Travel Risk at University of Cambridge, TRM talks to Dr Martin Vinnell

Ben Cooper talks to Dr Martin Vinnell, University of Cambridge

I’m sitting waiting for Martin, black coffee in hand.

As I scan the news, there are ongoing political disputes, increased racial tensions in the US, natural disasters, and tragic accidents, including a fatal stampede at a Mumbai railway station.

It’s pertinent then that I’m going to be talking to a risk management expert like Dr Martin Vinnell, but let’s face it, tomorrow’s news will be here soon enough and as sure as eggs are eggs, it’ll be more of the same.

Behind me a 40ft statue of a couple kissing is being photographed by a group of tourists, fresh on the scene to a new city. London is their ‘far off land’, and while the risk of stampede here at St Pancras is considerably less than their homeland, I bet they don’t have as many armed police on patrol.

I’m soon joined by Martin, and if our previous conversations are anything to go by, his frankness will be entirely refreshing.

Martin, could you tell us what and perhaps whom you’re responsible for at Cambridge University?

I am Director of Occupational Health and Safety Services, a department that includes the Safety Office, Occupational Health Service and Staff Counselling Service. I also hold the post of Director of University Biomedical Services, which involves ensuring the ethical justification for our biomedical research activities and strict adherence to all legal requirements.

I think my job description is fairly unusual in that it comprises a broad portfolio of governance, compliance and risk management roles at the University.

Would I be right in saying the buck stops with you for any incident overseas which might affect one of the thousands of students, staff and academics at Cambridge? Does that not keep you awake at night?

It is an accepted concept and practice of health and safety management that those that commission, control and oversee each piece of work are responsible for ensuring risk assessment is undertaken, and that all aspects of health and safety are considered and controlled, where reasonably practicable.

My role is to support the diverse and comprehensive management systems that are in place to enable research both in this country and globally. This is where people often do not understand that health and safety is not there to inhibit, but to enable. Although perhaps an extreme example, humans did not get to the moon by having a disregard for health and safety; keeping the astronauts alive, fit and healthy was the number one priority. It was impossible to eliminate all risks, but they did their utmost to manage them.

As for the buck stopping with me – it would be jobsworthy of me to use legal technicalities to explain why my role is only to advise (something I have heard a good many times from health and safety professionals); if something goes seriously wrong, it is inevitably the person with the words ‘Director’, ‘Health’ and ‘Safety’ in their title that will be called upon to explain what happened and how it will “never happen again”, which is why I never see myself as just an adviser. As for being able to sleep at night, the best I can do is to do my best, and fortunately I believe in what I do and enjoy what I do, so that’s easy.

Do you think the corporate world of insurance companies, risk consultancies and travel management firms really understand the scale of risk and the scale of potential client that the UK higher education sector presents?

I have been asked, “do you think that travelling around the world is more dangerous now than before?” However rational one is with risk, it is hard not to feel the world is now a more hostile place as we watch the news reports. I can provide some solace by stating the fact that you are far less likely to die in an airplane accident compared to 50 years ago – the same goes for almost every other form of transport our staff and students will use on their travels.

Similarly, there are many ways in which improvements in technology make most of the work safer – including medicine, communication and navigation. These can also help with managing the uncertainties of travel. An aspect of travelling for research purposes worth appreciating when undertaking risk assessment is that being an academic is a job like any other, so do not expect any special treatment simply because you are working for a university, and that in all legal contexts, the travel must be considered part of an employee’s work that must be risk-assessed and managed, not ‘unregulated personal adventures’ under the often misrepresented and misquoted term ‘academic freedom’.

Are we embracing more and more risk, or are we increasingly running away from it?

It is (fortunately) a fact that for those of us living in the UK, we are exposed to fewer hazards (and thus reduced risk) than our ancestors. That per se, does not make us shy away from risk – in fact, it may do the opposite for some people and in some situations.

One aspect of our society (for which we should be proud) are the concepts of equality, tolerance of diversity and freedoms of behaviours, which are not accepted – either culturally or legally – in all countries. This may lead to increased risk for certain groups of people. How to manage these ‘freedoms of behaviour’ – an admirable achievement of our culture – in those countries where those freedoms do not exist is an aspect of risk management that is more at the heart of being human than any other.

There is definitely a trend towards risk avoidance by employers and businesses, due to the increase in litigious pursuits of employees or members of the public. The increase in ‘no win, no fee’ companies has inevitably contributed to this, as has the expectation of entitlement to compensation by many people for any ‘harm’ however small, rather than accepting that accidents (usually minor) do happen – which, if they did, would leave more resource to compensate those with genuine life-changing injury.

This is why now, more than ever, we need to be using better health and safety management to build a risk appetite – and like all appetites, for long-term survival and competitive success, it must be healthy.

And is that unique to the academic world, or the pattern across the board?

Many businesses require their employees to travel, often to diverse and high-risk areas, so universities are certainly not unique in that respect. Any employer may feel uncomfortable with their employees taking risks while on work business should it have the possibility of causing them harm, whereas the concept of ‘managing risks while on work business’ is much more palatable, and that should still allow the core needs of the business to be pursued. It can seem an impossible conundrum to some as to how you can ‘manage the risk of the unknown’ which is a key part of making travelling as safe as possible – but often that is because it is mistaken for ‘eliminating the risk of the unknown’ – which is indeed impossible.

But, that’s not to say the ‘Indiana Jones academics’ aren’t still out there, is it? Can you give us some examples of the more high risk projects you get presented with?

I have no doubt that good risk management of Indiana Jones’ trip would have led to the discovery of the tomb and treasures, but in a lot less time and with far less trouble. Everyone has the right to go on their own exciting adventures purely for pleasure – and put simply, risk their own lives – but as an employee of a university, this principle is not part of your employment.

Sometimes, and in fact, more frequently, the greatest risks are not those that are related directly to the research work, because those risks tend to be well managed. For example, archaeological digs by necessity are exceptionally well managed with consideration for site organisation, access to challenging places, deep holes, on-site heavy equipment, access to medical support in remote areas, etc.

Our academics went out to support both the Ebola and Zika virus research and treatment efforts abroad – and by the very nature of this work, the organisations involved were very well equippedtoprotectthestaffinthatenvironment.

There are always two aspects to health and safety for all our work – management of the risks of the work itself and management of a crisis, but in fact, both must be part of day- to-day management as ‘for crises’ (which are unpredictable and predominantly unforeseen events) will happen, that is a certainty at some point, and panic (as opposed to swift response) is never going to help.

Who else at Cambridge would get involved in a crisis management situation that is happening overseas, such as a missing person, or the detention of an academic?

As I have already mentioned, travel risk management at the university is dependent on a diverse range of people with different roles within our departments and divisions working collaboratively – including but not limited to the research supervisors and principle investigators, heads of department, the administrative sections overseeing student travel permissions and supervisions (Student Registry, the Insurance Office, the Safety Office, Occupational Health Service, Legal Services, Human Resources and the Communications Office).

Most will be involved in the pre-travel arrangements and planning, but all are involved when dealing with an emergency situation. Vital to this is the information we get from external sources, including commercial organisations

that provide very specific, detailed and timely advice to enable risk assessments to be completed with the most up-to-date and importantly, local information. This goes beyond the information provided on the FCO website, which we use to assist with our first stage assessments (‘flagging’ of higher risk countries and areas).

How front-of-mind is risk to reputation when considering travel risks and crisis? Does it sometimes come up as the foremost concern?

It is not shallow for an organisation to rate reputational risk above everything else. This ensures that every aspect of good management – not just health and safety – is considered – because once a good and trusted reputation is lost for any reason, it has often proven impossible for a business to recover it and it will thus fail. However, the reputational risk for the university has two aspects for being trusted and responsible, but also for being the university that is not afraid to undertake research in the most challenging environments and on the most challenging of topics. For that, you have to embrace the health, safety and well-being of all our staff and students, not resent or resist it.

Dr Martin Vinnell is Director of Occupational Health and Safety Services at the University of Cambridge