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Safety Manager of the Year, Matthew O’Dowd, speaks to Health & Safety Review

Finding solutions inspires Safety Manager of the Year

Our HSEQ Director Matthew O’Dowd spoke to Margaret Kirby of the Health and Safety Review magazine this month, following his recent success at the Safety Excellence Awards.

Inspiring his team and the entire group to uphold the principles of safety for each other is something Matthew achieves everyday and we are delighted to spotlight this piece in recognition of his dedication.

Finding solutions inspires Safety Manager of the Year, Matthew O’Dowd

Winner of the prestigious title of Health and Safety Manager of the year, Matthew O’Dowd speaks passionately about why the Elliott Group is a great place to work, how they navigated through Covid-19, and why finding solutions is an essential part of the job.

Matthew O’Dowd, winner of the Safety Excellence Awards, Health and Safety Manager of the year 2021, is no stranger to recognition for his hard work and dedication. Recently promoted to HSEQ Director with the Elliott Group, a building and civil engineering company with office locations in Ireland and the UK, he explains how he “was shocked” to hear he had won. Previous winners in the NISO/NISG Annual Safety Awards, this current award is a testament to the positive and proactive safety culture of the company and its staff.

Coming from a construction background, Mr. O’Dowd worked for 14 years with Pierse Contracting, a large construction company which collapsed after the building boom ended in 2009/2010. He moved on to work with Bord Gáis Energy, where his role had a more corporate focus, before meeting with his future employer Darragh Elliott, managing director with the Elliott Group.

Great place to work

The Elliott Group has a long history in construction and were in the process of rebuilding their company when Mr. O’Dowd joined them, almost four years ago. Their focus was on delivering projects safely, getting repeat clients, and not overstretching themselves, he explains. They are currently involved in many high-profile projects and have worked with government and private clients in all sectors.

Speaking with HSR remotely, O’Dowd had just returned from two site visits, one at a Carrickmines retail office, spanning four floors, valued at €14 million and another at Richmond Homes, a development of 140 apartments valued at €40 million. The company is also working on a significant hotel project in Cork, as well as working with the HSE. “The Elliott Group is a great place to work, if you show initiative, you will be supported and encouraged,” he says. There is a big commitment to safety, and winning awards is recognised as valuable way to demonstrate this.

Speaking about how he won the award, O’Dowd explains that one of his colleagues completed the 5-page submission under the direction of Darragh Elliott. The award is open to any health and safety manager who has played a key role in the implementation or improvement of health, safety, or wellbeing within their organisation, which includes any successful initiatives.

Embracing technology

Talking about some of these initiatives, O’Dowd outlines how the company has embraced new technology in order to make recording and analysing safety information easier. The use of ‘Procore’, a cloud-based construction management platform has transformed how they complete site inspections, assign and track actions, and review metrics.

It is operated via a mobile device, phone or tablet and everyone has access to it, including subcontractors and clients. “Observations and inspections on-site can be recorded in real-time, assigned to a manager for action, a timeframe specified and pictures are uploaded to confirm close out” he explains. The tool also provides metrics that are reviewed at meetings.

Online induction training is another one of the company’s successful initiatives. Ahead of the curve, they had already implemented this system prior to Covid-19, which helped them keep staff trained whilst complying with public health requirements.

The company is also accredited to three management systems, including ISO45001, ISO9001, and ISO45001 which is an impressive achievement, covering the safety, quality, and environmental aspects of the job. “A lot of the work for these systems is managed through Procore” says O’Dowd, which means there is less and less paperwork to manage, making it more efficient for everyone involved.

Working through Covid-19

The Elliott Group was one of the few construction company’s which remained working during the various lockdowns of the pandemic. With up to 500 people to manage, between employees and subcontractors in Ireland and the UK, it was essential for them to implement infection prevention measures during the early days of Covid-19.

“We were working with the HSE to implement additional bed capacity from the start of the Pandemic, storage rooms were being converted, prefabs were being redesigned, all to create extra beds, it was scary at times,” O’Dowd says.

The company was fortunate to have their own stocks of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) available and acted swiftly, making mask-wearing mandatory for their workers, as well as introducing weekly antigen testing. Positive cases remained out of work, and workers with symptoms and their close contacts followed procedures in relation to isolation.

They also provided temperature testing units which are still in use, although the need for antigen testing has decreased with the uptake of vaccinations. All of these measures ensured they had minimum illness levels and disruption to work activities due to Covid-19, and both staff and clients felt reassured by the measures they had taken.

 Finding Solutions

It is clearly obvious from talking with O’Dowd that he loves his job. His energy and enthusiasm for the role is explained by the fact that he enjoys finding solutions. “I’m hands-on, on-site, I try to find solutions for the team” he explains. O’Dowd’s approach to safety is one of positivity, trust, openness, and engagement.

“It’s important to take the time to talk to those who are doing the job and make them feel that they are part of the decision-making process, and part of the solution” he advises. O’Dowd admits he spends up to 70% of his working time visiting the various sites the company is working on at any given time, which has helped build a strong relationship of trust with the workers. “It’s about building relationships, attending site meetings, and providing support” he advises.

To help provide this support, O’Dowd has a team of six staff between Ireland and the UK, who work to maintain this culture of trust, and the systems which are in place to enable it. One of these systems is the daily whiteboard meeting which happens first thing in the morning on site. Key company personnel are present, as well as a representative from each sub-contractor. Critical issues are discussed such as numbers on site, deliveries due, concrete pours, and generally what’s happening that day, and the whiteboard is updated.

This information is brought back to the contractors’ workers who talk through the hazards and risks and agree on any solutions. This is called a ‘Safe Start’ which is recorded electronically on the Procore platform, and signed off electronically there and then. This approach helps ensure that safety transgresses through all levels within the organisation, and that all workers are included.

Culture is top-down

Speaking about his management style, O’Dowd emphasises that the culture of the organisation comes from the top down. He praises the management team, in particular Darragh Elliott who he reports to, and also Gary O’Sullivan, construction director. There is also a Board, with seven members who are equally committed to ensuring safety is kept a priority.

This commitment is evident from O’Dowd’s recent promotion to HSEQ Director. “It is quite difficult to get to Director level within an organisation, and on a personal level, it is a very satisfying and great validation of my work. It sends a great message to staff and to industry partners, as well as making a good impression with clients” he adds.

Looking to the future, it is apparent that the Elliott Group is in good hands in relation to the people and resources they have invested in to support and lead the safety function on their sites. They are continuously looking ahead, predicting what is coming next, and trying to find solutions. They have successfully navigated their way through the Pandemic and have embraced technology to enable their workers to take greater ownership of safety. Their culture of positivity, trust, and including workers in making decisions is to be commended and will continue to be of value to their business in the years ahead.


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