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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters


When duty calls

What does a Cantabrian do when offered the chance to contribute to the post-quake rebuild? PETER BATEMAN reports on the job of a lifetime.

Alison Murphy’s car had only just started moving when the February 2011 quake struck. She was at her office near Christchurch International Airport – her employer at the time – and was off to a meeting. The car began wobbling and at first she suspected a flat tyre. It was the start of a very long day.

Much of the airport was a construction site as part of a planned rebuild. As soon as the extent of the damage in the Christchurch CBD became apparent the guys from Hawkins were bussed into town to help, all flights were stopped while the runway was checked, and many hundreds of passengers were stranded.

Murphy worked with the airport’s operations team for the rest of the day and well into the night to ensure the passengers were kept comfortable and warm, moving many of them to the Sudima Airport Hotel and, for the overflow, into a fleet of Maui campervans which she and a colleague commandeered.

“It was the first time I’d driven one,” she recalls. “We talked to the Maui guys, who were fantastic. We parked a whole lot of them on the grass in front of the hotel so anybody who couldn’t fit into the hotel could help themselves to a campervan. Sudima were fantastic too, they provided food free of charge.”

Murphy, who won the Practitioner of the Year category at this year’s NZ Workplace Health and Safety awards, was at the time in a fixed-term health and safety role with Christchurch International Airport for the duration of its rebuild. But a few months after the earthquake she was shoulder-tapped by the Earthquake Commission (EQC) and offered the health and safety challenge of a lifetime – and, as a Canterbury girl born and bred, she felt obliged to accept.

“I was reluctant to leave the airport, but I thought I wouldn’t mind being part of the Canterbury recovery. It’s a big thing – I think many people who work for EQC felt that way when they took on the job.”

RICH IN EXPERIENCE

Murphy started with the EQC in January 2012, with twenty years as a health and safety practitioner under her belt. Starting as an injury prevention consultant with ACC in the early 1990s, she moved to TriEx’s safety division for several years, with a focus on helping employers to pull their OHS systems together.

“They were interesting times because everything was so new and employers were really trying grapple with the HSE Act.”

One of her clients was the Lyttelton Port Company, which later offered her a full-time role. She was there for six years and loved it. “They had every type of high-risk hazard you can imagine – cranes and confined spaces – and they were highly unionised. I learned so much there.”

Then came a return to consultancy, this time with Impac, and the chance to work with some of the larger corporates, which were well resourced and had good systems already in place – another learning opportunity.

After a few years – she was tiring of the travel – the airport job beckoned, with its new set of challenges focused around construction. Even before the move to EQC, then, she had experience of a variety of workplaces and had long since figured out a key truth.

“Each working environment and its culture are so different, which makes taking on a safety role pretty challenging because you’ve got to work out who’s who and how things work and where you can actually make a difference.”

She had a wealth of operational, strategic and systems experience – all of which came into play with her new role as EQC’s health and safety manager.

MASSIVE GROWTH

The organisation had grown from 22 people to more than 1200 as it grappled with the need to assess more than 70,000 homes with less than $100,000 worth of damage, and to get work under way on those deemed repairable. By January 2012, nearly a year after the quake, many field staff were still in emergency response mode and often running on adrenalin while they faced some serious risks: falls from height, working in confined spaces, crawling through “literally shitty” soil and liquefaction, dealing with stressed residents, and always at the back of their mind the possibility of another big shake.

“Lots of people only worked well under adrenalin, but the reality was that we had to really think about what was most important in the safety space. A lot of these guys were working in relative isolation.”

She found there was little in the way of organisational culture – let alone a safety culture – because of the exponential growth in staff in the space of only a few months. A small OHS team was recruited and together they created a formal OHS system to cater for field staff and for office-based staff in Christchurch, Wellington and Hamilton.

The difference this time for EQC was that in previous natural disasters it had settled claims by paying cash. However with some 90% of Christchurch homes estimated to have suffered some earthquake damage, EQC decided to set up the Canterbury Home Repair Programme (CHRP) to ensure houses were repaired professionally.

Fletcher Construction won the tender to manage the programme via its new entity Fletcher EQR, which had to hoover up every potential contractor within cooee of Canterbury and set them to work – safely.

The challenge, says Murphy, was twofold: the sheer scale of the task, and the low level of OHS awareness among residential builders and associated trades. How to capture their attention in a simple but effective way that would give the biggest bang for the buck? The result was the cleverly named “Safe 6” initiative (safe6.co.nz), which emerged after Frank McCutcheon from Impac worked with EQC and Fletcher EQR to define the critical risks and develop a strategy around them. The EQC and EQR communications teams chipped in with branding and development of resources, and senior leaders from both organisations launched Safe6 to their staff and thousands of CHRP contractors.

ENGAGING WITH PEOPLE

One of the requirements of Safe6 is that senior people get out and engage with contractors and EQC and EQR staff in safety-focused conversations. Murphy, who views leadership engagement in safety as critical, informally coaches people so they understand their engagement is a conversation, not an audit.

“It’s good for managers to deal with people who are – how shall I put it? – pretty frank, and who say what they think. They don’t have any hesitation in saying what the issues are. Contractors enjoy a bit of a yarn and our guys do too.”

But it’s not only the managers who are demonstrating leadership. Murphy is big on staff involvement in health and safety, and refreshed EQC’s committee structure to ensure field staff were well represented. Many of those who joined in 2012 are still with EQC and still on one of the OHS committees, and they have played a significant role in raising awareness and in developing half a dozen standard operating procedures for field staff, including working at height.

“The field staff have been invaluable for their input and expertise. We also have SOPs for working under floors, in P labs, in confined spaces, driving vehicles, and some more generic ones too.”

Office-based staff haven’t been forgotten. A Safe6 equivalent called OfficeSafe has been developed and enthusiastically adopted, and the Hamilton OHS committee is particularly proactive in finding new ways to engage office-based colleagues.

LEAVING A LEGACY

Lawrence Waterman was in Christchurch last year and spoke about the health and safety legacy of the London Olympic build for the UK’s construction sector. Murphy says EQC and Fletcher EQR took on board his message, and also aim to leave a legacy for the residential construction sector in New Zealand.

With fewer than 10,000 houses that are EQC’s responsibility left to be repaired, she has time to reflect on what she has learned over more than 20 years in health and safety. She cites a passion for the role, tenacity in the face of problems, and working with people rather than just going over their heads with a set of rules, as essential qualities for any practitioner.

“One of the main skills I’ve had to develop over the years is negotiating, influencing, coaching at all levels. They are all critical and it takes time to develop them.”

My suggestion that some people might regard these as soft skills is quickly dismissed.

“They aren’t soft skills! In a safety role you have to have really good people skills. It’s a critical aspect of the role and often overlooked. You have to prove your credibility, gain people’s trust and earn respect.”

She is proud to have acted as a mentor for her team’s less experienced members, and maintains the mentoring has been just as valuable for her as for them. And one day, she reflects, they might find themselves in a solo OHS role, which has its own challenges.

“It’s unusual to work with a team. I’ve generally been a solo operator and it’s quite lonely at times. You sit there hoping like hell you’ve got it right. In this team we are able to throw ideas and issues across at each other all the time.”

Murphy is energised, engaging, and is highly regarded within EQC and the wider Canterbury rebuild. Does she, I enquire cautiously, regard this role as the pinnacle of her career?

“You could say that. When I took this job I thought, right, this will be my last job of this kind. If I can do it and also mentor a few people about health and safety as we go through this pretty damned difficulty journey then I’ll have done my bit.

“I like a challenge and I work with a great bunch of people. It’s been really good.”

PETER BATEMAN

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