Doing Away With Health and Safety–Language and People


Safe Shirt Friday‘Whenever Safety is used as an adjective whatever follows is moronic’ – Dr Rob Long

In his book “Drift Into Failure”, the attention Sidney Dekker gives to the importance of language is critical as he states:

‘What we need is a language that can help us get to a more functional account … whose constructions of meaning co-evolve relative to a set of environmental conditions, and who try to maintain a dynamic and reciprocal relation with the understanding of those conditions.’ (p. 49).

This is a summary of the presentation that Rob Kirkwood and Geoffrey Bourke from EnergyWorks delivered at the recent Safeguard National Health and Safety Conference. First published by Rob Kirkwood here

Doing away with health and safety

“We decided about three years ago we wanted to remove the term ‘health and safety’ from our vocabulary because there’s some really dumb s*** that goes on and we don’t want to be associated with it.”

Not what you’d expect to hear from an organisational performance manager, but Rob Kirkwood of Energyworks went on to tell delegates at last month’s Safeguard conference how the company’s counter-intuitive approach to looking after its people has not only strengthened H&S performance but benefitted the business as a whole

When Kirkwood came to the oil and gas industry from a 20-year career in mountain guiding he was bemused to find people talking about legislation, risk assessments and JSAs, yet sometimes still making bad decisions. “In the mountains you don’t have all the procedures, but you have a lot of competent people, a lot of direct supervision and a lot of capacity,” he said. “It made me really uncomfortable to see it wasn’t like that in the industrial scene.”

A presentation by Safety-II exponent Dr John Green provided a catalyst, and Kirkwood began collaborating with Energyworks managing director Geoff Bourke to find ways to put Green’s ideas into practice. “We fumbled away in the background for a while, then three or four years ago we decided, let’s just do it – push play and go forward.”

What they rolled out was a radical new way of doing business – “A people-centric approach rather than a compliance-centric one.” There’s a no-blame culture, in which mistakes – even expensive ones – are valued as learning opportunities, workers are active participants in important operational decision making, and physical or mental incapacity is accommodated in worker-friendly ways. The results, Kirkwood said, have been “significant”, although the new way of doing things is not always an easy fit in the compliance-heavy oil and gas industry, and there have been clashes.

Sharing the podium, Bourke said the company’s readiness to put injured workers on leave has been a source of friction at times. “I’ve had some challenging conversations with clients who think an LTI should be an MTI, but I don’t have any problem sending someone home to recuperate instead of bringing them in and demoralising them – having them licking stamps in a white collar environment.

“Morally it’s the right thing to do. It shows we care about the person over the statistics.” Another key aspect of the strong people focus is a ready acceptance that mistakes are part of life. “We embrace bad news,” Kirkwood said. “When our people make a stuff-up or see something that needs reporting they tell us, because they know we understand they didn’t do it on purpose, and blame isn’t part of what we do.”

A culture that blames and punishes when things go wrong is one where learning and improvement won’t occur, he said. “You need a really safe psychological environment, and deep-seated compassion and empathy in your top leaders, before that stuff is going to work. “And if you’re not using learning teams, you need to, because the results are far superior to any other process.”

In this environment, Bourke said, the company can always find positives in adverse events. He cited a situation where a misunderstanding resulted in a work team drilling through the reinforcing steel in a structural column at a high-hazard site. No one realised there was a problem until Bourke, a structural engineer by training, checked in with the site supervisor when the job was done.

“As soon as he told me they’d hit steel I knew it wasn’t a good scenario, so I was straight on the phone.” It cost Energyworks $50,000 to fix the problem, but Bourke believes it was money well spent.

“We have a company-wide tool box talk every Wednesday and were able to do a really good presentation around what we’d learnt. “We turned the event into a solid learning experience for our teams, and actually grew our relationship with the client because they were so grateful for the way we responded.”



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