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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Talking the walk

The winner of this year’s award for best collaboration between PCBUs has found that good workplace relationships don’t always depend upon a business base. JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM reports.

How do you create a culture of collaboration among companies who compete with one another to secure work on your site, yet have no formal business relationship with you?

This was the challenge facing the management team at Napier Port when, in the face of rising cargo volumes and new health and safety legislation, it resolved to foster a cohesive approach to safety across all organisations on its site.

General cargo manager Mark Babbington says the port engages with around 750 PCBUs, which includes tenants and contractors, but also many other port users who work on behalf of importers and exporters.

“We don’t have a commercial relationship with them, but because they’re working on our land we’ve got to make sure they’re doing things the right way.”

At the heart of the collaboration issue were the stevedores. Three companies operate at Napier Port, working 24 hours a day and handling millions of tonnes of cargo a year. It’s high-risk work, in a complex, high-pressure, and ever-changing environment – but they are engaged by third parties, and have no direct financial relationship with the port company.

“We can’t control their behaviour, so we need to influence and persuade, which is much tougher,” says culture and capability manager Viv Bull. “It’s been a slow journey, but definitely worthwhile, and one we’re committed to being on.”


When the process of instilling an across-site safety culture first began, a few years ago, the biggest issue was the failure of many key players to coordinate their activities with others working around them.

Babbington says they’d developed tunnel vision – so focused on getting the job done that they didn’t see how their work affected other port users.

“Given the number of competing activities and shared spaces, something as small as changing the direction that log trucks approach a drop-off point can have significant knock-on effects.”

The company decided it needed to facilitate regular meetings where all parties could collaborate on a work programme that would be safe and effective for everyone, and in mid-2017 a new structured system of multi-party pre-vessel meetings was introduced.

Convened by the general cargo team the day before a ship is due, they bring together not only those directly involved with the vessel’s visit, but also any other organisations which will be working in the same vicinity.

Babbington admits the meetings weren’t an immediate success – “I sometimes got the feeling they’d just come in for a 15-minute time-out” – but it didn’t take long for participants to see the value of working together to come up with a plan that would suit everyone.

The meetings are an open forum but follow a defined structure. The first item on the agenda is always a brief review of previous operations, to see how the plans worked, and whether there are any lessons to be taken from them.

Then the stevedores that will be handling the new cargo outline their operational plan, and the other parties – log fumigators, the team that provides tugs and pilots, traffic marshals, the other stevedoring companies, port logistics planners, security staff, and, where necessary, shipping agents, exporters, and H&S advisors – ask questions, raise issues and suggest modifications.

“We talk about where the cargo is, and how they’re going to get it to the vessel, but also look at things like weather and swell conditions, any special requirements for the cargo, and any changes from normal procedure,” Babbington says. “Everything’s on the table for discussion, and anyone can bring information or ask questions – in fact we expect them to.”

A defined – and ever growing – operational checklist ensures nothing is overlooked, and allows an agreed plan to be developed in half an hour, often less.

Those attending the meetings – usually supervisors or operational managers from the organisations involved – are expected to liaise with their own staff about the plans, but the port company leaves nothing to chance, preparing traffic management plans and site work alerts that are sent to some 300 recipients across the wider port.


Such are the dynamics of the port environment, however, that this is not always the end of the story. Some meetings inevitably have to be reconvened – before, or during, a ship’s visit – to reassess the plan in light of changed weather conditions, unexpected delays or other new issues.

“There are wind limits around fumigation, for instance, or if the swell gets up in the harbour it may be unsafe to keep ships alongside the berth,” Babbington says. “In such situations we get people around the table again for five or ten minutes to discuss what’s going on, and see whether there is anything we need to do differently as a result.”

At times there may be as many as eight or nine pre-vessel meetings a week, often involving the same key players, and this, almost as much as the process itself, has helped boost cross-site safety culture.

“We do see a lot of each other, and it’s helped build good relationships, based around mutual accountability,” Babbington says.

When the meetings first began many of same issues would crop up time and again, but better dialogue between PCBUs has seen these recurring issues resolved, with operators now routinely working together to deal with issues in shared work areas.

The benefits have not just been to relationships. In the first year of pre-vessel meetings PCBUs from right across the port reported improved safety outcomes, and the number of vehicle incidents associated with log loading – one of the port’s top ten critical risks – fell by 75%.

Often, Babbington says, the solutions have been deceptively simple. “With better communication we are now able to put the ship on the berth closest to where the logs are stored, which minimises traffic movement.”

He says that may seem obvious, but without the meetings it wouldn’t have been as easy to arrange. Also, improved safety has improved business outcomes because fewer delays and a smoother operation.


Bull says the company works hard to avoid being seen as the “safety police”, but for the most part the reasoning behind safety decisions is now much better understood, and a shared culture is being established.

“Interestingly, when we won the award, it reinforced the programme,” she says. “We put on a shout at the next pre-vessel meeting and said a few words about what had happened, which I think really helped people appreciate the purpose of the additional work we ask them to do.

“They could see it was making a difference, and that was quite special.”

The desire to foster collaboration and good relationships doesn’t mean the port shies away from unpopular decisions. As an example, Bull says there was some resistance in the industry over the removal of a log gantry that had been used to place empty trailers on the rear of trucks – even though the company worked with operators for almost a year before making the decision.

“We became aware of unsafe activity involving the gantry, so we put a camera on it, introduced a competence training programme, and issued swipe tags to drivers who’d undergone training,” she says. “But we found people were passing their tags on to others, and behaviour wasn’t improving.”

When a safety audit of 300 lifts found 146 were non-compliant, with many having the potential to cause serious consequences, the crane was decommissioned.

“It was a tough call, but we believed we had to champion strong safety standards and worked hard with the industry to achieve those.

“Now the operation takes place off-port, using a digger so the driver is well clear of the trailer, which is much safer.”


Pre-vessel meetings have helped create a new safety dynamic, but the company has plans to take things further.

An on-line induction system, in combination with a soon-to-be-completed licence to operate, will ensure that every worker who comes onto the port has a core level of safety competence, while a voice reporting system for near-miss incidents is providing robust data about risks and trends as it is being progressively rolled out across site.

Previously, says Bull, a forklift operator who wanted to report a near miss would have had to come in at the end of the shift and fill out a form.

“That created a whole lot of barriers – they might forget about it, play it down, or just want to go home. Now when they see something they simply switch channels and report it by radio.”

Thanks to a well planned implementation programme, to ensure it would not be regarded as the dob-in channel, reporting levels have increased significantly, and the system has progressively expanded, beyond the container and general cargo areas, to other parts of the port.


There is still plenty on Bull’s to-do list, however. The port sits at the apex of the supply chain, and as such it wants all parts of the supply chain to get exporters to take more responsibility for health and safety.

“We take quite a bit on our shoulders, in terms of what’s happening on port, but we work hard with all PCBUs to understand their responsibilities and that they can’t just sit back and let us take care of it. They have responsibilities to their contractors under the law.”

A programme to make safety a shared responsibility with all port users is a priority, and – keenly aware of the risks of 24-hour operation – Bull’s also keen to work with PCBUs to encourage more focus on fatigue risk management.

“We’re wrapping out heads around that one right now. Some quite significant mindset changes will be required, but being in a dynamic 24/7 environment we’re at the sharp end, so we can’t ignore it.”

A new programme of workplace monitoring and health promotion for port employees has just been kicked off by the Port, and Bull says the long-term goal is to have a focus on health and wellbeing across the whole port.

“The big thing is we must never become complacent,” she says. “There are some things that I think we can justifiably feel good about, but we are a port environment so we must remain mindful that terrible things can still happen.”


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