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March 15, 2021

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Culture and behaviours

Keeping 12,000 employees safe during COVID-19

Mark Patterson, Director of SHE at SSE, speaks to Louis Wustemann about how the energy firm’s Safety Family programme and how its health & safety strategy, helped it react quickly and effectively to COVID-19.

Mark Patterson“In times of distress when things are not clear, you need to default to your values, to the things that make you who you are,” says Mark Patterson. “When there’s no rulebook you fall back to the core beliefs you have as an organisation. The powerful backbone to our response to COVID-19 was that we had something strong to fall back on. We weren’t creating a new set of words and a new safety language; we had a core sense of belief in what we needed to do and how we need to do it – that hadn’t changed.”

Patterson is Group Safety, Health and Environment (SHE) Manager at energy group SSE. He is explaining how the organisation’s stringent safety standards and approach enabled it to adjust quickly to maintain a steady supply of electricity and gas and other utilities to hospitals, care homes and the public in large parts of the UK and Ireland, while protecting its own workforce in a new risk landscape.

In a matter of weeks in February and March of 2020, the company shifted to a new three-tier crisis command structure, stopped non-essential face-to-face activity – switching power station shift handovers to phone calls, for example – and integrated remote working and social distancing into its operational and office based teams.

Adapting to the crisis and keeping the lights on while working safely was made possible by a firm foundation laid over the past four years through a campaign to ensure SSE’s 12,000 employees and contractors got home safe, were healthy and happy at work and were empowered to make decisions about managing the hazards they meet.

Led by the commitment that “If it’s not safe, we don’t do it”, the Safety Family programme has helped reduce the recordable injury rate by a third and the number of serious injuries by three-quarters.

This significant improvement was kick started in 2016 when SSE’s Chief Executive Alistair Phillips-Davies agreed with Patterson to aim for a step change in health and safety performance, rather than the incremental gains they had made before. “We decided to set ourselves a bigger, bolder transformational ambition,” says Patterson.  

Four principles

To develop the mindset needed to make a major change in safety, health and environment, the company started promoting the new “If it’s not safe, we don’t do it” maxim. Within SSE this was described as” our safety licence”, drawing on the workforce’s understanding of the importance of licences in a tightly-regulated industry. No matter what role or level people have in SSE they have that licence to stop work – people respect that and are committed to it.

Meanwhile, working groups were set up in Spring 2017 to contribute towards the improvements, covering eight strategic areas: operational safety, contractor safety, process safety, driving, crisis management, occupational health and wellbeing, safety family and the environment. These groups were headed by senior operational leaders from the business, whose involvement reinforced one of the programme’s central messages, that good safety was good business.

One of the groups was tasked with building the company’s Safety Family approach, which had a strong basis in its encouragement of employees to see colleagues as part of an extended SSE family but also as someone else’s child, parent and/or spouse.

Drawing on focus groups of employees, discussing their beliefs about the organisation and its approach to safety and health, the steering group and safety and communications functions framed four new “Safety Family statements” to expand on the fundamental tenet of “If it’s not safe, we don’t do it”.

The principles are:

  • We take care of ourselves and each other.
  • We take pride in our work and workplace.
  • We plan, scan, and adapt.
  • We see, sort it, report it.

Critical to these principles’ success was their simplicity, says Patterson – they superseded a prescribed list of 120 good and bad health and safety behaviours – plus their positive language and that they were inclusive. “Historically it had been ‘SSE does’,” he explains. “Now it is all ‘we’ to make it personal and unified. When it comes to safety, we are all in it together.”

“The language people use shifts their beliefs,” he adds, “and when you repeat and reinforce that language, it becomes ingrained in belief and then you see changes to the actions that we take.”

The common language is reinforced in all safety communications, from training to business area bulletins, to SSE wide messages. Seasonal safety and health campaigns are now couched in terms of the four tenets. Patterson gives the example of a winter aware campaign at the end of 2019 that was aligned with the “We take care of ourselves and each other” statement.

Making it personal

SSETo underpin the Safety Family statements, a half-day training session was run for all employees, starting with those in the SSEN network division, focusing on why people experience safety lapses – using real-life examples – and how applying the four principles could help avoid them. Patterson says a major theme was the fact people make mistakes, we have lapses, our brains get overloaded and we can go into an alpha state, but if we develop good habits that can help to keep us all safe.

The training emphasised that safe working was not an add-on to efficient and high-quality performance but an integral part of it and key to doing a good job. People that are really good at their job plan things well, are well organised and can ‘crack on’ and get things done quickly, effectively and, above all safely.

Separate training for supervisors showed them how to model safe behaviour for their teams and a series of programmes was put in place to bring the 12,000 contractors working on SSE sites into the safety family. In 2018 these included finding and filling communications gaps in CDM – Construction (Design and Management) Regulations – arrangements on infrastructure projects and working with our contract partners to identify best practice so it could be shared across all sites.

The statements and how they translated into day-to-day operations through real live stories were also the subject of a series of monthly publicity campaigns (one for each phrase) via group-wide communications and safety and health bulletins since 2017.

Up a step

The 2019-20 accounting period ending last March was SSE’s best ever in safety performance, capping six years of improvement. The total recordable injury rate fell from the benchmark of 0.22 per 100,000 hours worked in 2016-17 to 0.16 in 2019-20, a cut of 30% in a period in which SSE divested itself of its energy retail division, which had the lowest risk profile of all the group’s businesses. The drop in the most severe, potentially life-changing injuries was most notable in SSE Group, from 10 in 2017-18 to just one in 2019-20.

Patterson says the pursuit of getting everyone home safe has led SSE to focus preventing the most serious incidents and less on injury rates as a measure and more on the number of days when everyone working with SSE gets home safe with no environment incidents. There were 249 of these “safe days” in 2019-20.

“Taking care of ourselves and each other” has also really helped to nudge people within SSE focus on their physical and mental wellbeing. Health awareness promotions have seen a large part of the workforce take “know-your-numbers” blood sugar and cholesterol tests and take part in fitness challenges. Around 9,000 employees and contractors have taken an online mental health training course.

Crisis ready

The ethos of personal and shared responsibility for safety and planning for and adapting to changes to risks that the Safety Family programme built made a real difference in the swift transition to a crisis footing as the COVID-19 pandemic developed. Patterson says the time in early March 2020 when a fast-changing situation brought a high level of added stress for many, the Safety Family spirit was in evidence. “People were very generous to each other in recognising people were under a degree of pressure to operate and to look after their teams,” he says. “We all want to take care of ourselves and each other. That’s the overriding instinct, because we are all committed to that, the thing that we can really work on is how best to do it.”

Apart from the remote shift handovers, practical controls included increased cleaning and desk spacing in the control centres where staff still have to be co-located, adaptations at business unit level included ensuring operational teams traveling in separate vehicles. On a project to overhaul a transformer at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire, toolbox talks and site inductions were moved outside the site cabins to the open air to allow social distancing.

To help employees cope with potential increased stress levels and isolation during the lockdowns, the company introduced a number of initiatives such as mindfulness conference calls at the start of each day that anyone can opt into, a support guide that signposted employees to such things as mental first aiders, the company’s employee assistance programme, additional support from health providers as well as additional webinars and on-line training on change, resilience and working remotely.

“If you have a group of people at home it’s important to keep them motivated, having something that’s going to develop them and grow them is really important,” says Patterson.

Reflecting on how SSE has managed the COVID-19 crisis for its customers and staff, he concludes: “our key successes have been the ability to respond at pace and an overriding sense that we are all in this together. That tenet of ‘If it’s not safe, we don’t do it’ is the underlying licence that people have.  Because colleagues had a clear sense of purpose and had been part of developing the simple and engaging language that described their beliefs, we were well able to respond to this.”

SSE’s crisis command

SSE’s crisis response plans were based on a Gold, Silver and Bronze command structure, where the Gold Command team makes the strategic group-wide decisions, and local business issues are addressed by the Silver Command, and the Bronze Command works at site level.

Having monitored the spread of the coronavirus from the start of the year, in February 2020 the company arranged a Gold Command test exercise involving people across the business to model their response to a potential pandemic. At the same time the company tested the resilience of individual business units and the IT infrastructure to a crisis and coordinated with the rest of the electricity supply and distribution industry.

In early March 2020, the company assembled the Silver Command, restricted non-essential business travel and geared up for home-based working, culminating in “work at home Wednesday” for all non-field staff on the 16th, anticipating the national lockdown announced a week later. During the lockdown, around 10,000 of the company’s 12,000 staff worked from home.

Mark Patterson says the potential for multiple people in key positions to contract the virus necessitated changes to the standard response plans. “We had to make allowances for people in decision-making roles to get sick, to provide back-ups for the back-ups” he explains. The crisis control rooms, which would normally involve teams of people co-located, were made virtual to reduce virus transmission risk. He also split the role of Gold Commander between himself and a colleague. This brought an added benefit: “because we had regular handovers between the gold commanders, when one came back on, they were able to have a different and fresh perspective.”

The challenges in the early weeks were working with differing and rapidly-changing Government guidance and regulations in the UK and Ireland and trying to align employees’ varying perceptions of the risks the virus posed.

The Gold Commander’s critical role was keeping attention concentrated on the main priority at any time, he says: “Because there is an overwhelming number of commercial, practical, safety perspectives you need to try and address but you have to help people see that while something is important, it’s not important above something else.”

“We were really clear on what our priority was,” he adds. “We focused on the safe and reliable supply of electricity in the UK and Ireland. In addition, we also helped to protect the public through our telecoms infrastructure, street lighting, gas, heat and water.

That’s a very clear mission – I’m proud of the work done by SSE, our contractor partners and our industry peers.”

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