Adapting to challenging conditions
In December 2016, BRIAN DARLNGTON travelled to the Komi Republic of Russia, during which time the temperatures were hovering between -40 and -45°C … conditions that require a new approach to safety
After conducting the two-day visit, my colleagues and I arrived at the airport to catch our fight back to Europe when we were informed that the flight would be delayed; due to the cold weather conditions.
Around 30 minutes later, we were given the good news that the aircraft was ready; we could board and be home in Vienna in time for the weekend. All went according to plan as we settled in, buckled up and the aircraft took off.
After we had reached our cruising altitude, the dinner service commenced. However, when ordering our drinks we were informed that, due to the extremely cold weather conditions, the wine was frozen. We quickly fixed the problem by placing the miniature wine bottles in the on-board kettle. Later we had a similar problem with frozen cheese and grapes. This time, however, the kettle was not an option.
During the flight my mind wandered back to the challenges we have had with extreme weather conditions while in Russia during the past twelve years.
These memories reminded me how employees face challenges each and every day, and how it is important for leaders and safety professionals to engage with them to find solutions to provide a safe working environment for all, where everyone returns home safely at the end of each shift.
Engaging and understanding the barriers is key
I remember conducting my first couple of visits to the logging camps in 2015, during which we were concerned that employees were wearing woollen-type boots (called valenkis) and camouflage overalls when harvesting the trees.
Over time, we implemented a rule that required all employees to be issued with (and wear) safety boots with steel toe caps and brightly coloured overalls. By doing this we believed that we had reduced the risk of injuries.
However, during each of the following visits, we noticed that the employees kept using their valenki boots, or at times would wear the safety boots only when we were visiting the sites.
Eventually, during one of the visits to the logging operations, I sat down with a couple of employees to discuss the issue. I was informed that the extreme weather conditions resulted in the steel toe caps freezing their toes and making them uncomfortable.
By sitting with them we realised there was good reason for them failing to adhere to our requirements of wearing safety boots. As a result, the team searched for a more suitable boot with lining and toe caps made of a different material. Once these were issued, the employees adhered to the rules and finally the risk of foot injuries was reduced to an acceptable level.
Being practical without increasing the risk
Some years ago, while running another large project in Russia, we experienced extreme weather conditions with temperatures as low as -30°C. Rules and procedures had to be developed and agreed on to make it possible for people to work safely under these conditions.
I recall some of the challenges we faced, including: cranes freezing, icicles hanging off scaffolding, snow and ice-covered platforms and walkways, and people having to erect metal structures and equipment with little protection from the cold.
This forced the project and safety teams to engage with the employees and contractors and to identify and agree on practical solutions to the problems. As a result, this project was completed without any serious injuries.
The key to success is obtaining understanding and being practical
To ensure maximum impact, leaders should engage with the employees and contractors who are faced with the everyday challenges in their daily tasks; including extreme weather conditions, routine or non-routine activities, complicated work and congested areas.
Who better to talk to – in order to understand the barriers that are faced and to agree on safety methods of conducting a task – than those who are faced with the challenges when conducting their work?
It is clear that by engaging with the relevant persons when developing systems, methodologies, standards and procedures, the process takes much longer. However, doing so ensures buy-in to the new requirements and quicker rollout and implementation, as well as greater success in reducing the risks and preventing injuries and incidents.
Once we, as leaders and safety professionals, have a clearer understanding of the specific barriers, together with the first-line managers and employees, practical options can be identified to conduct the work safely. More importantly, we can obtain buy-in and thereby have a better chance of employees and contractors following the agreed standards, procedures and safety rules.
It is also important for the people conducting hazardous work activities to understand the risks and the reasons why safety professionals want them to follow the safety rules and procedures.
During my first visits to the logging camps, the employees were happy to wear camouflage overalls. Once we explained the risks and importance of being visible when working in the forests – especially during harvesting activities – they were more than willing to change to the brightly coloured overalls.
To be successful in our efforts in reducing risks and preventing incidents, we should ensure engagement with all relevant parties to improve understanding and obtain agreement of the risks levels.
In addition, we should develop practical control measures to reduce the risks to an acceptable level and create an understanding of what the consequences could be if the agreed controls are not implemented and adhered to.
Brian Darlington is the group head of safety and health for the Mondi Group, based in Vienna, Austria. He has filled the role since 2012 and is responsible for safety and health in more than 30 countries. Brian started working at Iscor before joining Mondi in 1987, working in Gauteng. In 2000 he transferred to the Kraft Division in Richards Bay. During 2005, Brian transferred to Europe, taking up the position of business unit SHE manager, responsible for SHE in paper mills in Austria, Hungary, Israel, Slovakia, Poland, South Africa and Russia, as well as forests operations in South Africa and Russia.