Staff Spotlight: Chris Swainston, Principal Environmental Engineer

Posted on July 25, 2017
Archive : July 2017
Category : Staff Spotlight

How long have you been working for the company?

Nearly 11 years.

Have you seen a lot of changes at Geotechnics in that time?

Yes and no. No in as far as it’s still the same company that I joined in 2006, but I think we do look at site activities in a slightly different way now. There’s more emphasis on ISO 9001, ISO 14001 and the Health and Safety side of things as well. They’re now much better incorporated into everything that we do, and I think that has been a major change.

"Discovering why something is, or how something was, is perhaps what I enjoy doing most. Because it’s all about building up a story, and I love stories"

How would you describe a typical day in your role?

You never have a typical day. One of the advantages about the position I’m in is that I do a large variety of stuff. That can be anything from monitoring and site works to project managing and writing factual and interpretative reports. I am also involved in giving and producing training on environmental and some H&S topics. As a qualified 14001 auditor, I also do site audits on an ad hoc basis as well.

In my position as environmental champion, I act as a resource for everybody in the company if they have an environmental issue. Yesterday one of our staff in Chester discovered asbestos on site, and I gave them advice on how to minimise any risk of exposure. So there’s an element of trouble-shooting in my role.

I also go to conventions and conferences – some of which I speak at. I consult with other professionals on various topics and am involved with various trade bodies and British Standards groups. For example I am currently the chair of the EH4 Soil Quality, which is the committee that basically produces the standards for most of what we do on the geo-environmental side of things.

How much of a challenge is it when somebody calls you up with a problem on site?

It depends on the nature of it. Every site is unique. That gets forgotten by some companies, who attempt to take a site and plug it into a model that already exists. But by the very nature of ground investigation, sites will always have unique issues. We at Geotechnics value and promote the bespoke nature of undertaking a site investigation. Of course we do have specific risk assessments ready for issues that come up time and again, but these are always tailored to the needs of each site and the client.

What is your favourite part of your job?

I enjoy desk studies. I always have, because it’s all about finding out the history of the site - seeing how it’s developed over time; seeing what potential there is for contamination as a result of the activities that have happened there. Researching that history is one of the things that I find most enjoyable. I’ve always enjoyed looking through old maps and doing historical research, things like that. And then I enjoy going out onto site and seeing how the condition and state of the land actually reflects its previous history.

Discovering why something is, or how something was, is perhaps what I enjoy doing most. Because it’s all about building up a story, and I love stories.

What have been your favourite projects to work on?

I’ve done various bits and pieces all over the place really. Aside from Scotland, there’s not that many places in Britain where I haven’t dug a hole somewhere nearby. When I first came to the Midlands area, I wanted to work on one of the famous Shakespeare houses. I was able to do that for Geotechnics a couple of years back. The project involved the Nash House, which was next door to the place where Shakespeare died. I was able to do some window sampling in Shakespeare’s back garden!

That must have presented a few challenges…

When you’re in any archaeologically important area, you’ve got to be very very careful about what you’re doing. You’ve got to make sure you’re not going to disturb any material or – particularly in something like an almost Elizabethan age building – that you’re not creating too much vibration or disturbance, which could potentially cause some serious damage. Plus, as with all these old areas, you’ve got to be aware that access is usually very restricted. It presents some interesting challenges. You’ve got to be on the ball for those types of jobs.

How do you think that the wider industry has changed in the years you’ve been involved in it?

I’ve been involved in the industry for nearly 25 years now and it’s changed quite significantly. I think the major change in contaminated land would be the development of the CLEA model and CLR methodology back around 2002. Prior to that we had been working under various different regimes, which were almost ad hoc in approach sometimes. That was a major change, because the whole industry was then able to sing from the same hymn sheet and there was a lot more consistency.

What advice would you give to someone looking to get into the industry?

You’re always at the behest of the clients that we get. We have to go where the work is. That may be an hour’s travel from the office, or it may be at the other end of the country. That will have an effect on your social life, and you will probably have to do a lot of travelling before you can advance and become more office-based. You probably have to go through about 5-10 years of that, because you’ve got to gain an understanding of the basic skills. If you haven’t been there and done it – if you haven’t gone out and dug holes, you haven’t worked in a lab and seen the variations that are possible there and have an understanding of how it all comes together - then you’re not going to be very effective at being able to get other people to do it, either as a manager or as a consultant being fed the information from another to interpret.

As part of your role, you’re very involved in training the company’s staff. What do you enjoy about this?

It’s a way to pass on knowledge and understanding, and hopefully it will mean that people will avoid making the same mistakes we all do at some point. I like to think it speaks for itself that we’ve had ISO 14001 for over eight years now and we’ve had no significant environmental incidents in that time. I think that is down to training and making sure the people who are in charge of the site are aware of what the issues are and think about what they should do in different situations they may come across. Encouraging that way of thinking is infinitely preferable to having 20 pages of tick boxes. That may cover you in a court of law, but does it actually keep your people safe? No.

We want to keep our people safe.

We’ve recently launched our new GO SAFE campaign about invasive species. What are the key messages that you would like people to think about when they’re on site?

Think about liabilities. Think about how they can potentially affect you and what you’re doing on site. The majority of issues for invasive species in Geotechnics usually involve Japanese knotweed and Himalayan balsam.

Himalayan balsam produces absolutely bucket loads of seeds. Japanese knotweed just grows and grows and grows... A few years back, we went to one site in the Midlands and at the end of March there was basically half an inch of knotweed showing. We did the intrusive works and then came back to do the monitoring over a period of about a month and a half afterwards. Around May-June, the knotweed was as high as my head over an area of about 100 square metres. It absolutely shoots up everywhere. The problem with knotweed is that it doesn’t reproduce by flowers and seeds - it regenerates. Parts larger than about your thumbnail can potentially create a new plant. As a consequence, you really do not want to take any knotweed off site. That’s why it’s an offence to knowingly spread it anywhere else: it is very invasive, and it is very expensive and difficult to remove when it takes hold.

Giant hogweed is also problematic because of the effects it can have if you brush up against it. There are these sort of hypodermic needles like a nettle around parts of the stem. You get those on you and you can be subject to photo sensitive dermatitis, which can last several years. It will recur over several years as the poison will still be in your body. So you certainly also need to be aware of plants that can potentially harm you.

Of course, you need to be aware of the protection side of things as well. For example, there are numerous species of orchid around the UK that are protected. A lot of them love calcareous soils and can often be found in quarries. Increasingly, you can also find them in areas that have high levels of lime from concrete as well.

What do you like to do outside of work?

Gaming - either computer games, role playing games, card games or other things as well. I go to various conventions throughout the year where I either help out or play. It’s been my main hobby since the age of 9, when I was given my first set of Dungeons and Dragons by a relative from the USA.

What is a surprising fact that people might not know about you?

When I was at university many moons ago I went to The Rocky Horror Picture Show in Portsmouth dressed as Frank N Furter. When I was coming back from Portsmouth City Hall, I had to go past the Eastleigh Marine Barracks in order to get home - that’s where my student accommodation was at the time. I was with a friend of mine – who was dressed as Columbia. We were slightly worried, but as we went past the barracks a guy (who was obviously a marine) actually crossed the road to avoid us! Which was slightly odd! 

Chris Swainston is our Principal Environmental Engineer. If you have any questions about invasive species or any other environmental issues, please email