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The fast-paced world of retail

Written by: Matt Lamy
Published on: 1 Jul 2021

The fast-paced world of retail

Chartered IOSH member James Carter explains how the IOSH competency framework has helped him navigate the fast-paced world of retail safety during the pandemic.

James CarterJames Carter CMIOSH’s LinkedIn page reads like a who’s who of UK supermarket brands, with stints at the Co-op, Asda and most recently Marks & Spencer. But looking back, he is well aware of just what he didn’t know when he started.

‘When I began my career, I was really focused on the technical aspects,’ James says. ‘I was always focused on chasing the next qualification. But, actually, all the other areas around the core and behavioural competencies are equally important.

‘So it’s interesting to reflect on where I’ve been and what I’ve done. This job is all about how people see and work alongside risk. Some people can tolerate risk, others are averse. For me, it’s a question of understanding why that is.’

Collaboration is key

The question of risk perception has never been more apparent than over the last year as we have all had to readdress our personal approach to health and safety in light of COVID-19. But for James, the professional challenges were clear.

‘The priority for me has been keeping colleagues and customers safe,’ he says. ‘A large part of that has been keeping up to speed with guidance and collaborating with both internal stakeholders and external agencies. You also need to stay attuned to the public’s understanding. You can very quickly be left behind, and that’s when risk develops, so you have to make sure that safety always remains part and parcel of the plan and on the agenda. Part of that comes with being consulted, and in turn consulting others along the journey.’

For James, the key competencies required to fulfil his job during this period have been the behavioural competency of collaboration and the core competencies of stakeholder management and strategy development.

‘Strategy is absolutely crucial to me – I’m a big believer in building the plan and making sure it’s fair,’ he says. ‘You must have a clear idea of how we can develop and move forward, and understand who we want to tie into our journey, and make sure that everyone is fully aware of the expectations involved.’

‘The leadership and management core competencies are important, too. How you act and behave is crucial to how you get the people around you to buy into the process. As a safety lead, you can’t deliver your strategy on your own – you need full buy-in across the entire business. When eyes aren’t on them, are they going along with what we expect?’

Different strokes

James moved to Marks & Spencer in November 2020 to become its network health and safety manager in clothing and home logistics. Immediately after his arrival, he turned to the IOSH competency framework to help find his feet.

‘In a new role, you can use the competency framework to assess where the business is and work with it. I have come to understand where we are and what the strategy is for us as both a business and as a specific site. I wanted to know what the business wants to achieve, not just in terms of safety-related performance but in business-related performance too.’

Such a challenge isn’t entirely new for him. Even within a single business, James has seen how strategy and the competencies required to achieve it can vary from department to department.

‘The Midcounties Co-op was a very broad business, including retail, childcare and funeralcare,’ he says. ‘Across those different areas, people’s opinion of safety can differ significantly. In childcare, the whole business is risk averse because of child protection requirements. But in funeralcare and masonry sites, they saw risk differently. By using the competency framework, I could understand the factors that underpin all of that, and how people understand the message differently in different sectors, so stakeholder management was key.

‘One thing I’m always mindful of as a safety professional is, when I’m walking through an operation, I have to put my safety lens to the back of my mind and understand what the operation looks like from the perspective of the operators involved. It’s the same in return – operators will look at an operation with the focus on the operation itself. I have to work with them to remove those blinkers and ensure they keep the safety perspective in mind alongside the operation.

‘Even in the fast-paced world of retail, it’s all to do with how you talk about safety. Safety isn’t a stick to beat people with. Safety is a value. If you operate a business that is safe and people buy into that and understand that, then you are going to thrive. We shouldn’t be standing on a podium and dictating; we should listen and help people engage so that everybody is involved in the process.’

James's advice: ‘Don’t be daunted’

While James firmly believes the IOSH competency framework has had a hugely positive effect on his career, he’s also aware that young safety professionals who look at all 69 competencies could be overawed. ‘I’ve never been shy to try to understand where I am on that journey, and there are certain aspects I’d like to address.

‘One of the draws into my new role is the focus on sustainability and making sure things are progressing as they should be, especially in the case of human capital considerations.’

James has one message: don’t be daunted. ‘Take a step back and look through all the areas of the competency framework – the technical, core and behavioural competencies – then break them down and think about where your focus is going to be. That will help to support your own professional performance and also help you to progress in your own areas of development.

‘Addressing the competency framework can’t be done in five minutes – you need to invest some time to get the most out of it. Read through it and use it as a tool for guidance. It’s a document that won’t only make you successful in safety – it’ll also make you successful in business.’


The IOSH competency framework has been designed to help OSH professionals build capability and keep pace with rapid change in the workplace. It’s a useful reference tool for recruiting and developing individuals or a team. Find out more here.