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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

On the right track

JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM talks to the man named most influential employee at this year’s Safeguard awards.

Take 120 shunters at KiwiRail’s largest South Island marshalling yard, add a damning safety report calling for changes to work practices in a host of different areas, stir in the unremitting strain of the Christchurch earthquakes, and you have what looks like a perfect recipe for worksite chaos and disharmony.

That was the situation confronting the Middleton rail yard early last year. Yet only 18 months later almost all the report’s recommendations have been implemented, and the yard is busily forging a robust safety culture.

How did this come about? It was a team effort, of course, requiring goodwill and hard work from managers and workers alike, but both parties are quick to point to safety rep Peter McCaw as a pivotal player in the process.

Nominating him for the NZCTU Most Influential Employee category in this year’s NZ Workplace Health & Safety Awards, boss Bronwyn Woodham spoke warmly of his “excellent leadership style, strength of knowledge, and commitment to changing and building safety culture,” while John Kerr from the Rail and Maritime Transport Union told how he had won the respect of managers and workers “through a combination of leading by example, quiet persuasion, and listening … without compromising his principles.”

Natural reaction

For his part, McCaw is a bit taken aback by the recognition he’s received as award category winner. He loves his job – he’s been in the industry more than 30 years – likes his bosses, and thinks his workmates are a good bunch, so naturally he’ll do what he can to keep everyone safe.

He admits that he and his workmates were a bit surprised when the Australian consultants, called in to investigate a collision between a forklift and an engine, identified 18 serious safety concerns at the yard.

“We didn’t think things were that bad, but that’s because it was what we’d been doing for years,” he says. “When they came along and looked at it with new eyes they could see what we were doing wrong.”

At the time McCaw had been a site safety rep for about a year. He’d been thinking of stepping down, but when he talked to the consultants and realised the scale of the problems at the yard he was eager to help.

“We had to get the guys on side and change everything round. With the guys that work here it’s no good having a whole lot of paperwork – they’ve actually got to see things happening to appreciate what’s going on. But once they could see that they were really keen.”

Speaking out

McCaw is a remote control operator, a yard-based worker who uses a control box to shift shunting engines rather than driving from the cab. It’s a relatively junior position, but he doesn’t let his lack of seniority stop him speaking out when he believes things need to be said.

“I was invited on to the health and safety team because I’m very vocal. I believe managers and staff are all my peers, so if I think something the managers have done isn’t right I’m not frightened to stand up for my workmates, or if my workmates do something that isn’t right, I’ll stand up for the managers.

“A lot of guys see it as a them-and-us scenario, but it isn’t. We’re all trying to do the same thing, just in different roles.”

McCaw says the two rep training courses he has been on gave him the tools to start tackling the safety issues identified in the consultant’s report.

“There were a lot of little things, like a lack of safety getting on and off wagons, the way we were driving without visualising where things were, and relying on too many other people to keep things safe. Most of it wasn’t major – just stuff you thought was safe but, when you looked at it practically, it wasn’t.”

Removing shortcuts

Some of the biggest issues were shortcuts that had developed over time as workers tried to get their jobs done faster.

“We had to make sure people started obeying the rules – observing the speed limit when going into sidings, stopping the engines before getting on or off, and stopping wagons short before they catch on.

“It was a bit of a learning curve for some of the guys – they complained that things were taking too long – but we had to convince them that when they got used to doing stuff right they’d get faster at it.”

The best way to change culture, McCaw has found, is to lead by example – something he took to extreme when he reported himself for passing a signal at danger. Communication issues within a work gang had resulted in a signalman wrongly instructing McCaw to take his train through an area where maintenance work was being done.

“I had permission to go through, but there were people on the track, so I reported myself straight away. I wasn’t going to injure anybody, but I thought if I don’t do this the problem won’t be rectified it so I’ll dob myself in.

“I knew there were good processes for dealing with these things and in the end it became a learning experience for everyone.”

Work goes on

Almost everything in the original report has now been signed off, but this doesn’t mean safety has gone on the backburner at the yard.

“We’re moving into other issues now. We spend a whole day on safety every month and now that we’ve got through the report we’re using some of that time for myself and a couple of the others to do any little repairs that are needed, like putting wire down on the points boards. It’s good, because you know you’re making a difference.

“We’ve come ten-fold from where we were in safety. We’re not where we want to be yet, but we’ve all got a vision of where that is, so we’ll get there.”


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