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Star turn for Sodexo Justice Services

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“Everyone likes to have a good story to tell,” says Stenia Walker, deputy group head safety & risk at Sodexo Justice Services. “And the achievement of a Five Star Audit is exactly the best one. It demonstrates we operate at a high level – it is a well-recognised achievement within the wider safety community.”


MP Addiewell and HMP Forest Bank prisons were awarded the British Safety Council’s five-star grading for the integrated health, safety and environmental audit this year. Safety Management finds out more about the process, and how the benefits exceed the receipt of the award itself.

The prisons are managed by Sodexo Justice Services, a subsidiary of Sodexo. As well as Addiewell in Scotland and Forest Bank in Salford, England, there are three more sites in the portfolio: Bronzefield, Northumberland and Peterborough, all located in England.

What does the audit involve?

The Five Star Audit involves an intense evaluation of an organisation’s occupational health and safety policies, processes and practices, including its Safety Management System (SMS) as well as ensuring practices are aligned with what’s required in law.

'Main street' at HMP Forest Bank. Photograph: Soddexo Justice Services

An auditor from the British Safety Council will spend time speaking to staff and residents (prisoners) to ensure that what is said or documented is happening on the ground. “These achievements rely on strong teamwork including safety, facilities management and indeed all managers and staff on site. They are not the result of one person,” emphasises Stenia, who leads the safety team at HMP Addiewell.

The process is challenging. As Mike Conway, director of strategy and corporate change at Sodexo, wrote to his staff this year: “These audits are not easy, especially at first and especially as they keep raising the bar.”

Continual improvement

If the process is tough, requiring months of preparation and then a week of auditing which involves all staff, the opportunity for reward and to raise the bar is the motivation. The Five Star Audits at Sodexo’s prisons have been an annual feature for several years now, says Stenia. Each time an audit is done, it helps push standards up. “One of the main reasons we go through the audit each year, is the cycle of continual improvement,” says Stenia.

Addiewell is a learning and development prison, meaning the prisoners have access to trade workshops, gyms, libraries and education classrooms. Photograph: Sodexo Justice Services

Improvement is built into the audit process itself. An auditor will give the organisation being audited an action plan based on areas that still need improvement as well as feedback on good performance. This is then shared with the safety team and other managers. “The action plans these audits provide are detailed and even in areas where we have performed well, the auditors still encourage ways in which we can achieve more. Their knowledge, patience and desire to help and advise makes the process a success,” says Stenia.

‘Go back to go forward’

A look at Sodexo’s safety journey shows how the audits have helped improve performance in a number of areas. In 2015, all five prisons achieved the full grading in the Five Star Occupational Health & Safety Audit for the first time. At this point, Sodexo decided to go even further and planned for a Five Star SHE Integrated Audit for all its prisons.

This audit combines elements of the Five Star Occupational Health and Safety and Environmental Audit into one product. “We have a passion for environmental issues but were aware that we needed to improve in this area and knew the British Safety Council Audit would be the perfect vehicle to assist us on our journey,” says Stenia.

704 men reside at HMP Addiewell, its high security category status referring to the high risk of escape. Photograph: Sodexo Justice Services

“It was explained well by Tony Simpson, our director of UK Custodial Operations, when he said ‘we are prepared to take several steps back in order to move forward’ as we embraced the necessary improvements to meet the environmental criteria of the British Safety Council audit which sit well above legislative requirements and indeed we moved from consistent Five Star Awards to Three Stars or Four Stars across our sites. It took us until 2018/19 to achieve Five Stars against the Integrated Audit in all five sites, what an achievement.”

Audit in a pandemic

This year, of course, has been even more challenging due to the pandemic. HMP Forest Bank is one of the largest, busiest and most complex prisons in the UK, with a high staff and prisoner population.

HMP Forest Bank houses 1,430 prisoners and over 600 staff. Photograph: Sodexo Justice Services

Matt Thorpe, safety and risk manager at the prison, explains: “In a normal year our biggest challenge is maintaining positive safety behaviours aligned to a high security environment to manage disruption and reduce safety hazards. This includes behaviours that are generated by violence and the smuggling in of contraband items that can fuel violence.”

In the past 12 months HMP Forest Bank has had the added challenge of managing the risk of Covid-19 in a very closed environment with 1,430 prisoners and more than 600 staff. “We have navigated this challenge very successfully, keeping everyone in Forest Bank safe from the pandemic.”

Since 2019, there have been new criteria in the Five Star Audit – leadership and stakeholder engagement – which made the coronavirus crisis the perfect test case, says Stenia: “Much of our success was achieved by involving our residents in all aspects of the new situation in which we were working.”

She says that the auditors worked hard to adapt their methods to the new context: “Agile working and new technologies have made it possible for us to continue with our audits albeit remotely. Our thanks to the British Safety Council for their flexibility and the patience of our auditors who have gone above and beyond to complete all aspects of the audits robustly and remotely.”

A huge achievement

Recognition for good work is the oil to the wheels of our efforts. Has the recognition of the Five Star Audit in a difficult year boosted motivation for Stenia and Matt and their teams? “Safety is at the core of everything we do at HMP Forest Bank,” answers Matt.

“To be recognised with the maximum five-star grading from the British Safety Council is a huge achievement, not only for the safety team but for all staff at the prison. While this recognition highlights our commitment to providing a safe environment for everyone at the prison, there is always more to do, and we will continue to work hard to build on the progress made and help drive improvements across all Sodexo prisons.”

For Stenia, gaining five stars means many things, including to support Sodexo’s mission which is quality of life for residents and staff. “Overarching everything, it’s not just about looking good, but actually being good at what we do,” she says. 2020 and 2021 have been hard, but taking part in the audit supported the teams through it and the journey together continues: “We will continue to stretch ourselves and look forward to many years of collaboration with the British Safety Council.”

More information on the British Safety Council Five star integrated audit here

Safety Management visited HMP Addiewell in Scotland. Read the article here

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