container wharfPort operations provides one of the most challenging and complex work environments from a health and safety perspective in New Zealand. A lot of people working for different organisations, using large machinery and vehicles, with tight deadlines are working fast and hard in a confined geographical footprint. The addition of water and weather just adds to the degree of risk  faced by those with the task of turning productivity into profit. Despite a huge amount of effort going into health and safety in many NZ ports, we are still seeing people being killed and injured at an unacceptable rate. The following are some ideas about why this is happening and what can be done to make our ports a safer place for everyone.

The Port Environment

In simple terms we have incoming merchant ships bring container freight, bulk freight and cars. These are unloaded, processed and picked up by trains and trucks for distribution further along the supply chain. At the same time trucks and trains are bringing in products and materials to be shipped elsewhere. All these tasks are being completed to a tight schedule and many of the workflows cross over each other which increases the chance of something going wrong. Throw in dozens of cruise ships bringing in thousands of tourists

There are many more dangerous tasks that are completed in other workplaces in New Zealand but often these are in more controlled environments where isolation of risk is more achievable. Also the planning and execution of a dangerous task can often be done at a pace where each step can be carefully carried out. In a port it is like the fast forward button has been pressed to get the tasks done but the same levels of risk management are required.

Many rugby players who have just played their first game at international test match level comment that the pace of the game is a lot faster than what they are used to. There is less time to think about what they are going to do next and the available space to work moves is very limited. Any flaws in their core skills that were not obvious in lower levels are often exposed at test level. They are left with the option of working hard on their all around game or risk getting dropped from the team. In health and safety terms operating and working in a port is like test match level rugby. Unless all workers, management and the support staff carry out their role well then there is a higher risk of failure in the fast paced environment. If there are flaws in someones training, skills and supervision then this will be exposed over time because a port operations (test match) level of ability is required.

5 Keys to Success

1. Do not separate health and safety from workflow planning – often workflow planning is done with productivity and efficiency in mind. The health and safety framework is developed separately and then bolted onto a task. This has the potential to impair the pace and efficiency of the task and raise compliance costs. Safety thinking needs to be integrated into task and workflow planning from the very beginning. The tendency of first thinking of the best way to carry out a task and then doing safety due diligence on what has been decided is dangerous. Safety thinking needs to be applied from day one and not seen as a separate quality control measure.  There should be no separate development then arranged marriage down the track.

2. Train in core skills and workflows not health and safety stuff – there is a dangerous path that some operators go down of ramping up training on health and safety matters and culture while being blind to the quality of the core training that is done for fundamental tasks.  A port operation has a better chance of safety success when the basic skills and work standards are taught from the beginning and there are set levels of advancement and further achievement.

3. Don’t leave all the design to desk jockey’s – often the health and safety systems are designed by someone at a desk who is highly skilled in theory but has little practical experience of dirty and dangerous work from a workers point of view. Sometimes the procedural solutions and hazard controls put in place may not be the best fit for safety or productivity. Some professionals with a narrow health and safety focus have a tendency to over complicate controls or make them more excessive than is required for optimum safety. The harder we make health and safety the harder it is to get employees engaged on a day-to-day basis.

4.  Don’t achieve internal compliance by threats – beating up managers and staff with threats of dire consequences under the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 or the new Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 is not a viable strategy for lasting success in business. Forced compliance is not a winner. Whatever short-term compliance gains are made get far outweighed by the damage done to ongoing safety engagement levels. Managers and workers need practical, positive, safety solutions not unproductive rants from self-righteous prophets of doom.

5. Stop applying PR-speak to health and safety – Senior management are at times great at making all the right statements about safety – people are our No.1 priority – It been 47,000 days since our last accident – Health and Safety is at the centre of everything we do. This is all fine except often there is a disconnect between the statements and operational reality. It can become like old-fashioned propaganda – the more we say the statements the more we believe them. The staff at the coal face know the truth and don’t believe, which just leaves senior management living in a potential fantasy land. As they are the ones allocating resources this is a dangerous situation. To increase worker engagement with safety, management have to use fewer words about safety commitment and instead demonstrate in practical ways that safety is really No.1 with them. Behaviours trump words any day of the week.