“There's always a reason why people do something unsafe.”

Jack de Graaf heads up Teva’s Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) function in Europe. It’s his job to make sure the firm’s many European factories, R&D sites, and offices are safe to work in. Ahead of ILO's World Day for Safety and Health at Work he talks about keeping 14,000 people safe, the potential for disaster if things go wrong… and why he feels a bit like Teva’s mother.

“There's always a reason why people do something unsafe.”

 

My main responsibility is employee safety. It's my job to make sure that general managers and their site leadership team keep our factories, offices and R&D sites safe to work in, so that anyone who enters one of our facilities in the morning will leave safely by the end of the day.

In pharma the knock-on effect from a site disaster is tremendous. If production has to stop and you're unable to supply your patients, it is disastrous. In the pharmaceutical industry if you don't supply the right medications people can die.

There are 14,000 people working at Teva in Europe. The company has 19 manufacturing locations employing up to 9,000 people and a further 5,000 people work in offices and warehouses. That's a lot of people to keep safe.

I can never enter a site without looking at the boiler house.

In my previous role I was at a manufacturing site when a boiler exploded, causing serious damage. Fortunately we didn't have any fatalities, but half the city where the site was situated was out of water. It caused millions of dollars of damage and production of a life-changing medication was stopped for six weeks. We made sure the supply chain was secure, but it was challenging and a situation I never want to see happening again.

Potential exposure to potent compounds is a big risk in pharma. The products we make for our patients are good for them, but can be harmful if someone who makes the medication, or stands in an environment where production is done, is over-exposed to compounds like hormones or cytostatics [medicines that inhibit cell growth]. We have to do everything we can to prevent this happening, so carry out risk assessments to mitigate high and medium risks.

We're working hard to instil the same safety culture across our sites. There have been a large number of acquisitions of different companies at Teva in Europe and we need to align the cultures. This is always tough because when you talk about culture, it's from both a country perspective and a company perspective. You can sterilize things too much so everything blends into one procedure or standard. There needs to be some consideration for local practices or local cultural aspects that might work in a specific area.

My worst nightmare is that people just follow health and safety rules without thinking. That's the challenge with environment, health and safety (EHS). You need to create rules and set standards, but if people stop thinking then that's when things go wrong.

There's always a reason why people do something unsafe. People are not inclined to behave unsafely and there a lot of reasons they might: it could be that the procedure is not viable, they don't have the right tools, or the equipment is wrongly designed. In many cases the behavior is driven by management. Management has a big responsibility in making sure the employees can do their jobs safely.

I see EHS as the mother in an organization. When a company has a good EHS environment and culture it influences the whole operation. If the EHS is organized well then your operation is likely to also be well organized. I do think there's a relationship between the two of them. If your EHS is poor then your operational performance is also likely to be poor.

There's a lot of coaching in my job. About 30-50 per cent of my week is coaching the local EHS managers in how to create a safer workplace. The rest is mostly setting up guidelines and strategy models for the future to help blend different workplace cultures into one.

There are lots of elements that come into play in EHS. It's not just about safety, it's about people and the environment. There's a social element there as well. You can feel that you're contributing to something bigger than just a company, you're doing something good for mankind. It sounds quite preposterous but sometimes it feels this way.

I get thank you's from site general managers two to three times a week. Money can make up for a lot of things, but it's even better to recognized and rewarded for the contribution you're making to a company. That's very inspiring.

Find out more

  • Meet Daphne Gerrits, who oversees packaging design for Teva products worldwide. If you think a medicine box is just a box, then Daphne wants you to think again.
  • We’re hiring! Are you interested in what Jack does, or want to know about other roles at Teva? If so, check out our latest vacancies.