The best HSE conference in Europe? My takeaways from Fleming’s HSE Excellence

Written by Timo Kronlöf

The HSE Excellence conference, which took place in Lisbon from May 15 - 17, is over. I’m writing this recap on a flight from Lisbon to Helsinki via Munich. Plenty of time to put all my new ideas down on (virtual) paper.

If you were at the event, please read this post. I’m interested to know if your experience was similar to mine. If you couldn’t make it, I encourage you to read this anyway, to get a sense of whether the next conference is worth attending.

I’ll try to keep this objective. Although I must admit that Andrew, who chaired the event, is a friend of mine, which might affect my perception.

Fleming’s HSE Excellence conference: the pros and cons for HSE professionals

Every HSE professional needs to keep up with developments in the field. If you don’t update and improve your skills, you’ll lose touch with the industry and your knowledge will fade. That’s why I recommend that all HSE professionals visit at least one or two seminars per year.

On a side note, if you’re interested in improving your HSE skills, there are some good university courses available. You should also check out Andrew Sharman’s website and enroll in one of his HSE leadership courses.

Last autumn, I spoke at another HSE seminar hosted by GLC in Berlin (link). But I wouldn’t compare that event with the one in Lisbon. Both were excellent in their own ways. Both were hosted in a unique setting, but I have to admit that I much preferred the climate and environment in Lisbon.

When I saw the line-up of speakers at HSE Excellence, I was impressed. Especially by Edgar Schein, a former MIT professor and respected industry guru. Edgar is 90 years old, but he spoke to us loud and clear. Amazing. If you’re not familiar with his work, you should check it out.

At a big conference like this one, you’re bound to encounter a wide range of perspectives and opinions. That’s the whole point. We saw some interesting debates on what kind of technology we should use in HSE. Unsurprisingly, there was some controversy surrounding Safety I versus Safety II, as well as the philosophy of “safety differently.” Andrew kept things interesting by challenging the speakers and audience on contentious points, such as only measuring negative indicators, or following the trendy “zero accident” mantra. If you’re not familiar with the zero debate, check out my older blog post, The Illusion of Zero, as well as Professor Sidney Dekker’s posts on the Safety Differently website. There’s also an interesting discussion of the topic in the latest Safety Management Trend Report.

Networking and sponsors

Running an event like this is expensive. It requires a big team, facilities, accommodation, preparation, and a lot of work. So the organizers naturally try to attract sponsors, who are usually hand-picked from a selection of companies in the HSE field.

For companies like ours, sponsoring HSE conferences is a no-brainer. We want to help professionals in the field to succeed, and to make safety more engaging. These conferences are also hugely beneficial for HSE managers. They get to meet lots of solution providers in a short space of time and start building a shortlist of potential vendors. And if you’re not interested in finding a new vendor, there’s no need to engage with the sponsors.

I was representing our company at the event. But I found that the most interesting discussions happened not at our booth, but instead at the lunches, dinners, and networking sessions. For me, networking is the main reason to attend a conference like this. The HSE profession can be stressful. Practitioners face a lot of pressure in the field and also from managers. It’s a great relief to discuss these challenges with like-minded professionals and hear about how they cope. I ended up spending a lot of time with Dutch and Belgian people, and I enjoyed their weird sense of humor. Thanks to the Benelux crew for making my conference so much fun. I’d be happy to connect on Linkedin with any of the people I had a chance to meet.

Content and speakers

The conference has grown year on year, and this year they decided to split the event into three separate tracks: Health, Safety, and Environment. The advantage of this setup is a greater variety of talks to choose from. The downside, of course, is that you inevitably miss some of the talks you hoped to see.

I spent most of my time in the Health and Safety tracks. Both were good, but I found the content in Health a bit thin compared to Safety. If you took part in the Environment track, I’d love to hear about your experience.

I was especially impressed by the app, which allowed audience members to participate in the panel discussions and ask questions of the speakers. I was less impressed with the other conference app that we used for booking sessions in various tracks. I found it made the whole experience more complicated than it needed to be.

For many guests at the conference, Edgar Schein’s talk was the highlight. At the age of 90, he’s still full of fresh and interesting ideas, and he’s just published a new book. Edgar has spent 70 years in the HSE field, and it was a genuine honor to have him at the conference.

The main thing I took away from Edgar’s talk was the concept of level 2 human connections. To improve safety culture, Edgar believes we have to put the focus back on individual human relationships. Even the biggest organizations are made up of individuals and their relationships with one another. We all know that a thriving safety culture depends on trust and transparency. In HSE, you can’t hide anything. But the fear of sanctions still discourages people from speaking up about problems.

In a level 2 professional relationship, people are not afraid to discuss the difficult topics. But this kind of open exchange requires trust between individuals at every level of an organization. If we’re going to build a stronger safety culture, change has to start at the top, with the board and C-level executives.

Back to the conference. One disappointment was that Marjo Rehn from Finnish Post had to cancel her trip and presentation. These things happen, unfortunately.

I felt there was room for improvement in the panel discussions. They were mostly interesting, but considering how much time was devoted to each topic, some of the discussions could have delivered deeper insights. As an HSE guy and also a tech guy, I would have liked to see someone from the tech industry discussing relevant trends, because most HSE tech is still in the pilot phase. I’d be very interested to hear a data scientist’s perspective, for example, or talk to someone who’s working on wearables, AR/VR, IoT, etc. That’s my suggestion for next time. With that said, Kieran Phelan’s presentation on future technology was a good starting point. I sat next to Kieran during the conference and had the privilege of getting to know him.

Until next time

I’m about to land in Munich and enjoy some German beer with Evelin Rusinov, another new friend from the conference. If we met but haven’t connected yet, please let me know. And for any inquiries about a business collaboration in mobile HSE solutions, feel free to email or call me directly. I know that I promised to follow up with many of you. In case I forget, please be proactive and get in touch. Our plane has landed, and I’m out.

Thanks again to the organizers at Fleming, the chair Andrew Sharman, and also my pal Eduardo Blanco for chairing the other tracks. It was an absolute pleasure to finally meet you in person. I would encourage everyone to follow both Eduardo and Andrew on Linkedin. You can also read some of Eduardo’s thoughts in the latest Safety Management Trend Report.