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Suzy O'Kane

Suzy O'Kane Cancer Prevention Officer

Be Inspired Series

Jim King

Head of HSENI's major hazard group
Health & Safety Executive Northern Ireland

What does your job entail?

My job is very knowledge-based, dealing with the wide-ranging and complex legal and technical aspects which make up the safety regime for gas, oil, petrol and hazardous chemicals. I manage a team of 10, who deal with almost all the inspection, enforcement and advisory issues; though I still like to get my hands dirty around the factories, getting involved in gas safety initiatives.

I'm also involved in contingency planning in case a crisis was to happen at a site with large hazardous material storage and give advice to Planning Service on what type of new development can take place around sites or pipelines containing hazardous materials.

Did you always work in this sector?

I've been working in HSENI for 23 years, about 20 years of that time has been spent advising on, and where necessary, enforcing legislation on gas safety and the storage, manufacture and use of hazardous chemicals.

How did you get into this line of work?

I spent 10 years in Lurgan's gas industry having been involved in all aspects of gas use.
The position involved making gas, fixing the manufacturing plant, getting gas out into people's homes, repairing ageing gas holders, working on appliances and trying to make a profit while the oil price was as high as it is now.

With the demise of Lurgan's gas industry I was fortunate to land a job with the then Health and Safety Inspectorate, which is now the HSENI.

How has previous experience helped you in your current role?

Being able to relate to how tradesmen and manufacturing plant operators think is a great help, I can see how tempting it is to take shortcuts.

Also I can recognise the types of plant and machinery we use here in Northern Ireland and easily identify the risks that go with them. Coupled with the knowledge of safety law, it makes the job a lot easier and more enjoyable.

Tell us about your qualifications/ training?

After taking O Levels I went on to study for an ONC and HNC in chemistry before going on to do an MSc in energy, specialising in the transmission of gas.

HSENI sent me to do a postgraduate diploma in Health and Safety and I still do lots of training courses on gas safety, safety management systems and of course, law.

What qualities are required for your position -- both personal and professional?

The role of any health and safety inspector requires a great deal of personal integrity. In some respects you hold people's safety and livelihood in your hands, so you can't be swayed by opinion, apathy or anger.

You also need an inquiring mind and a persuasive manner to determine what's happening in a place of work, and personal drive to make changes where they are needed.

We try to promote health and safety, persuade if possible, but if called upon we are there to enforce the law if other methods fail. All inspectors need to work hard to study the legislation and guidance to be competent in their area of operations.

You also need a lot of patience. We are trying to help Northern Ireland industry be safe and efficient in today's competitive market place. Changes take time.

What do you do day-to-day?


Recently a lot of my time has been involved in preparing the 'Big Change' campaign which will see 'Gas Safety Register' become the new name in gas safety in Northern Ireland, replacing the CORGI gas register. This will ensure the highest level of safety for gas consumers and is expected to help reduce the number of gas-related deaths and injuries every year by incorrectly installed, badly repaired and poorly maintained gas appliances by raising awareness that appliances should be inspected regularly by a qualified 'Gas Safe' registered engineer.

The campaign involves putting together advertising and promotional materials, involving the gas installers and all the other stakeholders.

Of course, this also involves supporting the change by an enforcement campaign which is aimed at tracking down unregistered gas installers and making sure they comply with the requirement to be registered.

What makes working in your industry interesting and challenging?

Managing change is both interesting and challenging. An inspector's role is about making change happen within a small business or on a Northern Ireland-wide level, as with the 'Big Change'.
When I was involved in the introduction of the first CORGI gas installer registration scheme the naysayers promised it wouldn't work, it did and now we're going to make that scheme even better.
We're working with a lot of like-minded people, building on the solid foundation that was laid by the CORGI local staff. It's building those synergies to make Northern Ireland a safer place to live and work in that make the job worthwhile.

What kind of personality do you need to operate successfully within the industry?

You need to be pretty determined. Once you've taken advice from professionals within the industry and worked out the optimal course of action, determination makes it possible to overcome the barriers and deliver the outcome needed. A sense of humour helps.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I'm really into hillwalking, so it's very convenient that I live right beside the Mourne mountains and take advantage of the walking opportunities every chance I get.

Who has inspired you most in your life?

Winston Churchill, who was a man who could get back up after being knocked down not just once, but several times and still make a great contribution to society.

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