Addressing the elephant in the room

Addressing the elephant in the room

As I am writing this article, I am involved in a large maintenance shutdown. Work activities are being conducted by teams of employees and contractors, with the numbers peaking at around 5 000 persons on site. One would think that there wouldn’t be space left for a mouse, let alone an elephant …

To put these numbers into perspective, imagine having 12 Boeing 747 planes landing and taking off each day at the site. Not an easy feat when considering the logistics of such a project: from access control to eating areas, hygiene facilities, providing induction training and ensuring learning and understanding of the requirements while working on site.

To make things even more challenging, we have participants from Austria, Finland, Slovakia, Poland, Portugal and many other countries. One can only imagine the obstacles when it comes to the interpretation and understanding of what is required.

Ensuring alignment

With all the different contractor companies bringing their own risk and safety persons onto the site to cover both day and night shifts, we have about 100 safety and health practitioners providing support. This alone is a challenge as the range of experience, qualifications and understanding is vast – from strong safety advisors providing much-needed support to those who clearly are not at the level needed to make a difference.

Daily engagement sessions took place with these risk and safety persons to align the focus areas, discuss issues of concern, and provide support and guidance when needed. Aligned with the caring approach of our company, we promoted open and honest discussions during these sessions and invited various professionals to speak about health topics. This included sessions on stretching exercises with the team, who were then encouraged to do the same with their smaller teams during their daily engagement sessions.

Boots on the ground

Safety is a line responsibility, however, it is amazing to see how many companies, although they promote this approach, still make the risk and safety person responsible for safety in the field. Fortunately, this isn’t the case at the company where I work. Line management understands their responsibility and therefore are continuously out in the field focusing not only on their areas of responsibility, but also paying attention to risk and safety.

However, we as risk and safety persons should be providing the necessary support and playing our part in engaging with the employees and contractors. Sitting in our offices, hiding behind a pile of papers, adds little or no value. This approach will not make much of a difference when it comes to ensuring a safe and successful shutdown or project.

In turn, having risk and safety people who focus only on the controls rather than considering the individual and group dynamics does not add much value either. There needs to be a clear balance between the attention to the controls such as inspections, risk assessments, procedures, training and that of psychology and culture.

We have to do our bit as risk and safety representatives and be out in the field providing support. On average, I have walked around eight kilometres per day on the site to engage with the employees and contractors. Most of the discussions have been pleasant and positive.

However, we are all wired differently and have individual personalities, and so unsurprisingly some of the conversations have been challenging. These have definitely at times put my skills in the social psychology of risk to the test.

Gone are the days when companies employ people with little or no experience in risk and safety. Unfortunately, though, this does still happen in the construction industry. It is not uncommon for companies to appoint unqualified or inexperienced persons in risk and safety only because it is a requirement of the client where the work will be conducted.

This approach adds absolutely no value apart from adding costs to the company, damaging its integrity as well as that of the risk and safety industry. Not only do these unqualified persons have no clue what to do or what guidance to provide, but they’ll also probably never intervene or engage with employees regarding risk and safety. It’s probably better not to have a person in the position at all than having someone just for the sake of having them.

Zero harm

One of the most common safety mantras used by companies around the world is “Zero Harm” – a mantra that is, sadly, still promoted by large organisations as well as consultants in the risk and safety field.

The question is whether “Zero Harm” is a realistic goal that is even achievable. The answer has to be a clear “no”. Believing in Zero Harm means that we do not consider humans to be fallible;  denying this is absurd.

When planning for a shutdown and project of this nature, it was clear that our main objective was to experience no fatal or life-altering injuries and to send everybody home safely at the end of each shift. Covid-19 also played a role and formed part of the planning in the efforts to reduce the risks on site. We knew and accepted that injuries would occur.

No safety-related legislation requires companies to eliminate all risks; however, the requirement is to reduce the risk as low as reasonably practical. Therefore, it is clear that there will be a residual amount of risk; as long as this is the case, the Zero Harm mantra is a contradiction.

Why even set a goal that can never be achieved? This mantra could also have the unintended consequence that employees decide not to report an injury because they do not want to let their team down.


Conclusion

Firstly, getting rid of safety mantras that are unachievable and have no regard for fallibility is a start. Mantras that are unachievable not only set people up for failure but also develop a sense of mistrust. Zero Harm is a delusion.

Secondly, it is also important that a company employs qualified risk and safety persons to fill positions and provides the necessary support in developing the desired culture. Those days of filling the safety position with just anyone are gone. We would never compromise on an appointment in the finance or engineering positions, so why do companies compromise when it comes to qualified persons for the risk and safety positions?

Thirdly, persons employed in risk and safety need to find a balance. Focusing only on workplace controls will not ensure continuous improvement and development of the desired culture. Culture is not developed through paperwork, rules and procedures; it is developed when building trust, reflecting a caring approach and engaging with people while focusing on the psychological and group dynamic elements of risk and safety.

In my co-authored book It Works, this new approach to risk and safety is addressed in more detail – and it’s an approach that we are seeing many companies starting to adopt around the world. 

Published by

Brian Darlington

Brian Darlington is the group head of safety and health for the Mondi Group, based in Vienna, Austria. He has filled the role since 2012 and is responsible for safety and health in more than 30 countries. Darlington started working at Iscor before joining Mondi in 1987, working in Gauteng. In 2000 he transferred to the Kraft Division in Richards Bay. During 2005, he transferred to Europe, taking up the position of business unit SHE manager, responsible for SHE in paper mills in Austria, Hungary, Israel, Slovakia, Poland, South Africa and Russia, as well as forests operations in South Africa and Russia.
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