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CEO, Association for Project Safety

Interview: Lesley McLeod

Lesley Mcleod

Lesley Mcleod: ‘I didn’t sleep for 18 months’ (photo by Terry Murden)

Steering a path through thick and thin

Lesley McLeod’s career as a member of various Whitehall communications teams took her into the frontline of some of the biggest crises in government.

From foot and mouth to dangerous dogs, there was never a dull moment. She was also ‘in the thick of it’ during the banking crisis, as one of the bag carriers to British Bankers’ Association CEO Angela Knight whose job was to defend what some regarded as the indefensible.

“It was crazy. Angela was crazy. I didn’t sleep for 18 months. But I loved it,” says McLeod, reflecting on the financial meltdown that, she says, some of those in high places did not know how to handle.

“There was a feeling that we could contain Northern Rock, but it was too far gone. The story was out, people queuing at the shops. No one could stop it.”

She worked for former deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who’d order her to call newsdesks late at night to deliver rebukes for running stories against him.

“I’d apologise for the late call but then they would say John had already been on the phone to tell them what he thought. It was John’s way. He used the F-word all the time. He was terribly thin-skinned.”

Now back in her native Scotland, she is enjoying life outside the political bubble. She has taken up the role of CEO of the Association for Project Safety (APS), a little-known organisation whose UK head office is in Edinburgh’s Chesser district, a far cry from the hurly-burly of Westminster.

housebuildingFrom here she has the job of monitoring and improving the safety and protection of workers. That means engaging with just over 4,000 members in a range of industries and trying to ensure no one gets hurt.

“We are mostly dealing with architects, civil engineers, surveyors. We have to ensure the health and safety issues are built in at the design stage of buildings to cut down accidents.

“Companies have done a huge amount in recent years. But there is still one serious accident per week across the UK.”

There are ongoing issues over all-too-common illnesses and conditions, from dust-induced problems to white finger vibration. Another which is rising up the agenda is mental health.

“Guys on building sites still see it as sissy to wear masks. They also won’t talk about things like mental illness,” says McLeod.

An initiative – Mates in Mind – is attempting to persuade men to talk about these problems and companies to undertake training in issues such as workplace bullying.

While safety at work figures have improved in recent years she is concerned about the prospect of Brexit making it more difficult to hire overseas workers.

“If companies cannot get immigrants, they may try to undertake work with fewer staff in order to meet deadlines. That means cutting corners – and that can tempt companies to compromise on safety. It’s a big worry.”

APS has been around in its present form for about a decade, a result of a shift by the Health and Safety Executive away from box-ticking towards a more principles-based approach. The HSE is now the APS’s ‘policeman’.

McLeod says: “There is something to be said about being able to consider how to respond to situations instead of having a one-size-fits-all approach. Problems can be tackled around their particular circumstances.”

She says a first measure of success in her new role will be to create some clarity around the organisation’s role and then to see how companies respond to its initiatives.

“We will know we have succeeded if we have people signing up,” she says.

PERSONAL CHECKLIST

Birthplace: Aberdeen

Education: Edinburgh University (English and history)

Career highlights: started her working life as a management trainee in Edinburgh. She worked for ScottishPower in Glasgow before moving to London to work in the Home Office and the Treasury.

Other highlights

Worked on national advertising and awareness campaigns such as drink driving and speeding as well as the introduction of London’s congestion charge.

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