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Case study – Integrating health, safety and wellbeing

Hear insights from Ben Saal, General Manager Health, Safety and Environment, Powerlink Queensland, on the integration of health safety and wellbeing and how this approach can lead to improved safety, return to work and business outcomes.

This presentation was part of the Healthy Work Design forum held on 22 March 2023.

Download a copy of this film (ZIP/MP4, 706MB)

Ben Saal (00:05):
Morning everyone, and what a wonderful audience we have here today. Thanks to the speakers that came before. It's really good to hear similar messages flow through these and get some confidence that we're doing the right things as a business, and being able to blame the vending machine for my weight is an added benefit. So, I'd just like to, I suppose, add to the acknowledgements from this morning and acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we operate throughout Queensland. Powerlink operates from just north of Cairns all the way through to the New South Wales border, and we do transmission services. So, basically the high voltage transmission lines that take the electricity from the generators through to the distributors, Ergon and Energex, we're the piece in between. A lot of our work at the moment is coming from connections, wind farm, solar farm connections, and we're growing at a rate of knots in order to do that.

So, I'm going to run through today a little bit about about our HSE strategy, but get very quickly into how we sort of use our systems and some practical examples of what we've tried to do to incorporate health into work design. We started with a bit of a Safe For Life Program, which is the usual behavioral pieces, right? Be more safe, we care about safety, all that sort of gear. And then started to think about, well, how can we actually move this to be more around what the organization does for our people? Be more proactive, be less reactive, and look at making more meaningful control change through that strategy. So, good example in the psychosocial risk base, organizations have traditionally gone, we got an EAP, we'll be right, yeah, we'll put people in that dirty fishbowl, and then we'll revive them occasionally. So, we really try to focus on the proactive part of that and adopted a few principles.

The HOP Principles are probably something, it's a torque unto itself, but you'll get the flavor as I work through today. So, what I'm going to talk about is how have you used different areas of our systems to sort of affect change in this way? So, traditional systems that you'll be used to seeing, and also then some practical examples along the way in terms of how we've done that. Systems in general, the perspective you take of your people is very important in system design. If you think your systems are there to control, fix, hold something up and say you should have done it that way, then you are not only sort of detracting from that autonomy, but you might be setting yourself up for failure. We decided that our systems are there to enable successful work. The system isn't always right. We need feedback from our people, and this included removing things that were useless or doing damage in order to create capacity.

There's so much we ask of our people from a work perspective. How do we make sure we focus on which things are most important? The other big shift was using awareness and training to support good controls, not as the control. Often we rely on a training or package or a piece of awareness, send people off to do their work, they make mistakes. We go, well, we'll put them through that same content again. That'll fix it, and they'll listen to the same message. So, it really took a focus on awareness and training, supporting good controls. An example we had was around our approach to heat stress. So, traditionally we might have so bit of context, we've got people work up and down the coast of Queensland, all environments all times of year. There's not much shade on the top of a tower. So, heat stress is quite a significant risk for us.

What we could have done is sat people in a room, taught them about how to know when you're starting to feel hot, and sit in the shade when you do. Or we could actually start working on some structural changes to how we do our work. So, there was a range of these. We engaged with some research to do this, but a couple of them were around structuring our rosters for climatization. So, new people off holidays or new to the work or coming out of winter, we'd actually structure the rostering, so that there's shorter work demands required and they build up to full capacity over the course of, in this case a week. We also found that people like why's the NutriBullet there? Ice, slushies and those sort of things, a really effective way of bringing down and maintaining core body temperature. So, we fitted out our vehicles with ice slushy machines, made ice available, [inaudible 00:05:08] and those sort of things. They're giving people the tools and equipment they need to apply these controls, as opposed to just telling people to be more cool.

Another area in organizations that gets a huge amount of focus and can do a huge amount of damage is the way that you look at incidents. So, what we started to do is take a lot of the language that we associate with things going wrong. If you think about it, incident, witness statement, investigation, makes you really feel really safe to share openly, doesn't it? So, we sort of started to take those parts of the system and actually chip away at language that is associated with blame. A lot of companies say they don't blame, but you've got to be quite careful of the passive things within your systems that actually you may not intend to be blamed but are received as blamed, stop work, retraining, removal of authorizations, all of those sorts of things. So, being quite conscious about those things that we use when something goes wrong in order to help people to share more openly about the work and learn from the work, so that we can actually find the controls that need to be fixed as opposed to not getting the full story.

We also moved away from some of the tools that sort of really drive it a simplistic linear root cause type of view of incidents. So, this thought that you do your five why's, you find the thing that caused it, you fix that and you'll be all right. Works far more complex than that, and so you tools that help you engage in that complexity in order to get the right story. One of the examples is we were having a few different events. See what I've done there? Actually this is what I'm talking through. We were having a few events and we thought, okay, well let's try and ask more openly about what are the organizational and contextual factors that we could work on. We started to get a bit of a trend around how we could improve our safety and design. So, instead of just fixing the thing that was perceived to cause that specific event, we're looking at more a holistic change in terms of how we got people more involved in the design of the equipment we're asking them to use.

Assurance is a assurance is a great one. So, traditional assurance, we'll do a lot of checking, right? So, this is what people are meant to do, and you'll check against those controls in quite a binary fashion. Is the control in or isn't it? And based on that result, you'll get confidence that you're being safe, maybe. So, we sort of flipped some of the things from an assurance perspective, from checking to more asking our people in terms of how things work. We stopped going into our assurance assuming our system was correct. So, it was very easy to have your system, if people aren't doing it as you would expect, they must be wrong and therefore you fix the person. We stopped assuming that our system was correct and started asking far more open questions about the work, in order to sort of understand what are the things that are sort of degrading our controls that we think are there for a good purpose.

The presence or absence of controls isn't enough. The things that stop those controls working is what we needed to understand. So, I started asking a lot more open questions. It's part of our assurance. So, we went from big scorecards with green lights everywhere you can see. We've done the checkbox, the controls are in place, we must be safe, and we had all the green lights. Started asking some more open questions in order to elicit feedback and understand what it is that we could be improving on. A good example was remote and isolated work communication. Our people, as I said, work across the state in all sorts of environments. We had mobile phones, boosters for mobile phones, satellite phones, EPIRBs. We thought our control environment is [inaudible 00:09:30] the layers of protection here. We started asking some more open questions about that. Well, I don't have anywhere to charge my SAT phones, so it's not actually on half the time. International dialing between the SAT phone and the office was stopping the SAT phones being able to work.

So, everyone had them, but they were useless and people couldn't call back and forth. So, what that enabled us to do is actually look at and explore some different technology, which allows people to communicate remotely from the field, which is an important piece in terms of remote and isolated work risk. So again, tangible control improvements by asking a different set of questions. Risk management, another area of systems which can be quite binary if you're not careful with, do we have this risk still? Yes, other controls in place? Yes, okay, we must be good. So, we took started taking more of a view of emerging risk and better engagement on risk as well. So, updated all our consultative committees and management committees to start asking different questions around what are the new risks that are emerging from new technology and change, the external environment, what things are increasing in exposure. Next year we're going to be doing twice as many insulator replacements as the year before. Okay, so a little bit more dynamic in the risk management side of things.

An example of this is we have a lot of new technology coming into our substations. So, communication equipment and those sort of things is an area of growth. So, it was new equipment, heavy equipment, awkward equipment that were getting built into designs. So, started talking to our people about hazardous manual tasks and really trying to focus on preventing the injury before it occurs, instead of waiting till after. So, the example there, you won't be able to see the detail, but basically the work before and the work after with an engineering control in place and starting to measure the reduction in musculoskeletal risk that comes with that. Expanded that into a sort of consultative group, and asking some really simple questions. What's the activity that send you home saw at the end of the day? So, we didn't say, "Hey, we're here to talk about musculoskeletal risk disorders this morning," and all our people just switch off and go, right [inaudible 00:12:07]. So, instead we started, so what are things that annoy you? I what should, I didn't swear there. We're recording this, aren't you? What are the things that annoy you?

What sends you home sore at the end of the day? And start understanding those tasks and then looking at engineering control, so we can put in place. Measurement, one of most common questions we get asked, "How are we going to measure if we're being successful?" Right? And quite a challenge. One of the first things we did was we removed injury frequency rates from all our targets and incentive schemes. It was driving the wrong behavior. It was driving a focus on reactive management of specific injuries as opposed to proactive management. We know that injury frequency rates, especially when associated with targets and incentive schemes, they drive risk secrecy. You stop getting information. You're not hurting less people, they're just not telling you anymore. So, we really went to work on that. In its place, started looking at what the things were that we could get some feedback on. So, we have an employee engagement survey, put quite a bit of weight on that. It's a perception survey, but it's a perception survey of all your people.

So, what are they telling us in terms of the things that are good about the work and the things that are not so good about the work. So, really dove into that. Started measuring control improvements. So, instead of incentivizing the reduction in frequency rates, we started incentivizing the development of new and improved controls for the work. So, those things you saw I think on the slide prior, built them into our measures, so that we could actually incentivize the right activity, the right action. Increased our qualitative reporting of our control learnings and improvements. The oversimplification of feedback, by the way of metrics is dangerous for an executive and board because they don't actually get an understanding of what's going on. They just get false confidence in scorecards and things like that. So, we increased the qualitative reporting. Double-edged sword, dealing with a high level of qualitative information with time constrained people. We have to be quite targeted, but certainly tried to build that in wherever we could. And started base lining and remeasuring health data to understand the effectiveness of our programs.

So, basically we've got sort of medicals, we've got other things that we do to understand the health of our workforce and obviously start to baseline and that sort of thing. So, influencing leadership. So, a bit of a view on doing this with executives and boards because there's some things there that certainly challenge what people have known and just become comfortable with, right? So, reengaged in the research, you'll be surprised it has moved on since the seventies, the research into this stuff. So, reengaged in the research and actually provide a basis of evidence, and those sort of things to help influence that we were taking the right perspective on some of these things. Legal and diligence, so making sure that by doing this, people didn't feel like their legal liability was increasing in some respects. So, giving a sense of comfort that your obligation isn't just to have systems, it's to make sure that they're working and effective. And so, you sort of draw that line for people from a legal sense, and they start to get it.

And then stories from practice. So, giving some practical examples as to how these things are working, and you would've seen some of those today. Other things that sort of supplemented this approach, recognition of success along the way. So, WHSQ's Be Recognized Programs, example of that. There are other ways to get recognition at all scales, organizational scale, group scale, individual scale. Make sure that people recognize that people are actually successful in their work most of the time. So, this propensity to sort of focus on that one time that something went wrong as opposed to what they're doing to actually adapt to your crappy systems and make work happen, recognize that along the way. Link the broader benefits to employee retention and attraction. So, make that business case there. Benchmarkings not up there, but it's an interesting one. Benchmarking in context to your organization and in a qualitative way. So, not just benchmarking numbers that have emerged from an organization with a completely different context.

So, cautious of benchmarking, benchmarking ideas and opportunities and those sort of things as opposed to benchmarking just numbers that are out of context. And went to work on anything and everything we could do to build psychological safety. So, we did that through all those different systems, are angled at improving psychological safety. "You can't fix a secret," I thinks the quote that I like. So, anything we could do to get the feedback from our people in order to make that change. Some of the challenges, as I mentioned, different contexts in the same parts or in different parts of the same business. So, even a business isn't uniform in nature. So, there's a propensity to say, "Well we've got one system and everyone must follow it," but does it work for line's work and warehousing and those sort of things.

So, it's actually no needs to be fit for purpose, not consistent. So, challenging some of those things was a challenge as you'd imagine. And increasing, as I mentioned, dealing with levels of qualitative information where people like to be able to have a bit of a scoreboard, snapshot, get comfort from a brief set of numbers, and then move on. So, increasing people's capacity to deal with higher levels of qualitative information because you're actually bringing stories back, not just numbers back. So, that's me. We are growing, which means we are recruiting. So, keeping eye on the website. If you're working in a dirty fishbowl, give me a call. Thank you.