Skip to Content, Skip to Navigation

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

Community of people

Good relationships and good safety performance went hand-in-hand on a major Canterbury construction project. JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM reports.

Safety has always been a non-negotiable on Fonterra’s construction project sites. The dairy giant has prided itself on setting high standards for its contractors, and working hard to ensure those standards were attained.

In the past, however, the contractors – some of them large corporations in their own right – didn’t always respond well to that oversight. There was suspicion that the rules and procedures were more about shifting blame if something went wrong than about keeping workers safe, and a feeling that task completion, rather than safety, was the company’s real priority.

Cynicism, conflict and mistrust is not uncommon in the principal-contractor relationship. In Fonterra’s case, it was finding that the company’s approach was not producing the level of health and safety performance it sought.

Thus, when plans began to take shape for a huge new milk power processing plant at Darfield, on the Canterbury Plains, the company’s capital project group knew it had to do things differently. What was needed, the group resolved, was not more rules and procedures, but a whole new ethos, in which company and contractors could work together safely, harmoniously and with mutual respect.

This was a big ask, seeking as it did to change not only Fonterra’s culture but also that of the 50 contracting companies – from multinationals to one-man bands – that would work on the project.

The self-described father of the new strategy, Fonterra’s GM of assets and capital projects Juergen Link, explains: “It was not about having more actions – more of a different approach. We had to change the paradigm of how we interact and work with each other, to create an environment where people could, by exploring their assumptions and beliefs about each other, transform their relationships.”

That Fonterra’s Darfield project beat stiff competition to win the ACC industry leadership category in this year’s NZ Workplace Health and Safety Awards is proof that the company achieved what it set out to do, using a community-building process that was, at the same time, sophisticated and deceptively simple. For Link, a German engineer with an interest in people dynamics, the move from civil to social engineering seems to have come naturally.

“I’m not a psychologist but I understand the intimacy of human behaviour and human interactions. It was for me a huge playing field to create a new social reality by connecting people to their deepest-held aspirations, then creating the container into which they could pour these aspirations and make them reality.”

This may not sound like the sort of stuff that would go down well in the gritty world of construction, but Link and his team came up with a series of practical strategies to bring the vision to life.

First step was a detailed analysis of the factors influencing health and safety performance at Fonterra’s previous large construction project in Mosgiel. This produced a long list of issues – including inconsistencies in both culture and practice between the different contractors, an industry-wide acceptance of injury as part of the job, the perceived inability of individuals to influence conditions or behaviours on site, communication problems, and an atmosphere of defensiveness – all of which combined to form an environment where safety was on the back foot.

Rather than focusing on these problems individually, however, the team set about fostering a new culture for Darfield that would generate a sense of community and let workers know they were valued.

The aim was to engender a common sense of purpose, so every contractor would feel both personally involved and individually accountable for what took place on site. In this environment, the team believed, safety and the welfare of others would become integral to everything that happened. More than that, the resulting Community of People model could become a new benchmark for major construction projects, not just within Fonterra, but across the whole country.

Such bold goals required upfront, ongoing investment, personal effort and a high level of commitment. And it was not enough to focus solely on worker engagement. For the Community of People model to be credible, the company’s commitment to safety had to extend to every aspect of the job.

With this in mind, the company rolled out a new incident investigation tool, focused on identifying root causes, so all on site could learn from safety failures, and made extensive use of safety-in-design principles to eliminate risks wherever possible, for the protection of both construction workers and those who would eventually operate the plant.

The community-building side of the programme was founded on three key tactics – growing a strong feedback culture, providing individualised personal and professional development, and equipping individuals to accept and handle conflicts constructively.

At monthly meetings, facilitated by external trainers, all project leaders – both on-site managers and senior staff from the major companies – were able to hone their leadership, communication and conflict resolution skills, while weekly culture surveys tracked changing attitudes on site.

Initially, Link admits, workers were sceptical about what they were being asked to do.

“A lot wanted to know what’s this all about? Why do I have to talk about my feelings and open up my assumptions? But I learnt that it is actually possible for people to act their way to believing. You don’t need to work on the belief system first because if you create the right environment, people will act their way into believing something different.”

As momentum gathered, the developing on-site community began to reveal itself in many ways. Members of the construction management team began to behave as coaches rather than policemen, safety observations turned into safety conversations, cooperation between the various contracting companies increased, and trades people became confident enough to raise issues, or even stop work, if they had safety concerns.

“It is absolutely important to have a relationship with contractors where there is trust. We need to be able to talk about the elephant in the room all the time, and to call each other out when our behaviour impacts on the other. They need to feel comfortable enough to say hey, what Fonterra’s doing doesn’t actually work for us. Can we do this differently?”

To help forge such relationships, leaders from all the major contractors were required to come on site and chat about safety at least once a month. As people got to know one another and to realise that Fonterra had no hidden agenda, the community developed its own dynamic.

“People suddenly saw the quality of relationship they had, how easy it was to solve problems, how easy it was to talk with each other, and this created a kind of continuous reinforcing cycle,” Link says. “Suddenly there was no need to interfere – it kept itself moving.”

While this was undoubtedly a relief to Link and his team, it was not a cue for them to reduce their vigilance.

“Health and safety is like walking on very thin ice. The moment you start taking things for granted somehow fate has an ability to humble you. You must always review and reflect, and keep asking yourself whether your current behaviour, your current action, still serves what needs to be done.”

At Darfield, however, site dynamics continued to improve, and so did OHS performance. In August, when the second and final stage of the two-and-a-half year project was completed, the TRIFRs for stages one and two were 8 and 10 respectively – a reduction of more than 50% on Fonterra’s other recent projects.

“It was an absolutely superb performance,” Link says. “We worked about 1.5 million hours and completed on time, on budget and with no quality issues. The most astonishing thing is we had 500,000 hours during the busiest part of the project without a single incident.

“And when the plant was commissioned we produced more product in the first four months than we ever expected, so it was an absolute success on all fronts.”

For Link, however, the most satisfying aspect of the initiative has been the feedback he’s received.

“People came to me afterwards and said they were grateful for the opportunity to explore a new way of relating, talking and working with people. They told me the process we established changed their lives and helped them see themselves, their colleagues, and their problems in new ways.

“Now I hear that people who worked on the site have taken this approach to other sites, and that is very pleasing.”

Next challenge for the project team will be rolling out the Community of People model for use on other Fonterra sites around the globe.

“The interesting thing is that what we do elsewhere cannot be a copy of anything. The moment it’s a copy it doesn’t take into consideration the individuality of each project, which will have its own dynamics, history, and culture.

“The moment it becomes one-size for all is when you create a monster, because suddenly it is the solution, not a solution which is adapted to fit what you need.”

For other sites the model will be tailored to suit the culture and capabilities of the contractors, and the personalities, aspirations and goals of the site’s project and construction managers, Link says.

“We need to create something which people will rally behind. Adults only change what they choose to, so you have to connect what you are doing to their deepest-held aspirations. Then they will be willing to go on this journey.”


comments powered by Disqus

From Safeguard Magazine

Table of Contents