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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

It takes a village

A major build will see hundreds of people from dozens of subcontractors on site, but do they talk to each other? PETER BATEMAN reports on an effective way to build a sense of togetherness.

“It drives that sense of pride: that I am not a lowly worker, I am a valued contractor. It drives engagement, performance, a better environment.”

Julio Rodriguez, Fonterra’s GM health & safety global operations, is talking about the Village Concept, a social engineering and design initiative which has evolved in the last few years within the cooperative’s Major Capital Projects (MCP) group, led by Juergen Link and Dave Packer and responsible for building new manufacturing plants.

The concept arose out of dissatisfaction with traditional construction sites, where each sub-trade typically sets up shop on its own, there are few opportunities for people from different outfits to get to know each other, and the standard of basic facilities is disgracefully low. At the same time, Fonterra’s surveys and other research revealed trades workers felt helpless to initiate change at such sites, that morale wasn’t great, and that injuries were considered the norm on big projects.

This prompted a major re-think resulting in a motto – “people before project” – and a number of initiatives, such as the Communities of People concept developed for the Darfield build which won the industry leadership section of the 2013 NZ Workplace Health & Safety Awards.

The village concept, explains Rodriguez, flowed out of the same thinking and aligns with Fonterra’s values: to do what’s right, to challenge boundaries, to have a cooperative spirit, and to make it happen. “We talk about valuing human life above all else and managing risk accordingly.”


Underpinning this is a process called OLP, for Operations Lead People, an innovation methodology designed to build trust and quality connections between the key players in a project. Months before anyone has turned the first sod, MCP gathers 12 to 16 people – the key leaders for the project, both internal and external. A consultant helps facilitate the process of getting to know one another.

“We want to build a community of people who know each other as human beings, who trust each other, and we don’t disrupt that with business talk. We just make it about people.”

The talk is about people’s families, about themselves and their interests and personal vulnerabilities. Group activities could include things like a bike ride – all in the interests of building a community of leaders who understand and support each other, in the first instance, as people.

Only towards the end of the process does the talk turn to the vision for the project and the values which will underpin it. Later, during the project, when problems arise they can be resolved by people who know each other as individuals first, and as business associates second. “You can imagine the power in that,” says Rodriguez.


MCP had tried to encourage its contractors to provide decent amenities for workers but without much success: standards varied wildly as some contractors tried to minimise their costs, causing friction within the complex web of trades and sub-trades involved in any big build. Clearly, playing policeman wasn’t working.

After some reflection MCP leaders realised that a less direct approach using design principles could have more influence. MCP took responsibility for building construction worker facilities on its sites, developing a standard for guidance. Central to this was the creation of a village with excellent toilet/hygiene facilities, a cafe serving quality food, and a comfortable village square where all workers could gather to eat, receive project briefings, and get to know one another.

Other aspects covered include securely fencing off the village, controlling access and safe movement to work areas, placing the permits office so it aligns with the flow of workers, and providing personal health and support services centrally but in a way which allows discreet access. Each path within a village has its own street sign to support the homely atmosphere.

“You walk around a classic construction site,” says Rodriguez, “and there’s one portaloo, which stinks, and things aren’t comfortable. We don’t want that for our people. Let’s put in a proper cafe with healthy options, decent toilets cleaned three times a day, let’s ask about their wellbeing, let’s offer support.”

The village standard has evolved over several projects. Workers are surveyed on their thoughts, and formal evaluations are undertaken. Sometimes a village has been redesigned if it has been found not to be optimal. Managers have asked themselves questions such as: would I be comfortable bringing my family here? What feeling do I get from this work area? Do I feel any love and care here?


The results have exceeded MCP’s expectations. Initially focused on improving basic facilities, the village concept has sparked a much wider engagement opportunity and has built pride and a sense of community among all workers. It has also eliminated the old “ghettoisation” which used to occur, where each contractor had its own area, widely separated from the others.

“Now, you walk in to a site and it’s clean and tidy, people are being included in meetings, there’s collaboration between contractors – man, it cuts out so much rubbish.”

Graffiti has been eliminated, rubbish isn’t a problem, people feel genuinely cared for, and word about the standard of facilities has got out. Other construction companies are taking notice, and there is regular feedback from people who work on multiple construction sites that Fonterra’s are the best. The initiative won the wellbeing category at the 2016 awards.

Work on refining the village concept continues, including at the new Stanhope site in Victoria where feedback is coming in that the Australians are amazed at the standard of facilities.

Concluding, Rodriguez brings it all back to the values: if you care about the people who are doing work for you, why wouldn’t you want them to have the best facilities possible to support them to collaborate with each other to do great work?

“Sometimes we think we need a big philosophy change to make a difference,” reflects Rodriguez, “but it can be as simple as providing really clean toilets.”

It’s a nice metaphor, but behind it lies some sophisticated thinking about values, systems, and making a huge effort to build a collaborative, high-trust approach with key contract partners. To borrow the old African proverb, perhaps it really does take a village to raise a safe and successful new build.


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