Samantha Banfield, workforce safety, health and environment adviser at Network Rail, describes how she went from sociology graduate to rail industry safety adviser via a waitressing stint – and how working towards overcoming impostor syndrome has made her a better OSH professional.
Your first degree was in sociology. What attracted you to the subject, and how did you go from sociology to a master’s degree in safety, health and environment (SHE) in 2018?
I decided to study sociology under a bit of time pressure: I needed to choose a subject but didn’t have a definite idea of what I wanted to do career-wise. I’d studied sociology at college and enjoyed it, so I decided to carry it on at university.
After graduation, I worked for a council for a while, but it wasn’t for me. I started working in hospitality, initially as a waitress, to earn money. I progressed to a management role, and there was quite a lot of safety involved: risk assessments, fire safety, food safety. I was doing accident investigations and training, and after a while people started coming to me with suggestions and ideas. I chose the university route because a master’s in safety, health and environment at the University of Salford had all the modules I wanted and was accredited by IOSH.
What led you to join Network Rail?
I saw an advert for a health and safety graduate at Network Rail and it caught my interest. I joined Network Rail in August 2020 – between lockdowns, when lots of people were working from home, so I didn’t meet people immediately.
Has working in a SHE role met your expectations?
It’s been challenging and rewarding – and I’ve built great relationships. I wondered if I’d be lonely because no one would want to talk to the safety person!
But it’s very collaborative.
Does your sociology background help you in any way with SHE?
Yes, particularly when looking at safety behaviours. I can draw upon that area for research into social norms and subgroup behaviours that can be useful when implementing safety changes.
How do you hope to make a difference in your role?
Culture is a big one for us. It’s important to ask for people’s views: we’re not telling people what to do, we’re listening. My focus is on reducing accidents through learning and continuous improvement.
What has been the greatest challenge to date?
Definitely impostor syndrome. When I’m in a conversation with someone about a new way of doing something, I’m waiting for the question, ‘But why should we change?’ It’s a valid question, and a challenge I want to hear. But it’s easy to doubt whether I have the experience to put across my viewpoint.
If a conversation doesn’t go as well as it could have, I ask myself what I could have done differently because it’s so important to improve. In the year since I started I have become more confident. I’m in a big team, and I’m mentored as part of the Women in Rail initiative, which is a great source of support.
And your greatest achievement?
I’ve developed a lot of new skills, not least in safety comms. We’re a team of 300, and people access communications in different ways – whether it’s spoken or via a device.
Your master’s dissertation was about display screen equipment (DSE) risks during the pandemic. What did you explore?
The subject presented itself, as I was hearing stories of people experiencing back pain just four weeks into homeworking. It was interesting to see on video calls how people were sitting, and how long meetings lasted. In an office, you would take a break during a long meeting to maintain a dynamic posture. But initially, during the first lockdown, people were often on Teams all day. Now I’m so much more conscious of insisting on breaks from DSE.
What value do you get from IOSH membership and how does it help develop your career?
I joined as a student and it was such a useful tool. Many of my assignments featured IOSH resources in the references! I also used the email helpline, which was good for advice and signposting resources. I now attend webinars and I sit on my industry group, which is great for niche expertise. IOSH membership demonstrates your commitment to keeping your skills and knowledge up to date.
You’re a new member of the Future Leaders Steering Group. What are you gaining from it?
I joined in June and I’m one of 24 in the group. We’ve just hosted our first webinar, on loneliness in the OSH profession. I’m especially interested in accident investigation and auditing, and advice from the group has enhanced my skills.
What lies ahead for Future Leaders in OSH?
We will see more focus on ‘new’ areas, such as communication skills. I think of them more as human skills: communication, empathy and emotional intelligence are all areas OSH professionals need to develop.
- Samantha has a degree in sociology from the University of York (2011)
- A move into waitressing while she considered her options sparked her interest in safety training
- Samantha achieved a distinction in her master’s degree in safety, health and environment in 2020
- Inspired by the challenges of the first lockdown, Samantha wrote her dissertation on working from home and DSE risks.
The right tools for the job?
Samantha didn’t initially pursue a career in health and safety. But as a relative newcomer, she has a clear idea of the attributes that make an individual suited to an OSH career. ‘You have to be a bit of a detective! If you see something that doesn’t look right, start a conversation about it. ‘You have to be self-motivated. As an OSH professional, you’re rewarded when nothing happens, but you have to aim for continuous improvement. ‘Above all, you need to develop good communication skills. I could send an email, but it’s often not the best way to get a message across.’