Contact Energy

Start Small, Think Big

Contact Energy – Start Small, Think Big

Contact Energy has made big progress improving its safety performance in the past decade but knew something was missing.

A 2014 health and safety culture survey confirmed this. Failure was seen as bad, staff were fearful of making decisions and “management was still doing a lot of talking.”

Contact shifted its focus to make safety ‘just what people do around here’. It moved away from a sole focus on the ‘how and what’ of compliance, procedures, systems, skills and behaviours, to also embrace how its people think and feel about safety and the beliefs, values, cultures and stories that underpin that.

Contact’s Zero Harm goal has matured to an aspiration for a ‘generative’ safety culture in line with the Hudson Safety Culture Maturity Model where “HSE is how we do business around here, it’s part of our DNA”.

Compliance to culture

Contact says one of their biggest revelations was recognising that people are human, that they will make mistakes and that that is okay.

The important thing is to reduce the impact of those errors on people, plant and the environment. The focus falls on how to learn and improve, increasing the capacity to ‘fail safely’. 

To strike the right balance between loosening the grip on compliance while still keeping people, plant and the environment safe, Contact initiated a variety of small ‘experiments’ - small, incremental changes that have had a big impact.

Leaders were also forced to look at the unintended impacts their behaviour was having on safety, to change how they respond to incidents, be more visible and engaged, and work more closely with ‘sharp-end’ workers to solve safety concerns together.

This included a small leadership experiment, which saw immediate incident notifications turned off in the HSE system. Prior to this change, when an incident occurred senior management was immediately notified and site managers felt the pressure of having to respond to ‘the boss’ while still in the early stages of managing the situation and understanding what had happened.

When senior staff learned of this unintended consequence, they supported a change in process. Information still flows via weekly reporting, and now site managers make the calls to head office.

Contact says that feels very different to having head office call the site; site staff feel more supported and empowered to lead safety.

Learning teams have also proved a great success. Unlike a traditional formal investigation typically undertaken when something has gone wrong, learning teams seek to understand how something happened, rather than why. There is a very different focus to the old “who went wrong and why”.

Contact says the new approach has led to a better understanding of risks and issues, more effective solutions, and more ownership of health and safety responsibilities.

Another experiment has been their drive to ‘smash complexity’ - tapping into the capabilities and experience of the ‘sharp-end’ workers to create simple processes. An example has been reducing 60-plus safety documents on one part of their operations, to a single 16-page document.

Contact knows it is on the right track with staff saying they feel better about safety, leaders are listening and supporting more, trust is being built and people feel more empowered.

Traditional safety measures have also shown improvements. Seven injuries in the year ended June 2015 compare with 19 during the prior year. In the same period there were two serious incidents, which could have resulted in serious harm, compared with 22 a couple of years ago.

The Health and Safety Initiative of the Year award category is sponsored by Nexans