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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

A well-oiled response

JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM talks to the man responsible for the health and safety of the cleanup crews dealing with the Rena oil spill.

When Neil Dobbs got a 5am text from Maritime New Zealand, telling him that a vessel called the Rena had gone aground on Astrolabe Reef, he went back to bed hoping it was only a fishing boat.

Five hours later he was on his way to Tauranga, about to begin the largest project of his life – an intense three-month stint as on-scene safety coordinator for Maritime New Zealand’s tier 3 oil emergency response team.

Nine months later Dobbs still has trouble finding words to explain the magnitude of the emergency. “I can’t describe it. It was just immense. The Rena was a huge boat – a 250 metre container ship – and she hit the reef, 14km off shore, at high speed. She had huge structural damage. We knew from the start there was going to be a massive oil leak.”

His role as New Zealand’s safety coordinator for any oil emergencies requiring a nationwide (tier 3) response is a far cry from his day job as a self employed OHS consultant and HSNO test certifier at Whangarei Heads. However his background – which includes experience as a Department of Labour injury prevention consultant for agriculture, a safety advisor to Northland Port Corporation, and a crew member on a deep sea tuna boat – has provided him with a blend of relevant skills.

During his 15 years in the MNZ role he’s had his share of challenges, most notably the 2002 grounding of the Jody F. Millennium off Gisborne – but nothing, he says, on the scale of the Rena disaster.

“I always used to say that we hadn’t been tested but I can’t say that anymore. This was a very difficult response, on a world scale. I asked one of the Australian maritime responders who came in during the first week how it compared with incidents they’d had. He just laughed and said: ‘This one’s much worse.’

Rapid response

There was no question of Dobbs easing himself gently into the response effort. When he arrived at the Tauranga Incident Control Centre on the afternoon of the grounding, there was no health and safety programme in place, all available protective equipment had already been allocated, and there were hundreds of local authority and MNZ staff needing induction.

“There is a (public) perception that no one was doing anything for a few days, but that’s completely wrong. The hardest work we ever did was in the first week.”

There was a mountain of preliminary information to be gathered: about the hazardous substances in the Rena’s cargo, the condition these substances were in, and how they would react if mixed with water or oil. Yet by the end of the first day, Dobbs had set up the basics of a user-friendly health and safety plan and secured enough PPE for an extra 50 people, with ten times that amount promised for the next day.

“By the end of the week there were many hundreds of people involved, so from a health and safety perspective it was like running a large company.

“On top of that, as an enforcement agency, Maritime NZ places paramount importance on safety. The eyes of the world were on us, so we not only had to be safe – we had to be seen to be safe. We couldn’t afford to have a front page photo of someone with their overalls round their waist, knee-deep in HFO (heavy fuel oil)-contaminated water.”

Committed volunteers

It rapidly became clear that large numbers of volunteers would be involved in the response effort – something MNZ had never planned for and Dobbs himself was uneasy about.

“We’d never planned to use volunteers in the past because of a belief that they were too difficult to manage efficiently. But I knew from day two that this community wasn’t going to sit back and watch us, so I planned for it, and when John Key gave us almost 6000 volunteers to look after we had a plan to succeed.”

If volunteers were going to be useful, he decided, they would have to meet certain conditions, and commit to at least four hours work apiece. “It costs quite a bit to put someone on the beach, by the time they’ve got overalls, two or three pairs of gloves, gumboots, and maybe a first aid kit, so you want to get some hours out of them.”

No one under 16 could volunteer, and all workers were forbidden to bring children with them.

“By asking a certain amount of them we ended up with people who were committed to the response – people we could train not only to be safe but also to pick up the oil effectively and efficiently, and that’s what they did, on a grand scale.”

Clean beaches were the end goal, but safety was the starting point for every aspect of the operation. “It was the health and safety team’s job to make sure that all National Response Team planned responses had JSAs and could be done safely. We were, if you like, the synchromesh of the programme, and the most important thing, for staff and volunteers, was establishing the ideal of thinking safety first.

Clear systems

On-site safety management was simple, but firm. An online induction video for volunteers ensured everyone understood how to keep themselves safe, and no one was issued with PPE unless they had first attended the daily safety briefing.

“They couldn’t get their gear without the briefing and couldn’t go on the beach without the gear.”

At the foundation of the culture was a series of simple A4 documents – an oil response safety field plan, which uses bullet points and step-by-step illustrations to explain the hazards, the PPE, and the safe operating procedures for each activity.

“Whatever you put out there has to be reasonable and practicable – to break things down into simple components so everyone knows what’s going on. In a way it was a bit of a trade off – we won’t get you to fill in lots of bits of paper so long as you comply with the basic things on this paper.”

The pages, based on a framework Dobbs has been developing in his business for the past couple of years, were a masterpiece of simplicity, providing all the information needed for workers, their supervisors and those overseeing their training in a single source. Such user-friendly paperwork meant no excuses – and no latitude – for non-compliance, but Dobbs says enforcement was seldom an issue.

“Because it was simple people wanted to comply. You won’t find a photo of anyone from our response team who didn’t have all their PPE on.”

While most of the work was a comparatively straightforward beach cleanup, MNZ-trained oil response teams and the best volunteers were chosen to work on the more hazardous rocky shore areas. The field safety plans for these teams included a few extras, such as a requirement to wear life jackets.

“That met with a bit of ridicule at first, but then a DoC volunteer drowned on Raoul Island and no one gave us a hard time about life jackets after that.”

New tasks required a simple Job Safety Analysis, using the same one-page structure as the safety plan. “If you wanted to kayak to an island to see where penguins were, for instance, you’d have to fill out a hazard sheet covering not only the risks but also the safe work practices, and how you would instruct other people to do it.”

Filling out the paperwork was no guarantee of approval, however. If a proposal didn’t meet basic standards, or the risk was too high for the gain, Dobbs wouldn’t sign it off and it didn’t happen.

Job demands

If volunteers presented issues, the other big problem the team faced was maintaining the necessary levels of skilled staff on site.

“When I went to Tauranga I knew it wouldn’t be a short job, but I didn’t think it would be three months. That was one of the major challenges of the response – maintaining resourcing and levels of expertise when everyone was working very long hours.

“I couldn’t do 16-hour days the whole time, but the national plan didn’t have a number two in my role in it so there was no one to fill in.”

He needed a deputy who would be comfortable with the systems he had established and not bring in unnecessary paperwork, so called in the services of a like-minded friend, Pierre Vonk from HEB Construction.

“A response is not unlike a contracting project, and Pierre knows about bitumen, which is almost identical to HFO, so he was the right man for the job.”

Dobbs worked alongside Vonk for three days, familiarising him with the processes, before heading back to Whangarei for some much-needed rest.

“I was exhausted, but at least I didn’t go back and try to run my business. I told my clients at the start that I’d be gone for the duration and they were very accepting of that, but some of the team members were working even harder when they got home.”

Providing PPE

Protective equipment was a critical part of the response effort, and Dobbs quickly realised that immense quantities were going to be needed. With the regional council’s supplies exhausted on the first day, he contacted local retailers, and then the general manager of a nationwide supplier, to set up a resource network.

“Within four days we had enough gear to put 5000 people a day on the beaches, and we were able to maintain this level through the whole operation.”

The reliability of supply chains was vital: as Dobbs says, if something was wanted within three hours it had to arrive, or the team wouldn’t be able to respond.

“In the event we were never held up by a lack of personal equipment, even though the numbers we did were staggering. We went through 72,000 pairs of overalls alone, and stripped the country of some sorts of PPE, but there were no shortages at any time.”

A second A4 document provided the structure for the operation’s logistical management, recording the types and quantities of equipment sent to each team and location every day.

“We can track every dollar spent on PPE for this operation. Not only can we can say we spent X dollars on equipment for iwi teams, for example, but we can show where and when that money was spent.”

Equipment also brought a few headaches, however. When Landcorp provided six ATVs for beach transport, Dobbs realised that no one in the response team was trained to use them.

“They were just what we needed, but Landcorp didn’t want untrained riders using them and neither did we, so we sent a lot of people off to a local trainer.”

The ATVs mostly were used in remote locations, including off-shore islands, and Dobbs recalls with pleasure happening upon a couple of young Maori volunteers with ATVs at the furthest reaches of Matakana Island.

“You know you’re succeeding when you see them coming along the beach with trailers of oil, and they’ve got their lights on, their hard hats on, and are wearing all their PPE. They wouldn’t have been expecting anyone to see them – it was what they wanted to do because we’d given them good bikes, good training and good reasons for wearing PPE.

“We’d reached their hearts and minds.”

Safe and efficient

Effective safety systems made for a more efficient clean up, with the material collected by the Rena response teams achieving a ratio of debris to oil that compares well with international best practice. For the estimated 250 tonnes of oil that came ashore the teams collected just over 1000 tonnes of debris and oil – a much result better than the ten to one ratio of rubbish to oil that is generally seen as the target.

The team’s health and safety performance was world class too.

“My objective for the response was very clear: No harm. In the end we didn’t quite achieve this. There were a few first aid incidents, but no medical treatment or time loss injuries for the whole operation, although we did hundreds of thousands of man hours.”

At the start of the operation Dobbs says team members feared an oil leak of 1000 tonnes or more.

“In the end the amount that came up on the beach was a lot less than that, but if it had happened I’m absolutely sure the response team would have been able to manage it. If you give people the opportunity to succeed, and hold them accountable, they do it.”


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