From the ‘how’ to the ‘what’ of Safety Differently — Mitchell Services Case Study

by Josh Bryant

Mitchell Services, which performs drilling and other earthworks jobs for a range of different clients, has implemented ‘Safety Differently.’ At the bottom of the post is a film they submitted as part of a nomination for a safety award which introduces their approach.

1: What was the work health and safety performance issue?

Mitchell Services, an ASX listed company, is one of Australia’s leading drilling contractors, delivering safe, efficient and proactive drilling services to the global exploration, mining and energy industries. Servicing global mining and energy companies to junior explorers, Mitchell Services operates in Queensland, Northern Territory, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia. Re- entering the Australian market in 2013, Mitchell Services has grown revenue from $14m in FY2014 to $70+m in FY2018, and we currently employ more than 350 people.

In the fourth quarter of the previous two years, we experienced our highest number of injuries and the highest injury severity. Additionally, from January to September 2017, our number of employees had grown by 46%, as well as entering new markets in NSW, SA and WA. We recognised that the market expansion and employee growth increased our risk profile leading into the fourth quarter.

Operation Homestretch was developed and implemented to reduce the number of injuries and the injury severity during the last quarter of the year, a traditionally high-risk period. During this period, employees are at risk of becoming distracted by missing family, Christmas, school finishing and holidays.

2: How did your organisation improve its health and safety performance?

‘Operation Homestretch’ is a practical application of the concepts of ‘Safety Differently’ published by Sidney Dekker. Promoting a culture of investigating “successes” rather than “failures”, and looking objectively, rather than critically, at why work was carried out differently from the plan. Management acknowledged that the real experts are the people doing the work, not the people planning it.

Operation Homestretch recognised and accessed the knowledge and experience of our workforce to improve work outcomes, including safety. Building trust with our workforce was essential to success and a positive communication strategy, combined with a use of social media platforms, enabled management to engage with workers across the business.

Leading into the fourth quarter of 2017, Mitchell Services personnel worked over 6000 shifts across the business without incident, demonstrating that our people are insightful and adaptable. Our employee survey demonstrated that we have a workforce willing to contribute to the success of the business. Operation Homestretch built on these positive results and took a ‘Safety Differently’ approach to leverage our workforce and ‘Focus on what goes right’ and ‘Connect the workforce’.

All content was developed in-house by the HSE Team (4 personnel) using the concepts of Safety Differently by authors such as Sidney Dekker, Eric Hollnagel, Todd Conklin and the team at ‘Art of Work’. The CEO, Operations Managers and a subset of the workforce were consulted on the key change in our messaging and intent of Operation Homestretch, to which the response was very positive. The Mitchell Services leadership team were coached on the concepts and how to roll out the initial presentation and activity to the workgroups.

With our workforce geographically spread, the leadership team personally delivered the roll out of Operation Homestretch to each project which ensured that the messaging was the same across all sites. Our leaders were able to personally engage with personnel and Supervisors to confirm understanding and obtain commitment to the initiative and its goals.

At the initial roll-out of Operation Homestretch across Australia, the leadership team ran an activity to learn how our teams handled variability. This was applied in our daily pre-shift meetings at all sites to implement sharing across the team on variability and how we manage it.

Applying ‘Focus on what goes right’, aims to learn from our workforce how they had developed a culture of resilience within each team. We developed and implemented a process to capture how

they adapted when things may not go to plan day to day, with equal emphasis on a discussion about what they do daily to make things ‘go right’.

A fundamental principal is that work is made safe at the drill site, not Head Office. To facilitate this, Supervisors would undertake a step-change in their workplace interactions to focus on obtaining the workforce’s engagement in the improvement of working conditions at our drill sites instead of focusing on individual behaviours.

‘Connect the workforce’ was built on creating ownership and community. As part of Operation Homestretch, “Our people, Our Solutions” sought ideas from our personnel, be it safety or technical improvements, that could be applied across the business. Subsequently, we would communicate, celebrate and trial these ideas across the entire business.

The weekly ‘Crew Chats’ were recorded in the field by HSE staff on their smartphones, and compiled inhouse. ‘Crew Chats’ comprising of weekly videos where we would ask both serious and humorous

questions to a range of personnel at all sites and states. Each ‘Crew Chat’ finished with a key message asking, ‘What is the most important thing in your life?’. As the videos were not seen as ‘polished’ (i.e. put together by an external media company), we achieved significant buy-in from our people as it reflected their true personalities and they were more relaxed and honest when answering the questions. The videos took approximately 80 hours of internal work to put the 12 crew chats video’s together. These were released weekly on a Thursday to coincide with shift change at the worksites.

‘Crew Chats’ videos were the key tool used to cut through the fog of ‘safety information’. Almost 70% of our employees appeared in the video’s sharing answers to questions such as ‘What was your first job after high school?’, ‘What’s the worst thing you’ve seen happen at work?’, and ‘What is the most important thing in your life?’.

Operation Homestretch was the first time that Mitchell Services had taken a whole of business approach to our end of year messaging, driven by an almost doubling of our workforce and geographical footprint.

Our challenges included an unsatisfactory record of safety performance during the target period, a highly regulated working environment, client requirements, a geographically diverse workforce and a work environment saturated in negative outcome safety messaging.

Traditionally, safety in mining focuses on unwanted outcomes such as incidents and failures using outdated communication strategies that do not engage a modern work force. Regular PowerPoint presentations, posters and speeches from line management are not breaking through the vast information overload including inductions, procedures, golden rules and meetings.

A barrier to delivering our message is the heavily regulated environment that we work in (mining), particularly in the Coal sector. The challenge for Mitchell Services was to change the messaging from ‘negatives and control’ to ‘empowerment and trust’ which is different to the messages delivered by our clients and expected by regulators. To overcome this challenge, we shared our strategy with clients and involved them in the initial roll-out at the operational sites.

Homestretch messaging and ‘Crew Chats’ were delivered utilising a closed Facebook page and via site daily team meetings. This allowed personnel to watch the videos together in a semi-informal environment. Our supervisors were able to leverage from the crews discussing the videos and reinforce the messaging set by the leadership team.

3: Explain how the changes have improved your performance. How have you ensured this improvement will be sustained?

Operation Homestretch continues to leave a lasting impression on our business. The ‘Crew Chats’ built a sense of community in our business, breaking down barriers to communication and formed comraderies within the teams to finish the year without injuries. The success of the use of short videos on a social media platform has resulted in our business using social media more frequently to communicate and interact in a far more personal way with our people. We are now expanding the use of mobile applications to drive further engagement and improvement including training, workplace inspections and journey management.

This demonstrated engagement and care for our workforce is reflected in a turnover of less than 5% per month. As Mitchell Services continues to expand the business and head count we were able to show the ‘Crew Chats’ to our new employees as a way of demonstrating our culture and to welcome them in joining our business.

With over 100 quality submissions for key improvements to safety and efficiency in our business, the ‘Our People, Our Solutions’ initiative has exceeded expectations and was extended another six months. Many of these solutions will create actual improvements at the drill site, which has confirmed the Leaderships Team’s commitment to listening to our people and acting.

An employee perception survey completed after Operation Homestretch indicated that 92% of respondents thought that ‘Operation Homestretch’ had an impact over the high-risk end of year period. Further, 99% of the respondents to the survey felt that Mitchell Services is a safe place to work.

From a purely statistical measure, during the period December 2016 to December 2017, Mitchell Services All Injury Frequency Rate decreased by 48% and Total Recordable Injury Frequency Rate decreased by 58%.

Aside from reducing injury and injury severity, the initiative also highlighted the message to focus on what Mitchell Services does well to achieve ideal outcomes under varying conditions, changing the mindset and safety culture of the business going forward.

Innovative and critical safety thinking