of the Fedsure Group,” she says. “When FEM went on its own after Fedsure’s demise, I became general manager and eventually moved into my current position as MD after the retirement of Cliff Saville,” Pugh continues. She also serves on the Board of the Compensation Fund.

Pugh originally studied accounting and auditing, and is currently doing a B.Com Finance degree. “It’s extremely difficult given the time constraints and the demands of my job. Hopefully this will be completed soon, or it might have to wait until I retire,” she laughs.

Nearly 24 years is a long time to devote to one company, so what keeps Pugh going? Changing people’s attitude to health and safety is one thing. “Whilst there has been a small culture shift in the awareness and importance of health and safety, there has not been much of a change in the general apathy regarding people’s lives in the industry,” she notes.

However, says Pugh, there is a gradual shift in mindset and FEM’s clients are at least beginning to realise that taking an active role in achieving construction health and safety makes sound commercial and financial sense.

This change in mindset is something Pugh and her team push for every day. “There is evidence everywhere that companies committed to health and safety, especially where there is a top-down approach, have had great success and reduced their accident frequency, lowered their claims costs and, most importantly, retained the skills so desperately needed.” Skilled workers are in short supply, says Pugh worryingly, which is one of the biggest challenges facing the construction industry.

So what is a day like when you are the MD of one of the country’s foremost construction health and safety assurance companies? “Extremely hectic, varied and frenetic, with relatively few moments of calm,” says Pugh, who seemingly has to attend everybody all the time.

“Every day is different, each area demanding something that is just never the same from one day to the next,” she says. “From dealing with the company strategy and operational organisation, to handling policyholders, staff, the FEM board and government officials – all of whom want everything at the same time,” Pugh elaborates.

Despite the daily stresses, it is obvious that she is passionate about her job and health and safety in the workplace. “When we get health and safety right, we get it all right – because it involves improving and integrating multiple business processes.” Pugh is excited that, within the organisations that realise this, health and safety is one of the key drivers of business as top management understands the cost of having accidents.

“The current demands for better corporate governance, with its explicit requirements for better management of business risk, fits in well with FEM’s long-running claim that ‘good health and safety is good business’,” she continues.

Pugh elaborates: “As the insurers of COID (Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases), we know that health and safety is good for business as well as being a legal and social obligation. Organisations must appreciate that health and safety prevents people from being harmed or falling ill through work, but it is also an essential part of a successful business.

“Most organisations fail to recognise health and safety as a strategic enabler of sustained growth – if you don’t become a health and safety activist, you will fail to deliver a healthy bottom-line.”

It’s fair to say that Pugh is in a strong position to forecast what will be happening in the construction health and safety arena in the forthcoming months. She believes that South Africa’s construction sector will only start to significantly improve from 2012 onwards as, according to ratings firm Fitch, the recovery of the sector continues to lag behind a sustained recovery in the broader SA economy.

From a health and safety perspective, Pugh is confident that FEM – in collaboration with its partners like the MBAs and SAFCEC – will continue to develop new ways to establish and maintain an effective health and safety culture in this changing economy. “All employers must take their responsibilities seriously, getting the workforce fully involved, and managing the risks properly,” she notes.

If she were to offer some advice to health and safety professionals, Pugh puts forward the fact that measuring the absence of a negative (for example: injuries, incidents and related costs) can sometimes be a result of simply being lucky. “Measure and celebrate what you create, not what you avoid,” she says. “Accurately measure and create safety excellence and all the activities that make a place of work safe and healthy; it’s hard to fake the creation of safe environments and behaviours, and none of this is just luck.”

Pugh says the career highlight she is most proud of is that, in reaching the position of MD, she has been granted the ability to make a difference in health and safety in the construction industry. “Waldo Emerson, the American writer and poet once said: ‘what you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say’,” tells Pugh. “In other words, it is what is demonstrated that is important. Executives should be ensuring that all corporate actions and behaviours clearly communicate safety as a priority.”

Pugh is undoubtedly one such executive.

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