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Safety culture – Great minds think alike06 September 2012
Following on from his previous article describing the immediate impact of the death of one of his workers, Keith Turney provides further insight into how the incident informed an innovative approach to safety within the company that aims to ensure no employee comes to harm again.
Writing in these pages last September, I described, from the safety-conscious business-owner’s point of view, the death of our colleague, Brian Collins, in a tragic workplace fall, and another incident, which occurred 18 months later.1 I told how the subsequent investigation and prosecution affected the business and workforce, how we identified the issues that contributed not necessarily to the accidents themselves but to the familiarity inherent in simple jobs that allowed the accident to become possible.
The reality is that many businesses – while they may well tick every box in terms of risk assessments, method statements, etc. – are not prepared to ask the ‘what if?’ question. They are not prepared to confront the reality that accidents can and do happen – that they, as a business, can be deemed culpable, and that prosecution is a distinct possibility.
As a business, we have lived with these stark realities of life. For our workforce, a fatal accident is no longer a theoretical possibility and they have seen for themselves the effect that a death has on the business and its owners.
Without wishing to minimise the enormity of the tragedy that occurred, there is no doubt that it focused everyone’s minds. After the second accident, which was the result of an individual act of stupidity that went against all our procedures, by a worker who had been there when Brian fell, it became crystal clear: we had to deal with the complacency that comes from familiarity with mundane, everyday jobs. We realised we had to focus on supervision, and that the best way to do so was to focus on the supervision that comes from the individual and the group.
Shared Mental Model
We worked very hard to come up with the right way to implement the new working methods, which were designed to target ‘the mind on the job’, to get the men thinking about their own and their colleagues’ safety, and to communicate effectively and constructively with each other, even on relatively simple jobs, to make sure that safety was continuously ‘front of mind’.
I prepared carefully over that Christmas, and, when the workers came in for the first day of the new year, I gave them the ‘rollicking’ of their lives! I laid it on the line: we were going to adopt a new way of working, we were going to be supporting each other, and we were going to communicate. The men were going to sign up to the programme. Literally – each man’s contract of employment was modified to include a safety code of conduct.
I don’t want it to sound as though it was ‘my way or the highway’, but I needed them to understand that this was serious, that there was no alternative, and that the business was committed to this ‘behavioural’ approach to safety. We developed a Safety Conduct Pack (see panel opposite), which led through to our Big Idea – the Shared Mental Model. This was delivered to the workforce by me, rather than a third-party trainer. (Details of our safety strategy are available on our website.)2
Key to how we approach project management, safety management and staff relations is on-site communication, and a key aspect of this is ‘situational awareness’ – lack of which is a main contributor to workplace accidents. Situational awareness can be defined as the perception of environmental elements within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their risk status within the near future. A loss of awareness of the dangers around a worker inevitably leads to a reduction in workplace safety.
To improve situational awareness we operate a ‘buddy system’ based on the premise that no one person can be vigilant all the time, but the work team can be. The system is easily understood and is practical, rather than theoretical. It harnesses the group strength of the work team and added to that is the office, as a ‘remote buddy’, to oversee the processes on site.
A number of clear parameters underpins the buddy system:
- All staff are required to work independently within the team to help and monitor each other;
- In risk-perception terms, the team is non-hierarchical – every member has an equal right to identify and warn of potential risks;
- Team members have a formal responsibility for each other;
- Any issues that do occur are recorded formally to highlight systematic problems within any process, or individual job; and
- Constant monitoring leads to a positive and thorough safety process.
The buddy system is part of the core of the Shared Mental Model, which, on a company level, encompasses workforce issues like candidate selection, organisation structure, training and CPD, and the individual/team mindset.
The Shared Mental Model is not restricted to the men on the front line; we have also used mobile computing power and 3G communications to provide a live link to the office. Minor variations to the job can be implemented by the work team and recorded on change forms, but if anything more than very minor changes are required then this live signalling allows images, documents and proposed changes to be exchanged quickly and efficiently between site and head office. These can then be assessed and approved by technical staff, making the office a ‘remote buddy’, and ensuring that any substantive changes are controlled and managed properly.
The Shared Mental Model therefore improves individual and team safety through better understanding and communication; increases awareness of complacency through continuous monitoring of team behaviour, procedures and equipment usage by the team itself; and improves supervision of remote teams through live signalling and improved communications.
Proof of its effectiveness is a number of completely unsolicited commendations from clients, who commented on the team’s very professional approach on site. Staff were also interviewed for an Investors in People review, as a result of which we were pleased to discover that safety was very clearly ‘front of mind’, and we did not get clichéd, rote answers, as we might have done had we pursued a purely ‘tick-box’ approach. Each worker had taken on board the Shared Mental Model and was able to express it in his own terms.
1 Turney, K (2011): ‘Best-laid schemes’, in SHP September 2011, Vol.29 No.9 – www.shponline.co.uk/features-content/full/ viewpoint-best-laid-schemes
Keith Turney is managing director of Central Highrise.
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