June 1, 2020

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‘As long as we’re sensible the crisis could pay great dividends for us as a profession,’ SHP meets Neil Lennox, Head of Group Safety & Insurance at Sainsbury’s

Anyone who is a registered customer of Sainsbury’s, or any major supermarket chain for that matter, will have no doubt been kept regularly updated by email about the ongoing work to tackle coronavirus in branches up and down the country. 

It struck me recently when thinking about what kind of content would be relevant during the pandemic, that whilst many organisations were shutting up shop and furloughing staff, many were working harder than ever. From the very early days of the crisis, when panic buying decimated the shelves, supermarkets have been at the forefront of the fight against coronavirus. The lengths major chains went too, in order to protect customers and customer-facing staff, has been well-documented in the media and those aforementioned emails from the various CEO’s. At the end of April, Sainsbury’s told its customers that they are likely to see disruption to their shopping until September amid the coronavirus pandemic, with socially distanced queues likely to remain “for the foreseeable future”.

But what about the workers behind the scenes, in the warehouse and logistics arm of food retail? Most retailers had to immediately recruit a large number of temporary workers, to help cope with the demand. How do you get them all up to speed and have the correct systems in place, with very little planning, in the middle of peak operating?

“Partly because of the sickness absence, but also the increasing volumes for things like click and collect or home delivery activities, we had to take on temporary labour, both in depots and in stores,” said Neil Lennox, Head of Group Safety & Insurance at Sainsbury’s. “This led us to having to put more people both in warehouses and logistics, and we’ve had to do that in a fairly agile way, where we can’t do induction in quite the same way as normal.”

“Over the last few years, we’ve been moving towards much more e-learning solutions anyway, so that’s been really beneficial. So, we’ve ramped up some of those where we’ve got to the point of our annual Christmas peak, where we’ve always brought in quite large volumes of temporary labour. Normally we’d plan and gear up for that, but we’ve had to adapt at a lot faster pace. But, we’re fortunate in that we’ve been able to draw upon those plans that were already in place.

“The challenge in somewhere like a depot is we’re probably fighting with our competitors for the same agency workers. As we always have a degree of agency work, we’ve got people on the books that we can bring back, so they’re the first people we bring back. And then we’d basically be taking someone in on the basis that they’re a trained forklift truck operator, for example.”

Maintaining operations

sainsbury's lorry“We had a minor hiccup when the coronavirus regulations originally came out, because they closed all of our workplace canteens. The regulations said all canteens must shut, unless they’re in a hospital, a prison, or dealing with the armed forces. We’re not doing any of them, therefore we could not run our canteens. But, when you’ve got people working in a frozen depot or a warehouse having frozen goods, where they’re doing two-hour shifts in minus 20 degrees centigrade, we needed to be able to provide them with a hot meal during their shift. So, we had to raise that, and the government amended the definition in the regs, so workplace canteens where you couldn’t get any other sources of food could stay open, as long as they applied the social distancing rules.

“Similar issues were experienced by our long-distance lorry drivers and online goods delivery drivers, who have not been able to make their normal stops. They would potentially pull up in a McDonalds, or a service station for a coffee and a break but couldn’t because all of those places were closed. Going to the loo has also been a challenge if you’re a long-distance lorry driver. Fortunately, most of ours have relatively short trunking distances.”

Social distancing

Neil spoke about how, from a warehousing perspective, tasks such as goods picking had to be re-thought, in order to adhere to government social distancing rules. For the most part pickers are just a single person on a lollop, a low level order picker, so they tend not to come into contact with others too often, but in Argos branches, where items can be slightly bigger and bulkier, there is often the need for a two-person pick. “Normally the way it works is you have two people riding a specially designed low-level order picker,” Neil explained. “We basically had to have one person on the machine, another meet them at the pick slot, do a short burst of activity together, ten seconds or so, then move on.”

Of course, that brings with it a separate set of challenges, with more people moving around the warehouse on foot, than in normal circumstances. “We’ve always had one-way systems operating, so up and down aisles in the warehouses,” Neil said, “but this has added an extra level of complexity.”

He was keen to point out that the increased foot traffic in the warehouse has not led to any increased pattern of incident rates. “A lot of the work we have had to do around managing the situation is to do with more psychological or behavioural safety, trying to get people to understand that just because they have to walk past somebody in an aisle doesn’t mean they’re going to catch coronavirus. A large part of what we’ve been doing over the past few weeks has been about being rational and calm, whilst understanding people’s fears and allaying them as best you possibly can.”

“We had a lot of conversations, what feels like a lifetime ago, around the two-metre social distancing. In the logistics world, where you do occasionally have more people coming into contact with each other, but also within supermarkets within an aisle with customers and staff. How do you adhere to that two-metre guidance? We’d already decided that we would limit time spent in close-proximity with other staff and we would try and not work face to face.

“It was then really useful when the government came out with their updated guidance, where it does say ‘if it’s not possible, then work side by side, back to back, don’t work face to face. Limit time where you have to do the same jobs for less than fifteen minutes and keep work teams together’. Because those were all things we were doing, but at least with the government stamp on it that was helpful, because it’s got that added authority.”

Essential retailer

sainsburys-storeNeil said that initially, there was some slight contention over Argos branches remaining open. “Generally, people have seen food as not a problem. Food is clear, part of our mission is to feed the nation. And that’s clear. But, when you come to Argos, people were asking ‘how essential is Argos as a retailer?’. We’d effectively turned Argos into a click and online retailer anyway, and all of the high street stores have remained closed, but the stores within stores in the Sainsbury’s outlets have been open, operating as a fast track delivery service.” Neil pointed out that actually, being able to buy a new television or a paddling pool for the kids during lockdown might be quite important to your mental health and wellbeing. “Who are we in one sense, to deem what is essential and what isn’t essential? If we can serve it safely, we’ll do our best to serve it.

“In dealing with some of those challenges, we have been in talks with the unions and local environmental health officers. We actually carried out a virtual tour of a depot with an EHO, where we walked them round the depot with a depot manager showing them on camera what they wanted to see, talking them through things, rather than them physically coming in. That was a bit of a first, we haven’t seen that before.”

The future role of the safety practitioner

I ended the call, by asking Neil to look to the future. How does he think the pandemic will change his role going forward?

“I’ve never been asked so many questions. Everyone wants my opinion on things at the moment. Which is great at one level but is quite tiring and difficult at another. We spread it out around the team, but it’s quite hard work.

“I think, as long as we’re sensible the crisis could pay great dividends for us as a profession. I think we will be seen as being key to business continuity. I’ve always had pretty good exposure to the Op Board and PLC Board and other senior forums, but actually, i’m getting a great level of exposure to people I don’t normally get exposure to, because we’re all in this same group talking about things.

“But I think the way the world is going to change, it’s important that we take pragmatic, sensible, risk-based decisions, based on the evidence.”

‘The big challenge is not so much making people safe, but making people feel safe’

In a recent interview featured on SHP, Ian Hepplewhite, General Manager for Physical Logistics at iconic manufacturer MINI, echoed Neil’s points, when he said: “A big challenge was not so much making people safe, but making people feel safe. We sent staff detailed communications on the changes to the site including our commitments, and expectations.”

Click here to read the interview with Ian Hepplewhite.

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Stephen Penney
Stephen Penney
3 years ago

Sainsbury has managed to do very well in terms of maximise effectiveness of measures taken while minimising disruption. The limitation of one customer per household considerably helps with distancing in the shop, while enabling the queues to move faster than with other supermarkets. It is interesting to observe the effectiveness of the various different approaches taken, but it also shows that with a little thought about how to implement safe working systems results in a much more streamlined approach.

Simon Joyston-Bechal
Simon Joyston-Bechal
3 years ago

Great to read such a balanced view about social distancing

3 years ago

Social distancing aside I would hope Neil and his team actually go out an focus the minds of store managers and their night shift sub managers on Health and Safety. I regularly receive reports on the bullying and abuse some of them use in place of reasonable management especially at weekends, power pallet trucks that are dangerous yet still in use, scissor lifts that are broken and have been for months so unloading the night trunkers is fraught with physical risks that shouldn’t exist. Then there’s the frozen ice covered freezer floors. I’d suggest some store level Health & Safety… Read more »