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Ever wondered how Health and Safety for Beginners started?  If you have, here's the story from our founder John Johnston (i.e. me)...


Accidents Don't Need to Happen

After suffering a back injury at work in 2002, my life changed in an instant and would never be the same.


The accident itself was not a spectacular event by any means, there was no machinery involved, no explosions, no falls from a great height, no blood and guts, just a manual handling task I had done a few times before.  All I had to do was lift a heavy steel beam from the floor up a few inches and onto a wooden pallet.  A dual lift with a colleague.  We both managed the task and carried on with our Friday.  The next day, Saturday, I felt crippled and couldn't get out of bed because of the unbearable pain.  Not so good when my daughter was in her cot crying for food and a nappy change!


It turns out I had slipped two discs causing me to spend the next 2 ½ years virtually housebound living on Incapacity Benefit.


Naturally this placed incredible strain on home life for my wife and young daughter (two years old at the time), not only in monetary terms, but simple things like going shopping, visiting friends and family, pulling up socks, or even lifting a full kettle. All the things many people take for granted. The hardest part of these years was not being able to lift, carry or play easily with my young daughter who had no concept of why her mum could and I couldn't. Kids are amazing creatures though; she was OK with the limited physical activities we could do together.

Over time and after being diagnosed with having 'the back of an old man', I then realised I could no longer have a career which involved any sort of manual labour; I would need to put my brain to good use to pay the bills! With time on my hands during these years, I began asking questions as to why I was allowed to go to work perfectly healthy one day, then the next day how my work could have been allowed to place such a dark cloud over my life. Armed with these questions and a nudge in the right direction from my amazing Mum, I sought careers advice and self funded my way through the NEBOSH General Certificate at Falkirk College and the Diploma in Health and Safety Management at Glasgow's Caledonian University. My passion for keeping people safe and healthy at work had been ignited.


It became very clear, very quickly that my accident just did not need to happen.  Had I been given the right training, equipment and supervision, I would never have lifted that steel beam and my injury would have been prevented.


After completing the NEBOSH General Certificate, I attempted to share a single electronic file with a student friend. Sharing files was all very new to me, especially when the file was too large for email! I had to learn how to use the free web space allocated as part of my internet service provider's package. My learning started with two websites – and In the process over a few weeks, more and more files found their way onto my web space and I accidentally created a website called Health and Safety for Beginners (HSfB). The sole purpose of the website was originally to provide a completely free resource where students could easily find and share study materials using one large central point. I personally found information like this scarce on the internet and was convinced that there was a gap ready to be filled.


Discussion Forums

Not long after the birth of HSfB and whilst using a discussion forum for health and safety (which stopped operating some months later), I began chatting online to a user of that particular forum called 'Ippy'. One comment to me that Ippy made changed HSfB forever...."why don't you start a discussion forum of your own?" The rest as they say is history. Our discussion forums are an incredibly welcoming and friendly place to be, where everybody is treated with respect and where every single question is also treated with respect, hence the reason our tag line became – There is no such thing as a "stupid" or "daft" health and safety question! After all, everybody in our profession is simply working towards keeping people at work safe and healthy.


Since those early months, the website has grown into a valuable practical resource for students and professionals alike. The website allows the sharing of information, resources and discussions to take place between likeminded people with realistic and practical solutions for day to day challenges.


Not Just for Beginners

Although the name of the website suggests it is a tool for beginners, the site equally caters for experienced professionals at the same time. In fact, many of the beginners who have used the site in the past are now actively participating in the site daily as experienced professionals and offering their experience as advice. This is basically the HSfB circle of life where beginners gain so much from the site, they then want to put something back through their own learning and experience.


Another objective for HSfB is to assist beginners and professionals with their personal development, whether that is by providing the resources on the site or by providing subsidised learning in partnership with a variety of training providers through prize draw competitions. This particular concept resulted in the site winning the prestigious Lord Cullen Award for Safety Innovation and the Fife Regional Council Shield in 2007. In total, over 350 hours of training were subsidised for winners of the free prize draw and the total value of prizes given away was worth over £7,250.


The prize draw competitions grew and grew until 2012 where 174 potential winners shared 9,044 training hours and prizes totalling £67,570 over the years.


It all Falls into Place

Looking back on my H&S career, my passion grows from the first hand experience of being injured at work and the belief that injuries like these, or worse, are completely preventable.


As with many others starting out with their H&S career, it was a catch-22 situation. I had the qualifications (NEBOSH Certificate), but without experience employers were reluctant to take me on. Even after I started the Diploma in Health and Safety Management at Glasgow's Caledonian University getting my foot on that first rung of the ladder was difficult, and very frustrating!


It took over a year to finally find an employer who would give me the start I needed, and even that was not 100% dedicated to H&S. I secured a job with a small disability access consultancy which lasted one year until the consultancy was forced to close due to late payments from large organisations (something many small business have to contend with regularly).


Amazingly, my second break came from one of our discussion forum's members! He read about my job with the consultancy coming to an end and to cut a long story short, he persuaded (and helped) me to start my own H&S and disability access consultancy giving me my first paying job. I handed in my completed disability access reports to him on a Friday and during our close-out meeting, he offered me a full-time H&S advisors position working for him in a large oil and gas manufacturing firm in Dunfermline. I started the following Tuesday (it was my daughter's seventh birthday on the Monday) and my consultancy ended almost exactly one month after its launch.


The amazing thing that stands out for me is that without my injury, I would not have began asking questions as to why people get injured at work, I would not have chosen a career in H&S and HSfB would never have started. My injury and the people I have met through HSfB have changed my life forever, and I like to think that my journey has helped make a difference to others along the way also.


Proudest Moments

I don't do this job just for the money (it's nice to pay bills though!), it's all about making a difference for me.  However, sometimes nice things come out of the blue and in 2010 I was honoured with recognition for my efforts by my peers.  During 2010, the company I work for - FMC Technologies - awarded me their prestigious award, the Raymond C. Tower Safety Award and a nice trip to Houston, Texas with my amazing wife to collect it.  I'm the one in the kilt...



Raymond C Tower Award 2010


John (in the kilt) holding the Raymond C. Tower Award 



As if that wasn't enough, during 2014 I was honoured to be awarded one of RoSPA's newly established Guardian Angel Awards!


John Collecting the RoSPA Guardian Angel Award 2014

John Collecting the RoSPA Guardian Angel Award 


As I update this article (Oct 2016), I look back over the years of how very fortunate I have been.  I've met some amazing, interesting and inspirational people who share the same values I do and in a bizarre sort of way, I'm grateful for the path my injury is taking me.


Thanks for reading. 


John Johnston BA GradIOSH