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How Stent made it pay to work safely

PILING - Stent was the first piling specialist to reward safe practice above productivity in its bonus payments.Operations director Jim de Waele tells Emma Crates why safety is not a numbers game

JIM DE WAELE can picture a year when his company will have no accidents.

'I'd like to think we could do this within the next 10 years. I don't think that's over-ambitious, ' says the Stent Foundations operations director.

This may come as a shock to others in the piling sector, where the macho culture has traditionally encouraged an element of risk-taking. But Mr de Waele, who is also responsible for safety in the company, has insisted on a change of approach.

While it may be convenient for businesses to tick boxes, talk percentages and set safety targets, there is a danger that the most important factor - the human element - is lost.

This is why Stent has done something almost heretical to common practice. Starting this year, the company has taken emphasis away from its accident frequency rates. Stent has taken itself out of the numbers game.

The change started about a year ago when the directors sat down to decide 2004 performance targets.When it came to accident frequency rates, the tool used to gauge the company's safety performance, they realised that something had to change.

AFRs measure the number of reportable three-day accidents as a ratio against every 100,000 man-hours worked in a company.The figure is significant because it is also the average number of hours in a worker's career.

Stent was originally opting for a reduction of 10 per cent, which was the same target set down by its parent company, Balfour Beatty.

'Then we realised that we were targeting to injure six people that year.

We were almost congratulating ourselves on having this record. It was a morally unacceptable position to take, ' says Mr de Waele.

He is now working towards an 'accident-free' culture, and he insists that this is not the same as the 'targets' culture used previously.

In 1996 the company had a big push on safety, with some success.

Through better policing, safety advisors and procedural reviews it had dragged the AFR down from 2.4:100,000 to 1:100,000.

But from then on, the figure was a little erratic.The AFR was down to a commendable 0.67 in 2002 but rose again to a ratio of 1:100,000 last year.

'We had brought the figure down through enforcement. But then it became more difficult.We realised that setting a target for injuring people was sending out the wrong message to staff, ' says Mr de Waele.'People could recite that we had an AFR of, say, 0.8, but they were fixated by the number.They couldn't list the people who'd had an accident, or what had happened to them.'

But he adds that targeting for zero accidents would have been detrimental to the strategy.

He says: 'Say you had an accident in January - that's your key performance indicator blown for the year.'

So as well as the usual procedural and safety policies, Stent has been working on changing the behaviour of everyone in the company, from the boardroom to the site.

Accident frequency rates are no longer published internally.The figures are published externally once a quarter, rather than once a month as previously.

'We still measure it, but we're no longer preoccupied with the figures, ' says Mr de Waele.

Money has been used as a powerful driver. In a radical move, the bonus scheme for operatives and managers has been overhauled to give safety behaviour precedence over productivity. Stent believes it has been the first company in its sector to introduce this (see page 28).

In February the company introduced a policy that demands people do not take a risk with their own safety. It also gives them the right to stop work if they believe they see someone else taking a risk.

Stent also changed the way its senior managers carried out field inspections. Since the beginning of this year, managers have been carrying out open-ended audits. Instead of going around with the site manager, they'll be shown around by one of the operatives.

'The purpose is to extract information from the operative as to how they think they could improve safety, ' says Mr de Waele.'But it is also intended to provoke a two-way dialogue and make the experience more interactive for all concerned.'

The company has hand-picked site workers - who could be anything from charge hands, rig drivers or banksmen - to act as safety representatives, carrying out their own audits on sites on which they are working.

'There has been some conflict between the safety rep and the foremen on site, ' admits Mr de Waele.'If the safety rep is saying to the foreman, 'Please get this sorted out', it's really questioning his management style on the project. But they're coping with that and I think that we're managing that as a business procedure. I really do.'

Stent has also rewritten its key performance indicators and is measuring how proactive it is being on safety.The company now records how quickly it investigates accidents. It aims to complete investigations within one month and is currently meeting that target.

'It is important to us to do this quickly because it is very visible in the company. It is also demonstrating management commitment, ' says Mr de Waele.

One priority is to increase the number of near-misses reported, compared with the number of accidents.

'At present the ratio is only one accident to 1.5 near-misses - there are estimates to suggest it should be as much as 1:20. I'd like to get to a ratio of one accident to three near-miss reports by the end of next year, ' says Mr de Waele.

To combat workers' traditional reluctance to come forward on such issues, Stent has included near-miss reporting as an incentive in its bonus scheme.The incidents have also been rebranded as 'hazard reporting'.

'There was a misunderstanding of what a 'near-miss'was.When something comes crashing down, no one says, 'That was a near-miss, '' says Mr de Waele.

'We are working hard to improve in this area.'

But he believes that the cultural change is already reflected in the way the company deals with accidents.

Last august, Stent had a major incident when a tripod winch fell on a young trainee, crushing two of his vertebrae.

'It could have been much worse - he could have been killed, ' says Mr de Waele.'Personally it really affected me. I sat down with the managing director, Graham Wren.Then and there we decided to withdraw from that part of the market because we don't consider it safe enough. But I don't think we'd have made that decision a year ago.'