As the UK’s largest water and wastewater services provider, Thames Water understands the importance of managing their operations around the clock to meet the demands of its 15 million customers.

This demand is continuous. Everyday Thames Water successfully manages over 4.6 billion litres of sewage across a network that stretches from Essex and Kent in the east, across London and over to Gloucestershire and Wiltshire in the west.

John Kelleher from Shirley Parsons interviewed Simon Watson, Head of Health, Safety, Security and Wellbeing at Thames Water, about the importance of robust risk management in business. John, who placed Simon at Thames Water in 2016 following his return to the UK, asked Simon to talk about the benefits of using asset planning tools to add rigour to health and safety risk assessment.  The integration of asset planning and health and safety risk assessment in the business has allowed Thames Water employees to demonstrate positive behaviours that support operations to run smoothly and allow the culture of risk assessment to mature to another level.

Simon joined Thames Water after spending nearly 10 years working in Australia, Asia and the Middle East. Simon has held numerous senior safety leadership roles within heavy civil, infrastructure, engineering, marine, construction and utilities.  He has qualifications in the areas of health and safety, project management and business administration.

Why risk assessment is no home for emotion

Understanding the risk exposure at Thames Water was one of the priorities Simon highlighted when he joined the business. This included a full evaluation of the two main areas of critical risk; Dynamic Risk, which includes areas like working at height and excavations, and Static Risk, which includes risks that are ever-present in the organisation, like the operation of sewage treatment works.

Simon commented, “The real-estate and asset base, as you would expect for an organisation as large as Thames Water, is considerable in both size and risk. There is the overwhelming challenge of working in an environment that cannot be stopped. As you can imagine, the waste keeps coming and people still need to drink water to survive.”

Simon continued, “This environment is unlike any other business and adds to high levels of emotion around competing priorities and demands. The balancing of priorities is crucial and individual emotions have no place in the decision making process.  To remove emotion we have introduced an asset planning system model that uses a simple traffic light colour scheme to identify high, medium or lower risks. This colour association has enabled the simplification of a complex model and has helped to identify what risks were the most important more easily. “

Simon emphasised that asset modelling is complex, however, on the upside of this complexity, asset planning models have enormous computing power and when used differently it can add a level of sophistication to health and safety risk assessment not normally seen. Simon and his team have been able to work with the key stakeholders in the business that own those asset risks and has worked with them to successfully re-evaluate their approach and to integrate both asset and health and safety (H&S) risk.  Key to this transformation has been the goal of removing a person’s emotional attachment from the risk assessment process.

Developing the Asset Planning Model

Simon highlighted a real need in the business to rank asset and H&S risk using a clear and easy to understand process. Simon commented, “By introducing the traffic light system with the sophistication of the asset planning model we have been able to create accurate cost-benefit analysis (CBA) scenarios. These scenarios take into account the HSE gross value impact modelling to measure the extent of the risk each issue possess to the company.

This approach provides a consistent, fair and robust way of managing risk and removing the emotional element allows the teams to create an effective list of business priorities. This, in turn, allows greater control of the budget and funds and, more importantly, highlights where the priorities are. Equally as important is the ability for all risk assessment models to be weighed equally against the benefit to the business as a whole, providing a much clearer picture of all business risks.”

“For example; if a partial failure of key equipment at a sewerage treatment works were to occur we would be able to understand what the impact of different scenarios would look like and the cause and outcome on health and safety, along with the cost to act or not to act, and clearly see the effect.”

Simon explained that in the event an asset must remain in operation, there is an ability to show the permanent and temporary fix values so that senior stakeholders in the business are able to decide the best way to resolve the problem for the long-term benefit of the company.

Making robust decisions about managing risk

Simon went on to talk about the value of highlighting risk at the right levels within the organisation. “Many organisations try to govern risk from the top down and tell the organisation what risks they hold in the business. The reality is the front-end of the business understands its risk profile and can challenge more closely. It should be holding its hands high saying “these are our risks and this is how we are managing them, come and provide some governance to assist in the process.”

The process must be driven from the bottom up and not the top down.  This way enables and encourages robust discussions to take place and the proper escalation of risk to key decision makers at Thames Water. Simon said, “The importance of a bottom up approach is fundamental in securing ownership of risk at all levels appropriately with each stage of increasing risk. This method has helped to quantify the risk and provide important information on the management of costs for Thames Water. “

“Budget does not drive risk – Risk drives budget”

According to Simon Watson, “Budget does not drive risk. It is risk that drives budget”. Thames Water has started to see the benefits of this approach. However, Simon acknowledges it has been a long process, but a clear change in the organisation has come about due to the organisation’s ability to understand, quantify and cost any changes to infrastructure. In addition, it has allowed the business to understand its effect on people’s health and safety through strong integrated asset planning and risk management. Simon summarised this by saying, “Thames Water are effectively managing the health, safety and asset risk through a detailed understanding of the cost benefit analysis. These step changes have gone a long way to removing emotion from health and safety risk management. “

Karl Simons at Thames Water commented on Simon’s time in the business, “He has made a brilliant start to life at Thames and in this highly complex business it’s vital we create an environment in which all are encouraged to challenge the status quo.  This means we need dynamic individuals not afraid to review and tackle issues that can make a difference for everyone and that’s exactly what Simon is doing.  To make such an impact in such a short space of time is a credit to his leadership skills and business acumen!”


About Thames Water

General Information about Thames Water

  • The UK’s largest water and wastewater services provider, with an annual turnover of around £2 billion
  • Thames Water has 15 million customers and over 5,000 employees. Their service area stretches from the eastern fringes of Gloucestershire and Wiltshire in the west, through London and the Thames Valley, to the western edges of Essex and Kent in the east
  • They have almost 60 million interactions with our customers each year
  • Thames Water has invested, on average, about £1 billion a year for the last 11 years in our network

Information about Thames Water Wastewater Operations

  • Thames Water recycles 15 million people’s wastewater safely back to the environment. That’s 4.6 billion litres of sewage a day – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year
  • There are 350 sewage works, 109,000km of sewers, 4,780 sewage pumping stations and 1.2 million manholes