A safety rep for all seasons

A safety rep for all seasons

Steve Crothers is an award-winning data and computer scientist who has dodged polar bears in the High Arctic, had his name projected on the planetarium at New York’s National History Museum and is a lead safety rep at UK Research and Innovation. He talks to Boc Ly

Working in the High Arctic will give you a different perspective on health and safety.

Steve Crothers worked there for several years helping to run one of the EISCAT radars conducting experiments to probe the upper atmosphere and observing, among other things, the effects of the aurora borealis.

“One of the things I realised was there were no real rules for people coming from the UK. We had someone who turned up with a cagoule! You occasionally saw people doing really stupid things,” says Steve.

At Longyearbyen, Norway, said to be the world’s most northerly settlement with permanent residents, the pubs are equipped with rifle racks, as it is a requirement that at least one member of every group is armed for protection against wandering polar bears.

“As a team leader, I tried to ask for advice back home on what could be done, but they had no experience of the conditions anyway. So, we set up a little panel that I lead to draw up a set of guidelines for, you know, trying not to die while you're up here.”

Steve almost didn’t make it out of there alive himself – he contracted a virus in his heart and had a heart attack. He was taken to the intensive care unit at the local hospital where, thankfully, he made a full recovery.

There were some consolations to working in the Arctic. Steve saw the Northern Lights “probably more than a thousand times. It was pretty much every night.”

“I've seen the Aurora at noon because it's pitch dark in midwinter. I've also been sitting in the bar chatting with my friends and thinking I'll go to bed when it gets dark. Then I look at my watch and realise it's 3am, and it's not going to get dark for another month and a half.”

Science career

One of many different hats that Steve wears outside of work is that of a STEM ambassador, where he goes into schools telling pupils about the benefits of choosing to study, and hopefully to work in, science.

Steve’s own science career started with what was then called the Science Research Council, following his first class honours degree in computing science.

In 2018, the UK’s various science, technology and research councils were brought together under the single banner of UK Research and Innovation, which is where, nominally, Steve continues to work.

The reality is that his time, and expertise in data management, is split between various ongoing projects that take him around the world.

He worked on an EU project looking to keep digital data alive for 100 years. That entailed trips to Paris, to Pisa and to Haifa in Israel.

Though no longer in the High Arctic, he’s still attached to the EISCAT project and also to NASA’s STEREO Heliospheric Imager Team, which has taken him to Pasadena, New Hampshire and New York.

In fact, the STEREO team won the 2020 Royal Astronomical Society Group Award for achievements in geophysics. The award citation makes reference to “imaging the disconnection of a comet’s tail due to a coronal mass ejection.”

Steve remembers the very moment.

“One day, I was monitoring the quality of the data because I'm basically a data manager. But I'm looking at it and ‘saying what's this? What happened here?’ Apparently, there was a coronal mass ejection from the sun, it hit this comet and actually ripped the tail off.

“It was something that was known to happen. But this was the first time it had been seen from a spacecraft, and we were able to see that from the data.”

On another occasion, Steve processed data captured by the STEREO group for the American Museum of Natural History in New York so they could use it in a planetarium presentation on the sun.

He was given an open invitation to visit the museum and was given free tickets to all the exhibits and, of course, he went to the planetarium.

“I'm sitting there in the planetarium and at the end my name is projected on the screen, but they listed me as a PhD, which I haven't got!”

Safety rep

Steve joined Prospect shortly after starting work at the SRC, but for many years “didn’t do much for the union apart from paying my subs.”

This all changed when a message was circulated saying that if more safety reps didn’t step forward, then they would be replaced by representatives from the employer instead.

Not only did Steve answer the call but has also, through the years, taken up a number of other union roles, including sitting on Prospect’s national health and safety advisory committee.

Now, as chair of safety reps at UKRI, Steve has been at the forefront of several battles with management over health and safety policy, not least when UKRI was formed itself. Not enough independence and too many structural layers between the union and management were particular sticking points.

“When they set up UKRI, none of the trade unions nominated any safety reps. We thought that was a clear message. Management said to us, ‘Why haven't you nominated safety reps?’ They were told because we don't think the safety policy is fit for purpose.”

The UKRI eventually hired an external applicant to be their new head of health and safety, and a revised safety policy was published.

Community champion

Outside of work and his STEM ambassadorial duties, Steve is vice-chair of governors (having formerly been the chair) of the primary school, which his son, who is now a teenager, used to attend.

He is also a community champion for MacMillan Cancer Support, providing help and advice for cancer patients, or their carers, on MacMillan’s online forums.

His involvement with MacMillan was inspired by the help he received himself from the Maggie’s charity when his wife was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, which had itself followed a difficult pregnancy that had triggered bouts of serious health complications.

Her chemotherapy treatment appears to be working so far and, fingers crossed, it stays that way.

His group of Macmillan Community Champions was awarded the Vicky Clement-Jones Award this year, which is given to those who use a personal cancer experience to help others.

Career highlight

Steve’s work has been cited in dozens of research papers, has worked in teams who have won prestigious awards and his career has taken him to the ends of the world.

Yet asking him to choose a career highlight is somewhat revealing.

He picks a ‘meet the scientist’ programme that he was invited to be a part of by the Science Museum in London. For three days, he got to show 3D movies of the sun, and interact with children and families explaining to them the things they’re seeing on the screen.

It was “incredibly hard work” he says. But was it really the highlight of his career?

“Well, I like people. The award is nice recognition. But the real recognition is people. I'm a people person. That's why I’m a safety rep.”