Managing Director at Babcock and HeliOffshore board member shares thoughts on safety

Managing Director at Babcock and HeliOffshore board member shares thoughts on safety 7 Dec, 18, Source: HeliOffshore

Offshore helicopter flights are just part of a very broad range of engineering support services provided by Babcock International Group. These also include decommissioning nuclear sites, building warships, and maintaining railway infrastructure and powerlines. A key common theme between these safety critical activities is that they are conducted in highly regulated environments.

David Plester, managing director of Babcock’s UK civil aviation businesses, is a board member of HeliOffshore. In the first of a series of articles in which HeliOffshore members share their approach to safety, he explained how the group responded to the complex safety challenges it faces and why a strong safety culture is imperative to keeping the workforce safe.

Please tell us how the company established its “Home Safe Every Day” safety policy and how you ensure that it remains effective.

We had a period of tremendous growth both organic and acquisitive which saw us operating in new areas with many new teams being formed. One of the key challenges was our safety performance, which wasn’t as we aspired for it to be. So we created the “Home Safe Every Day” programme which brought all our businesses together under a common theme. It is a message that everyone can relate to – no matter what their role is. It has been one of the really strong binding agents across the businesses and it’s fair to say that it’s successful. 

How has “Home Safe Every Day” Changed the Way Babcock Employees Look at Safety?

During our period of rapid growth, the projects we won and the businesses we acquired all had their own safety systems, processes and ‘rule books’. We found that ‘Home Safe Every Day’ really helped us share best safety practise and set the standard for every Babcock operating facility.

How Do You Oversee the Implementation of the “Home Safe Every Day” Policy?

We formed the Corporate Safety Steering Group (CSSG) whose membership includes safety professionals and operators. We do a series of reviews in which a team will go and look at a business and report back on how to share best practices. One of the highest profile and most effective activities involves each managing director in the group visiting another business each year. I’ve looked at the new aircraft carrier project, the refit of a nuclear submarine, our rail business and a refit of a warship. For the rail business, I visited a site at 4.30 p.m. on a winter evening in Penrith [in the north of England]. It was dark and had just started to snow. Seeing a site like that really makes you appreciate the environment people are working in, with bad conditions, heavy kit and time pressure. Employees need to balance those factors with keeping things safe. To make this situation even more challenging, we had a large contingent of contract labour working alongside our own staff. We had materials, plant and equipment supplied by other organisations, some supplied to us and some to [Babcock’s client] Network Rail. But everyone recognised what “Home Safe Every Day” meant and we used it to channel and communicate safety messages across the whole workforce. 

The visits allow us to see how other people operate and every time I’ve visited a site, I’ve taken something back to my business—whether it’s a charter or a “Safe to Start” briefing, or a tool box talk. There’s always something we should think about adopting. In any business, we’ve all had something that we walked past that was unsafe and it’s not until a near miss or an accident happens that we realise we were blind to it. A fresh pair of eyes is always more likely to spot potential dangers.

There are four key principles of Babcock’s “Home Safe Every Day”. Please talk us through these to understand what they mean:

Looking after yourself and each other:

It means feeling empowered to stop and ask questions. I would hope nobody walks past an unsafe area without pausing to ask about it. If we are challenged about being unsafe, we accept it in a positive way. There have been times when questioning safety issues has created tension. So we introduced a way for people to positively challenge [safety issues] and to help others understand why they were being challenged and to accept it positively. Everyone in our business has the authority to stop any work they feel to be unsafe and we have issued ‘Stop Work Authority’  badges to all staff underlining this.  Visitors to our sites get these too and we will always support anyone who uses this authority where there is a genuine concern that things are not as safe as they should be. Also, it’s important to recognise good safety practice, whether it’s a project reaching a million-man hours without an accident or an individual making a difference in their area.

Caring about how we deliver as well as what we deliver:

It involves striking the balance between service delivery and safe delivery, which is absolutely critical to us and our customers. The best way to get this message accepted is through working with the customer. Recently one of our employees in Aberdeen used his Stop Work Authority to halt a flight that was about to depart. All the passengers were delayed while an additional safety inspection was carried out. No risks were found but nonetheless both Babcock management and the customer whose flight was delayed nominated the employee for an award for his actions. That was a really powerful message. Our programme around safety applies whether you are an engineer working on a refit or a sales director growing our business, it is the same programme. We try to tailor conversations to what their particular risks are. We all have a series of business and financial growth targets, but everyone also has non-financial measures, and some of these are safety related.

Setting an example to others of not walking past an unsafe act or unsafe condition:

I’ll give you an example. Six weeks ago our group chief executive visited the offshore helicopter base in Aberdeen. He spent 45 minutes speaking with a group of staff exploring their views on safety, talking about what changes or improvements we might make. He then raised points from this discussion with the management team – so everyone, at every level has a responsibility for safety. 

There is no substitute for walking around with your ears and eyes open. At every meeting in Aberdeen I like to do a walk through the hangars. You get a first-hand understanding of what the tensions and strains are, especially early in the morning as the shift is starting on a cold day. Appreciating the requirements – for example taking oil samples from awkward locations underneath aircraft – helps us understand issues and find ways to resolve or improve them. 

Being able to evaluate the work-arounds that people use in their job are another benefit from these high visibility management visits and they also ensure that we keep a common approach to safety across Babcock.  For the engineer who does a work-around, it becomes a norm and breaking a habit can be hard – “that’s how I’ve always done it” doesn’t mean it’s right!

Continually improving our safety:
This is quite hard. When you start there is low-hanging fruit in terms of some straightforward improvements -such as introducing the right protective equipment. You run the risk that you start to plateau in safety performance. What we try to do is keep it fresh, working with other groups, operators, suppliers to ensure we keep abreast of developments. And of course we continually monitor and assess our own performance and our changing environment. 

It’s also about being clear about the safety message and not over-complicating what we’re trying to do. We’ve had some soul-searching meetings about his. Initially, our goal or target was to halve the accident rate each year, and I remember people saying, “we can’t do that”. Then you realise you can do it and then you talk about having zero accidents, and people said that was impossible too. But now we have a receptive response to the goal of having zero accidents in a year. You could ask “OK, who is going to have the accident this year?” and you’ll find that no one puts their hands up, which brings it home to people what this means. In our induction programmes we spend time talking to new staff about safety expectations. 

According to your last annual report, Babcock International conducted a group wide internal safety audit. How was this conducted and what were the main outcomes for the aviation sector?

The CSSG owns the safety audits across all business areas. It’s not conducted as a heavy, hard-nosed audit in which people pass or fail; it should be a learning exercise. We spend three or four days across each business area to look at everything. This team creates recommendations, and these are reviewed by the [Babcock] PLC board, which means things get done. The themes from the audit help create the safety strategy and the agenda for the CSSG for the next year. We’ve done four audits in 2018. Some of the themes covered include refreshing the safety lens for our internal safety conversation, plus we’re doing more work on safety culture. The job of the CSSG is to summarise what’s happening overall. They report to PLC Board every other month. In interim months, our CEO sits with group for an hour or two, and asks what they are finding. 

How do you maintain the focus on safety when business conditions are challenging?

It is about running businesses appropriately. If we don’t have a safe business, we don’t have a business at all.  We have a really broad base and teams can reach in to other parts of group for safety support and don’t have to do it all themselves. I think collaboration is key. It’s about applying many minds to making things safer. 

The wider the network of like-minded individuals you have, the more you can learn. This is what we’re doing through HeliOffshore -sharing best practice and creating standardisation. The Whistle-blower policy is always is there too and people are encouraged to use it – it is real and it is quite powerful. Someone might not feel that what we say about safety actually happens, and this is an independent way of raising concerns anonymously. 

Also, getting the union on board can be a good way to engage with the workforce over safety. We’ve found unions have been really supportive of safety work and their input and support can be incredibly valuable. 

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