Abby Ford Safe Work leader talks transcript
Transcript of a podcast with Abby Ford, Health and Safety Manager at Bluescope Steel. The podcast was created as part of a campaign targeting managers and other workplace leaders in the manufacturing industry.
[00:00:09] Carol Duncan: Welcome to SafeWork Leader Talks, a podcast series that explores the challenges, benefits, and best practices of establishing a workplace safety culture with innovative New South Wales manufacturing health and safety leaders. I'm your host Carol Duncan. Today, we're talking to BlueScope Steel health and safety manager, Abby Ford, about the value and benefits of safer manufacturing workplaces and how building a culture of safety can improve workforce confidence, productivity, and worker retention. Abby, tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to work in health and safety.
[00:00:43] Abby Ford: It's an interesting story. I just started a law degree when I was straight out of high school, feeling very sensible, fell in love, ended up moving to the Pilbara with my husband. He worked in the mines there. I couldn't finish my law degree by correspondence out in the middle of nowhere. I wrapped up my bachelor's degree and then did postgraduate OHS, so started my career in mining in the outback. Had a beautiful five years there and then moved back to the east coast.
[00:01:09] Carol: Why health and safety? Why after leaving your law degree was this the thing that you chose to do?
[00:01:14] Abby: Health and safety seemed a natural choice where I could get a balance between having a focus on the law and what's really important, but also bringing a people's focus into it. It's actually become quite a neat fit, it's not something that I would have logically gravitated towards had I not had some life experience under my belt at the time.
[00:01:30] Carol: It sounds you've become quite passionate about it, is it the people aspect of that that really drives you?
[00:01:35] Abby: Yes, I think it is. It's also working with SafeWork New South Wales in their mentoring program has also been a real eye-opener for me that people find health and safety quite difficult to navigate at times. I find that bit frustrating because, at the heart of it, it's quite a simple concept. It's about making sure that people come to work in a way and we send them home in the same state. Unfortunately, that can come quite complicated with the legislation, the codes, everything else in it. We lose our way in what we're trying to achieve. I love being able to pair things back, get back to what's at the heart which is keeping people safe. The rest of the stuff ends up taking care of itself.
[00:02:15] Carol: Where do you think that actual difficulty comes from? The frustrations that you were trying to describe there in trying to get people to take it seriously, whether it's an enormous organization like BlueScope or it's a smaller organization that you would be providing mentoring too, what do you think their frustrations or perhaps their fears are?
[00:02:34] Abby: I think it's all of the above and everyone's probably got a unique experience with where their fears lie, not everyone's fearful. I've definitely seen a shift in people just I want to know I'm doing the right thing or I want to make sure I'm compliant.
[00:02:48] Carol: Abby, let's dig down a little bit in some of the safety issues that confront your workforce. This is BlueScope Steel of course, so I assume we're talking heavy industry, we're talking machines that you would not believe, we're talking some significant risks.
[00:03:02] Abby: Yes. Across our portfolio in Australia, we've got everything from the biggest and the most complicated process safety risks in the country down to a branch in Batemans Bay that operates with a handful of people at the most. We have a diverse range of risks and our business is always trying to improve the way that it carries its standards and its safety so that they have the ability to flex for those particular environments. A standard we have at one end of our business needs to be relevant applicable right down to the other end of it.
[00:03:33] Carol: How do you go about ensuring that right across the diversity of what is such a big business?
[00:03:39] Abby: I think having a focus on safety leadership comes first and the systems support that, I think that's really important. Having systems in place that are practical and able to be applied in different settings. At Bluescope, we have a strong focus on management being accountable for safety. That's part of our safety beliefs as an organization.
Our leadership and our managers drive safety within our organizations, and we design systems that support and allow them to do that. We're continually working at it. It's not something that you ever reach a point where you go, "The job's done on that," and it's just set and forget. Safety is ongoing for us. We're continually reviewing what we do, we're continually challenging ourselves around it to make sure that the things that we put in place actually do the things that we've designed them to do.
[00:04:23] Carol: My guest is Abby Ford who is the health and safety manager for BlueScope Steel. What is the basic core belief around safety at Bluescope?
[00:04:33] Abby: At BlueScope, we have a core belief around all injuries can be prevented. That's basically where the starting point for us. We have a zero harm philosophy, and out of that, we have some safety beliefs. For us, those safety beliefs underpin everything that we do. They talk about managers being accountable for safety, that training is essential for employees, that employee input is also essential for us. Those principles underpin everything that we do.
As we evolve as an organization, we breathe new life into what those things mean by drawing in new concepts around Safety-II thinking or social psychology of risk. What we do is make sure that those safety beliefs are always relevant in the context that we're operating, and that we're always finding new ways to be curious about how we can improve in any aspect of our safety beliefs.
[00:05:21] Carol: Health and safety managers, Abby, like yourself, are in a very interesting position. You are in the middle. You're in between a workforce that you want to keep safe and you want to send home at the end of the day to the families. You also are working with an executive and managerial team who have other motivators. Of course, they have well-being of workforce. They have moral and economic drivers. How do you negotiate that space in between?
[00:05:47] Abby: I think at BlueScope I'm very fortunate that our management and our executive know that doing safety well is simply good business. When you're doing safety well, work's more predictable, you're getting quality gains. All the efforts that you're putting into safety, there's byproducts that you get in other areas. We're very fortunate that that's part of the fabric of our management team. They just understand that.
I'm aware that not every company has the benefit of having that managerial culture established. I think that's the challenge for people. Some of the lessons we learned the hard way, we have a swathe of our own codes of practice that are basically built off really serious injuries that we've had in our business so that we create this formwork around those risks to make sure that we never have those type of incidents again.
The challenge really is how you get those lessons so far embedded in your organizations without having to learn things the hard way. That's something I don't know. Maybe if people did know that, we'd be in a different state in Australia with workplace fatalities. I think I'm very lucky at BlueScope that that's not where my focus goes. I don't spend my time convincing our management team that safety is important because they already understand it. They see it every day.
[00:07:02] Carol: You also work as a mentor for SafeWork New South Wales. You provide your skills and knowledge and expertise in trying to help others create a great safety culture like you have at BlueScope Steel. If you're talking to a health and safety manager or some of the leadership in an organization and you know that that is a problem, that there is a health and safety culture yet to be developed strongly enough, how do you help encourage that? What are your words of advice and wisdom to people who may be trying to create and grow that good culture in their own organization?
[00:07:36] Abby: The SafeWork New South Wales mentoring program has been a real eye-opener to me. I've worked with big business that's really let me see first hand what the challenges are like for small businesses and the reservations that they have around strengthening their commitment to health and safety. Usually not because they don't see the importance of that, but because they're fearful of the complexity and the cost that it might pose to their organization.
My experience with working with these organizations is often just firstly debunking some things that they might hold themselves. They'll say, "I don't know anything about my safety management system. I don't know where to start." I usually find that's not correct. I usually find that they have a really good understanding of what their people do.
[00:08:21] Carol: Can we debunk some of those myths? What are they?
[00:08:23] Abby: That they don't know what they need to do. Usually, they'll say, "I just want to know that I'm doing all the right things," because they might want to make sure that if they have an interaction with the regulator, or if something goes wrong, that I'm covered. You generally hear that term. What I find is that asking questions like do you know what your people do? Do you know how they do it? Do you get interested in ways that you can make things safer and easier for them?
The answers to those questions give more of an indication to me about how under control or what opportunities there are with that person's safety journey with their business because often, it's less about what fancy management system you have attached to your organization and more about how well you understand the risks in your business and whether you're working hard to reduce those risks to your people. There's some really interesting ones. The other ones that I love hearing about are where somebody told them that they need to get a fancy risk assessment for a [unintelligible 00:09:18]. They do that because they think they don't know how to do it themselves.
When you write down what the purpose of that process is, so instead of focusing on the process, which might look quite complicated, getting back to focusing on the purpose that you're doing it for, you see a penny drop and they think, "Of course, I can do this for myself. I understand my machinery or my truck or whatever it is. There's no reason I couldn't do this for myself as I know my business."
They're the real aha moments that I live for in that program that makes it really worthwhile because you actually see them starting to grasp what they need to do. It's not tangled up in a complicated code of practice or a piece of legislation that's difficult to understand. It's actually just about managing safety. If you do that really well, the legislation will take care of itself.
[00:10:07] Carol: Coming up, Abby shares her thoughts on mentoring other organizations on building a safety strategy, the challenges they face in doing so, and the benefits of a great health and safety culture. Oh, and wait until you hear her story of a ship on fire in port. More from Abby after this message from SafeWork New South Wales.
[00:10:31] Abby: Employers and management play an important role in workplace health and safety. Workers in the manufacturing industry look to their leaders for safety guidance. Research shows that after training, workers in manufacturing prefer to receive safety messages in their workplace through signs, posters, fact sheets, and toolbox talks. To support leaders in manufacturing, SafeWork New South Wales has forklift and machine safety education materials that can be downloaded or printed and shared with workers. Visit safework.nsw.gov.au/manufacturing today. Be the leader your workers need. Safety starts with you.
[00:11:18] Carol: My guest is Abby Ford, BlueScope Steel health and safety manager. Abby, you referred earlier to what can be a very heavy and tragic price of a lack of workplace safety and workplace accidents and therefore the importance of ensuring that all of the systems are in place and that the culture is in place. Is that part of the conversation that has to be had with both senior management and also with the workplace to make them fully understand the potential risks, because I think a lot of us go through or sail through our lives thinking, "It'll never happen to me."
[00:11:50] Abby: As part of the mentoring program, yes, definitely. I think BlueScope’s reached a maturity point where I feel like in my role, those conversations aren't nearly as raw, or they don't need to be as raw as you've described because it's part of who we are now. It's part of our history. There's enough people in our business who've been involved in things that they never want to be involved with again, whether that's here or elsewhere through their other experience. Certainly, with the mentoring program, yes. Bringing that home to people and just helping them to be able to prioritize what's in front of them has been really important.
We might come across someone through the mentoring program, a small business that feels quite overwhelmed with the work that's in front of them. For me, it's about going, "We have to start putting one foot in front of the other. Let's focus first on the things that could kill people in your business. Do you know what they are?" Once you've identified those things that can kill people, let's get that right, and let's work back from there.
All the other stuff could feel really interesting or easy to work on, that's not where our focus needs to be. My advice for any small business would be, concentrate on the stuff that is either going to kill someone or have a serious life-changing permanent impact on a person. Get that stuff right and work back from there because otherwise, you can create a lot of noise and not actually work on the right stuff.
[00:13:15] Carol: What are the benefits of a great health and safety culture?
[00:13:17] Abby: Any Google search will show you that there's been a ton of empirical evidence on this now. You get improvements with productivity, you have cost savings, you'll get a happier, healthier workforce. Depending on what you work on and how much effort you put into it, there's benefits galore. I think once you start focusing on safety and you can start seeing how planning for things, having better quality conversations about the work that you do, you'll get efficiencies in a range of areas. They can’t always be defined, but once you start on that journey, it's very hard to break the momentum of it. It's something that you'll get confounding benefits from it over time.
[00:13:57] Carol: Hypothetical for you, Abby. I am an employee A. Maybe I'm a new employee. Maybe I've come in under a contract of some description from a provider and I see something that I don't think is right, but I'm scared to say anything about it. Maybe I'll lose my job. Maybe I won't be invited back. Maybe I'll never be offered that particular contract again. That is the other end of the culture, isn't it? Where you need to somehow create an environment where employees can say, "This is the thing," and not fear repercussion. In fact, feel proud of perhaps identifying that problem.
[00:14:31] Abby: Yes. In those particular situations when people do raise something, management's response to those particular issues that have been raised is critical, because you'll set the tone for how comfortable somebody will be to raise something in the future. Firstly, we make it abundantly clear to people who work on our site that we want to hear the bad news. We want to hear the things that aren't going so well for them or things that they see, because unless we know about them, we're not in a position to be able to speak firstly.
Secondly, when they do raise them, it's really important to show a deep level of curiosity about what the other person's asking, and then follow through with it. That's the culture we try and cultivate and reinforce with our people. Like with anything, that looks different in lots of different ways. It looks different for some people, looks different for some managers but that's the foundation of what we try and cultivate. As a management team, we can't be scared to hear bad news from our people, we can't be scared to hear the stuff that we might not want to hear or we're denying ourselves an opportunity to get better.
[00:15:35] Carol: When you glue those two ends of that spectrum together, a leadership who want to engage, who want to hear, who want their workforce to be safe and a workforce that feels they can say, "Hey, there's a problem," the outcome of that is going to be fantastic.
[00:15:51] Abby: You can't do good safety without employee involvement and you can't do good safety without good leadership. That is absolutely the bread and butter of safety culture, it's the core foundation. Management don't have all the answers, they need to hear from the people who do the work to help them find the way forward. The people who do the work have to be able to trust their managers to treat the information that they send up with interest. They have to be able to trust them to follow through on things.
[00:16:18] Carol: Okay. Abby, can you share with us an example of something that you have implemented through your time at BlueScope? It might be something that you've observed or that an employee has brought to you?
[00:16:29] Abby: That's a great question. It's not a system, it's not a form, it's actually just consistency in how you behave and operate to set a standard. For me, one of the best things is seeing leaders consistently being able to have conversations about safety or to align themselves with what's really important in a high stakes or high-pressure type of scenario. One of the best examples of that I've seen, we had a shift down here on the port that caught fire. The fire burnt for about a week in a conveyor system. It was a ship that was docked on our port. Because it was in our location, we were obviously involved because our people were close to that.
There was one part of the recovery work where we had a very small title window to do a piece of work. The work was something that we'd never done before. It wasn't particularly high risk but it was something that we hadn't done before. We had fire commands, anyone that you can think of was there and being involved. One of our supervisors at the time pulled everyone together in the workgroup because he said, "We need to run through this JICA. I remember hearing a few people say, "Come on, we've got 20 minutes to do this job. We've got to get going." He's, "I know that feels important to you, but this is what we need to do to make sure we get this work done."
That for me is true safety leadership. When everything else can seem really important, everyone else thinks everything else is important but you actually have the courage and the resolve to stand there in the middle of all of that stuff and to just hold the line and to make sure that people know what's expected of them and that they're going to be safe to execute that task. That's something that definitely stays with me, and I remind myself of that.
I remember that exact time I actually took two steps back and I took a photo of that particular toolbox because I never wanted to forget that moment in my career to just go, "If that's the time that you can pull out that leadership and it doesn't matter what I come across in my time that there'll always be time to make that a priority."
[00:18:44] Carol: Have BlueScope's leaders always had that strong health and safety culture?
[00:18:48] Abby: I think BlueScope has a fantastic safety culture from the shop floor employees to their managers. Like most businesses of our size and our risk profile, we've been through a journey over a number of years that's helped us evolve that culture. Back in the '90s, we were engaged with DuPont. They helped us really kickstart what we would call now our modern safety journey. They were the ones who gave us some tools to see things that we just wouldn't have seen before and to really help us understand safety in a whole new context. Prior to that, we didn't have the level of expertise or understanding and that really helped bring our leadership team together and see things.
We continue on that journey, it's not as if you can get a dose of something and the job's done. We continually go out and see what's new in the world, what's new in safety thinking and we try and embed that back into our processes to continue to evolve in this space, to breathe new life to things, parts of the foundation of our safety management system. The job is never done. Our culture will continue to evolve. Safety culture is a component of that. It's just a part of our overall company culture. We'll continue to find ways to improve that as the context of the world moves on too, so, we can start to do one thing and then as this year has shown us we continually need to adapt.
[00:20:14] Carol: How does the leadership at BlueScope or the organization as a whole actually measure success?
[00:20:19] Abby: That's a really wonderful question question for us because we're challenging ourselves around that too. We've got traditional measures around safety associated with injury rights and our engagement levels with our employees, face-to-face engagement on the job. We're really challenging ourselves around how we can measure safety. We're not saying that those things are wrong even of themselves but we're always looking for new ways to give us better insight into what's going on with safety.
Certainly with the some of the work I've been doing around big data and predictive analytics, we want to look at ways to use all of the tools and kit that we got out on the plan to give us better insights into things. You can't do that without investing heavily into some grassroots people focus programs too because the two go hand in hand. You can't just write numbers because you only get one side of the story with what's going on with safety.
Various ways that we're challenging ourselves around how to measure safety. It's a golden question across the entire industry what the best measure is. My personal view is that I don't think there's always one good measure. I think that it's a range of indicators or artifacts in your business and not everything that counts can be counted either. I think it's about just having a really deep level of understanding about your business.
[00:21:35] Carol: The financial bottom line though for an organization that has a good health and safety culture that would have to be substantial.
[00:21:42] Abby: Without a doubt and that's being well documented too. Some of the other economic benefits that you're going to get from managing safety is obviously that you'll get low range rates. Low range rates to most businesses means that you'll get low workers' compensation premiums and then lower risk of having civil liability cases lodged against you in the future.
There's real tangible cost savings that you can get from having better oversight of your safety management so they are really direct things. There's a whole range of other indirect cost benefits in that there'll be less free work, you'll have better trained people to perform work. You're more likely to get work right in the first place and reducing equipment damage, all that kind of stuff. There's no doubt that there's direct cost avoidance and indirect cost avoidance with managing safety properly.
[00:22:35] Carol: What would your top three tips be for other leaders in manufacturing, for example?
[00:22:41] Abby: My first tip is to just be authentic as a leader. I think you don't have to know all of the answers. That's the first tip. If you can just be yourself and be curious about things, you will find things out about your business that you wouldn't have the opportunity to if you get around and it can let you know everything about your business. The second thing is seek input from the people that do the work. Essentially, they are the experts on the work. Any issue that you see or that they've seen that they raise to you, they will probably have a view on how to fix that. In my experience, it might be too far from where you end up in the end usually.
The third tip I have is to really just focus on your key core risks first. If you're starting out, focus on the stuff that is going to make the most difference in the beginning. Don't try and be everything to anyone. If you're starting, concentrate on the stuff that's going to kill your people or cause a serious traumatic injury. Get that correct and then ride the idea out from there because if you do something that might make you feel good or your people feel good that you're working on safety, and it's not really the stuff that's going to matter if something goes horribly wrong, then I think you run the risk of not putting your energy into the right area.
[00:23:56] Carol: What's a great day at work for you, Abby?
[00:23:59] Abby: A great day at work for me is actually where I spend the entire day out with people doing amazing work in our business. If we have a shut down on or even just a normal operation, going out and spending time with people, talking to them, understanding how they do work and what ways or what ideas they have around how we can make that safer or more efficient or better. That's a great day at work for me. I'm not someone who's comfortable sitting in front of a computer all day. I think there that when we have that beautiful engagement with our people where they share their ideas, they're interested in helping us improve on our safety journey, that's a fantastic day at work for me.
[00:24:41] Carol: How do you then share that experience and that passion for keeping people safe back to your leadership?
[00:24:48] Abby: I am very lucky that I've learnt a lot of what I've learnt from our leadership. Our leadership are doing an amazing job and they are much better safety leaders than I'll ever be because they spend time understanding what their people do. They're there on the good days, they're there on the crappy days. I think that I am very blessed in my role that I don't spend a lot of my time having to tell any of our managers how to be good safety leaders. They've got it in spades.
For me, it's a matter of helping give them some technical support if I need to, supporting their people with questions that I have to keep the whole show just moving along and getting those incremental changes because that's the stuff that helps sustain the change. It's not these big revolutionary things that come in, it's the day to day incremental change that makes it sustainable. If we can all work together to do that collectively, then that's job done for me.
[00:25:42] Carol: You love this, don't you?
[00:25:44] Abby: [chuckles] I do. You couldn't do it if you didn't love it. I think in safety, I've never met someone who doesn't work in safety and doesn't love it. You couldn't do it, you wouldn't do it.
[00:25:53] Carol: My thanks to Abby Ford for sharing her insights. Ultimately, the value of a safety culture is the protection of your most important asset, your workforce. Yet every day SafeWork New South Wales inspectors attend devastating incidents in the manufacturing sector that are, for the most part, completely avoidable. In New South Wales manufacturing, more than 40,800 workers compensation claims were launched between 2013 and 2016 with a total cost of $558 million. Tragically, 24 people lost their lives during that same period.
The investment of time, commitment, and leadership in developing a culture of safety in your workplace is therefore invaluable with clear benefits to staff safety, loyalty and productivity that result in positive impacts on your bottom line and your reputation. I'm Carol Duncan and this has been a SafeWork Manufacturing Leadership talk. In the next episode, I discuss designing safer workplaces with Yates' safety and sustainability business lead, Tamara Scanlan. To learn more about lead a strong workplace safety culture or to listen to the other episodes in this series, visit safework.nsw.gov.au/leadership.
[00:27:14] [END OF AUDIO]