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With a territory stretching from Thanet in the North East of Kent down to the Isle of Wight, Southern Water serves 4.6 million customers through its 13,500 kilometres of water mains and almost 40,000 kilometres of waste water pipes.

By Simon Fluendy

And with assets ranging from huge city-serving wastewater treatment works to tiny rural pumping stations, the challenges for maintaining health & safety, security and managing the incidents that inevitably arise are massive.

Southern Water is in the midst of a huge operational and cultural change. The transformation is affecting every area of business – security and incident handling are certainly not exceptions.

While protecting the company’s people and facilities and managing incidents are part and parcel of many employees’ jobs, two recent recruits to the company have especially important roles to play.

The first is Joe Murphy, who prior to joining Southern Water as head of health & safety and security, worked for the London end of the £56 billion HS2 rail project ,and before that worked with contractors and suppliers to ensure they met the standards required by the 2012 London Olympics’ organising group.

Coming from such massive and high profile projects, Murphy is clearly up for a challenge and has found that although the scale might be different, his problem solving skills are still going to be tested.

“On HS2 and 2012, the projects and budgets were huge – the London section of HS2 was £6.9 billion. But although the project was complex and busy, it was highly contained. At Southern Water, we’ve got 10,500km2 to cover, thousands of sites and lots of lone workers,” he explains.

With a huge region and a long and complex history dating back to council-owned water boards and waste treatment works operated by the old National Rivers Authority, different ways of working have grown organically.

Now, Murphy must help the company to change its health & safety, security and well-being regime to a single properly understood culture. “The solution does not lie in hiring loads of new staff or throwing money at security issues but by empowering every worker and helping them to be the best possible,” he says.

Across the region the almost 3000 direct employees and 25,000 contractors employed by Southern Water all have to be part of “building a process of robust assurance,” Murphy says.

Just five months into the job, Murphy has wasted no time. “We needed to lift the carpets and really understand all of what we need to do.”

The challenges run the gamut of commonplace to the very unlikely, but potentially catastrophic. The every day issues could include something a simple as how many trees there are on Southern Water sites. It may sound simple but the impact is not to be underestimated. “We need to know how many have branches which overhang the boundaries, because that’s both a health & safety and a security issue,” he explains.

More worryingly, water & wastewater companies across the UK are facing an unusual new organised crime threat. “Criminals are using drones to drop cannabis seeds into old wastewater filter beds. The drones return to check on the crop or reseed. If the planting is not noticed, a break in will be arranged to harvest.

At the top end of the threat spectrum, Murphy must also worry about state-sponsored acts of sabotage. Damage to critical infrastructure would seriously jeopardise water companies’ ability to guarantee drinking water meets the stringent standards of the Drinking Water Inspectorate, causing serious disruption to people’s daily lives. The consequences of undetected interference are unthinkable.

On a more mundane level, petty crime such as theft of diesel, is a common issue affecting water companies across the country.

Aside from the monetary value of the diesel, there is also the damage done by intruders to the site and the knock-on consequences of missing fuel.

“Fuel tanks on our sites are generally there for back up generators in case of power failure and if generators can’t run when they are needed then the risk of pollution incidents rises,” Murphy explains.

Meanwhile he must also keep an eye open for another perennial criminal favourite – the theft of metals such as lead from roofs and copper from cabling.

“If metal prices rise, we will see a resurgence” Murphy predicts, “and with increasing amounts of telemetry and automation on sites, there is likely to be more reliance on cabling than historically.”

Clare Rixon, Operational Resilience and Response Manager at Southern Water, is also transforming part of the company’s culture.

Rixon started her emergency planning career at the Environment Agency (EA) after seeing the EA’s team in action during a university vacation job. She’s spent a decade building her skills in emergency and crisis management including international experience working for the British Government’s Department for International Development. She joined Southern Water in December 2017 attracted by the idea of implementing a new incident response framework. She received a baptism of fire – or rather frost.

Water companies – even those in the traditionally warmer and drier South East region where Southern Water operates – are no strangers to the effects of cold weather.

But the extremes of weather experienced at the end of February 2018 were remarkable not just for the low temperatures which fell to as low as -9 degrees centigrade on the night of Saturday 28 February in parts of Kent, but also for the suddenness of thaw.

By midday on Sunday 1 March, the temperature had sprung back to +6 degrees centigrade not far from where the biggest chills were recorded. And a dramatic sudden thaw hit the entire region.

The impact was heavy – Southern Water’s network experienced numerous bursts and customers also suffered ruptures to their own pipes. The result was a massive increase in demand as water poured out of the network. The apparent demand was equivalent to the hottest days of summer.

“We could have done better in our response,” Rixon admits. But the difficulties that were faced in responding were not unexpected. “When I arrived, I found there was a core group of responders who were highly competent and very hard-working. But the wider framework – identifying an incident, escalating rapidly enough, distributing duties and roles, ensuring that tasks were cascaded and tracked was not really in place,” she says.

That exceptional crisis did have a silver lining – it underscored not just to the company’s leadership but across the company just how important the new processes were. And when Rixon led a full day exercise pulling in around 50 staff members- including senior managers – there was no reluctance to allow employees away from their day jobs. Plans are now firmly in place to make ongoing exercising a core part of the development of the incident structure and the people in those roles.

The roll out of the new Incident Management process has had its challenges, but as it now transitions to being a fully integrated way of working, she says “the difference in Southern Water’s response to incidents has been noticed not just inside the company but by stakeholders across the region including regulators.”

But Rixon says this is no time to be complacent. “The most important thing is never to have to learn the same lesson twice. Plan – test – review – rinse and repeat.”

Transformation at Southern Water is clearly underway. Murphy and Rixon’s colleagues can expect the rate of change to continue – to the benefit of everyone in the region whether customer, employee or regulator.