With no serious incidents to speak of and day-to-day business taking care of itself, you might think there’s little cause for concern when it comes to safety. In most cases though, this status quo isn’t by design; it’s simply down to good luck. And as every unfortunate victim will tell you: luck runs out, eventually.
Oakwood Fuels are the largest provider of hazardous waste management services to the UK’s automotive network, and they found themselves in this familiar position:
“We weren’t performing particularly badly from a safety perspective, nor were there any bad accidents. We just knew we could do better.”
Michael Sneath is General Manager at Oakwood Fuels, and he suspected something was afoot because of the very few LTIs that occurred, the majority involved their lorry and van drivers who spend the majority of their time off-site, visiting customers.
“An anonymous culture survey done by Nick from JOMC in 2014 confirmed what we thought – our drivers weren’t engaging with the business. They felt like people weren’t listening when they shared problems or ideas with managers. So they didn’t see the point in speaking up anymore.”
Out of 120 employees, almost half are these same drivers who represent the company to over 3,000 customers across the UK, ranging from small independent garages to large blue-chip groups. That was the wake-up call for Michael and Oakwood’s MD John Mac Namara, who shared a concern that low engagement isn’t the best ingredient for optimal customer service and performance.
Working in isolation, drivers aren’t just responsible for transport – many collections involve manual handling of drums and waste containers. Drivers may also have to work with poor access and at height, so it was only a matter of time before a serious incident occurred – something Michael and John were keen to prevent.
Step change through brutal honesty
Thankfully, Oakwood Fuels realised that the simple act of inviting an impartial, third-party to ask people’s honest opinions isn’t just an exercise in revealing truth, it’s a demonstration of trust as Michael outlines:
“We were all shocked at the results of Nick’s survey, I thought, ‘do people really think this?’. The staff who took part were surprised too – that their colleagues felt the same way about the same problems, but weren’t speaking up. But people were impressed because we’d published all their negative comments on a board for everyone to see.”
That was the first, positive step change in culture for everyone at Oakwood Fuels, one which signalled the beginning of an ongoing journey, and demonstrated that this wasn’t just another short-lived management initiative, it was commitment to lasting change.
As a leader, there are few more effective ways to reconnect with your workforce than letting people talk openly, without fear of recrimination. By sharing what you find, without censorship, and committing resources to putting things right, you prove you’re genuinely listening to people’s problems and suggestions.
People-powered steering groups
It’s still early days for culture change at Oakwood Fuels, but the results speak for themselves. Near miss reporting has increased by over 50% throughout the business, and reports by drivers account for 40% of them (compared to just 4% before this new initiative).
More safety discussions happen now in any given month than would have occurred in an entire year, previously. And staff at every level feel more involved, because people recognise the benefits of speaking up when there’s a better, safer way of doing something.
As well as support from leaders and guidance from JOMC, Oakwood Fuels’ growing success is largely down to their three inclusive steering groups. These innovative committees cover:
- Engagement: encouraging people to talk and share ideas in the first place
- Improvement: making sure their fixes and solutions actually happen in the workplace
- Communication: telling people what’s happening so they believe in the process and feel more inclined to stay involved
The process took a while to establish itself, says Gemma Dugan, a member of the Engagement team, but its effect is revolutionary:
“You’ve got to think of it like a cycle. Each group flows into the others. We plan what needs to happen next then do it, otherwise the other groups don’t have enough time to get on with what they need to do. That keeps the whole thing going round. It takes time to get that right though, and get the right people together.”
Practically, that means Gemma and her colleagues from every section of the business, like Steve Dawson, a driver supervisor in the same group, are the ‘go-betweens’, who take the initiative on to the front-line at Oakwood, motivating staff to talk, exchange ideas and ultimately feel invested in their own solutions to problems. That’s how you nurture lasting culture change.
How do they motivate people? Steve thinks it’s down to respect:
“I’ve been in my job a long time. The drivers listen to what I say, they trust me I think. Safety’s down to individuals, and I’ve known these people a long time. It’s a little bit of time and effort talking them round, but it’s worth what you get back.”
Gemma’s experience also proves that culture change is accelerated by putting the right people in positions where they can positively influence their colleagues:
“It’s my job to get people fired up and kickstart good habits. I’m not aggressive about it, I’ve just been here a long time. It’s knowing how far you can push someone and judging the situation, making it personal to each person.”
On the face of it, the idea of having a handful of champions like Gemma and Steve keeping momentum up might not sound scalable in the long-run. Yet, as a culture change leader, your aim should be to reach a tipping point, when engagement eventually becomes self-sustaining, and meaningful conversations become a natural way to do things in your organisation. Then your steering groups can shift focus onto other, more proactive and ambitious projects that make work even safer and more productive.
“People can see what everyone’s talking about in the workplace – their supervisor, operatives, safety managers. It sends a clear message – that if your peers take time to report safety issues, and they think it’s important, then maybe you should too.”
He’s keen to stress that targets have no place when it comes to safety conversations though. When people feel like they’re ticking boxes and filling in forms for the sake of it, quality falls and you soon lose momentum.
So how do you motivate people to engage in meaningful conversations about safety, when they’re busy at best, or skeptical at worst? A quiet, persuasive word from the MD seems to help:
“If I haven’t had a safety discussion in the week, I feel like I haven’t done my job properly. People can see that I’m recording safety discussions on our Engage system, so it makes it easier for me to ask them to do the same.
“We now make no distinction between safety performance and the financial performance of our business, and we believe that you can’t claim to have a good performing business, without an improving safety culture that’s moving in the right direction.”
This isn’t just about safety. It’s good management
“Every business can afford to be more efficient and perform better” says Michael, reflecting on Oakwood Fuels’ decision to seize the initiative, before a serious incident forced them to.
“Safety doesn’t have to slow things down. Suppose you’ve got a well-organised yard and equipment that’s neatly stored away. That’s not just safer, because things are out of harm’s way, it’s more efficient too, because people don’t have to spend hours trying to find what they need to do their job, and injuring themselves in the process.”
It’s also a popular misconception that health and safety is an isolated inconvenience. Oakwood Fuels realise that, and there are all-round wins for every business that wants to be more efficient and better at what they already do, both morally and commercially.
“What we’re in the process of changing at Oakwood isn’t just attitudes to safety. It’s just good management – getting people to work together better. If you really want to boil it down to the absolute basics, Nick and the guys come and say ‘look: talk with people, listen, and do something about what they’re telling you, and then talk again.’”
John, a qualified chartered accountant, recognises the challenge many safety leaders like you face when it comes to persuading people to buy into the benefits of culture change, especially when they can’t see the financial gain on a profit and loss statement. Yet he sees clear benefits in persevering:
“Our plan is to make safety performance and business performance fully integrated in a natural way, so we move completely beyond the flawed concept that safety is just the responsibility of your safety department.
“We still have plenty of room for improvement, but we’re definitely moving in the right direction, as our improved near-miss and discussion statistics prove. To get safety culture where you want it to be, engagement levels need to continue to improve, which not only leads to better safety, it also leads to higher profits. You cannot underestimate the positive effect that engaged people have on your bottom line.”