No more initiatives

1 January 2003

At Springfields, union and management frequently used to be in dispute. But when they found they could agree on safety it laid the foundations for a far more effective working environment.

Nuclear fuel has been made at Springfields in northern England since 1948. Now part of BNFL Westinghouse, it still makes all the fuel for nuclear reactors in the UK, except the most recent reloads for the PWR at Sizewell. But times have been changing: the plant is facing up to the impending closure of most of the UK's nuclear units between now and 2030.

The culture of the site has changed dramatically over the past 15 years. "We have moved from a civil service/cost-plus culture," said head of site Peter Richards. "There was always a lot of expertise - we dealt with different fuel designs for all the stations, for example. Add to that very cautious customers - nothing must stand in the way of generation - and you can see we had a culture of comfort, although never complacency."

Springfields has had to respond to a two-thirds reduction in the workforce and the sprawling site is currently decommissioning and dismantling buildings at a rate of one a month.

"We went through several initiatives - MRP2 to drive down inventories (in the past our customers required us to keep six months of fuel in stock), quality circles, total quality management, and others. They were led by management and imposed with enthusiasm, but they weren't always followed through," said Richards.

By the early 1990s it had become apparent that something had to change. Industrial relations between management, trades unions and the staff unions were a long series of disputes (there are four industrial trades unions and two staff unions on the site) but everyone could see that the site would alter dramatically as the Magnox and AGR stations closed. "We had 20 or 30 disputes every year and they always had to go straight into a disputes procedure," said Richards.

Management initiatives had not worked in the past. A new approach was needed: it came with behavioural skills courses for the senior management and union officials. The approach could have been seen as window dressing and some of those due to attend were sceptical. "But most were sensible people and it was quite apparent to them that something had to change," said Richards. Management and unions attended courses that picked apart their behaviour - union representatives were asked to choose the course to allay any fears.

The course showed staff how they took on familiar roles in the workplace and during disputes that carried the fundamentals of confrontation. That meant that none of the staff could approach each other as co-workers or finally resolve disagreements. For many of the people on the courses, seeing that they were falling into predetermined patterns that may not reflect their real aims was a revelation.

Management and unions searched for a way to use this new knowledge that both groups could agree on, and that would be accepted across the site by workers who had already seen management initiatives come and go. "Lots of areas needed a fresh approach but we wanted one where our aims and objectives were aligned. We came up with safety," Richards said.

Together, management and unions came up with a fundamental statement: no job is more important than any person's health and safety. "It's easy to say," admitted Richards, "but if you don't really believe it, it will soon become obvious. There was scepticism all around the site to begin with."

It was an attitude that had to be developed over several years - and it was never described as an initiative. "The last thing you want to do is treat it as an 'initiative'," said union convenor Dave Cartain. "You have to have the courage to say it is a long-term programme." Cartain is convenor of the Transport and General Workers Union and secretary of the Springfields convenors.

A step-by-step approach

Implementing the long-term programme took around five years.

In the first phase, in the mid 1990s, all the staff attended workshops on behavioural safety. "We called it sheep dipping," Richards recalled. "It was a standard course and everyone got it."

The courses examined safety lapses to show that 95% of accidents could have been prevented by individual actions. The key output was that everyone signed on to a personal charter, promising to work to improve safety.

This was not an insignificant undertaking: among other things, staff promised "never to walk past an unsafe act". Would that mean they had to question their colleagues' working practices? And where would it leave union-appointed safety representatives? It required another fundamental change of culture. A no-blame charter was signed by all the senior managers and union officials and displayed across the site. "The consistent approach from senior management and senior convenors was a critical factor," said Cartain.

"If you make an honest mistake and report it quickly there is absolutely no comeback," said Richards, "and if there are a number of mistakes being made we ask whether more training is necessary, or whether the process could be done differently." At the same time, staff deliberately violating procedures can expect to be subject to disciplinary procedures.

In 1996, the next phase was creation of "safety improvement partnerships" (SIPs). Representatives of SIPs from all the business units meet quarterly with senior management and safety reps to share best practice across the site. "This has developed into a place where we discuss changes that will affect the whole site," said Richards. "Recently it has made the use of cycle helmets mandatory when cycling around the huge site, and it has responded to an analysis of injuries to decide areas on the site where eye protection must be worn."

In 1997, local managers ran their own safety workshops, with the help of a facilitator. They focused on '24-hour safety', looking at risk in the home as well as on site. "If you want to get to the stage where safe behaviour comes naturally you can't just turn it on at work," Richards said, adding: "It has to come naturally."

The workshops introduced the 'one minute risk assessment' - "translating as stop and think before you do anything," said Richards. On site there is a strict system of work permits issued by the foreman. Although that system remains in place, "we want to get out of the idea that it is just the foreman's responsibility. We want to get people to notice what they are doing and think about safety."

By 1998, the now-annual workshops were being led by a supervisor and safety representative, but they were still attended by everyone on site including management and office groups. Each group picked its own subjects, focusing on local safety issues and asking people to take ownership of them. One result was the introduction of near-miss reports so safety issues could be anticipated.

By 1999 the no-blame culture had been well established and it was possible to ask during the workshops why people violated safety instructions. Was it easier, quicker? "That year we also introduced an observation process," Richards said. "We asked for volunteers and trained about 300 people to carry out short one-to-one observations and discussions about jobs as they are being done." The training taught the volunteers a non-confrontational approach to the observations; the results are recorded and fed back to the SIPs, who can analyse the results and look for areas of improvement. "It is intended to be entirely informal, although in some parts of the plant obviously there are special arrangements to be made," Richards said. "The most important result is to act on what you see. Now these informal observations have partly taken the place of legal inspections." The idea of looking constantly at safety and taking immediate action has partly replaced the 'once a month' inspection.

In their most recent phase, the workshops have covered a much wider range of topics, determined by the local groups. Some have looked outside the plant for best practice. Some have looked at the types of behaviour and stresses that affect safety performance, while some have continued the theme of 24-hour safety, looking at fire safety in the home and hazards from everyday substances.

Safety and quality

Making safety fundamental to the site at Springfields has been a long process and is still continuing, but the results have been dramatic. There are still disagreements between management and unions: while Richards describes the safety process as a partnership, for union convenor Cartain that is a little too close: "Let's say we are walking down the same road," he said. But their new working relationship allows them to approach potential expansion of the safety programme with frank discussion.

A real bonus from the programme has been the feedback from employees. By taking responsibility for their own safety, staff have also found a route to report back on other aspects of their work. Cartain explained that in the past, design changes always came from the design office with little input from the shop floor. "Now people make suggestions," he said, "and a lot of design changes really come from the shop floor. They just go to the design office to be approved." It's the staff who know their own jobs best, he pointed out, and they are the people that can improve things. "Don't bring us the solution," he said, "bring us the problem. The section can work out the solution for you."

In recent months the safety programme has begun to be extended to encompass quality. Richards is enthusiastic: "We are really looking at behaviours that affect personal performance," he said.

Both management and unions are treading carefully in extending the safety programme, and some do have concerns. For Cartain it is important that staff do not think that the new emphasis was always the agenda for the safety programme. So far the response has been good: "Safety and quality go hand in hand" is one slogan developed by staff themselves. "The idea is in people's minds," Richards said, "and we hope to rename the workshops as behavioural, rather than safety, workshops."

Mike Saunders has carried the Springfields programme with him as he takes up his post as senior vice president, nuclear fuel, based at Westinghouse's Pittsburgh headquarters.

He said it is a culture "that needs to pervade the organisation. We have stated our commitment to it and we need to make sure that every person believes it. For example, every safety workshop is opened by a senior member of staff and there is no reason (except perhaps a customer) for them to miss it. These are small but significant signals." Saunders said that although the programme is timeless it needs to be 'refreshed' every two or three years. The 'observations' are an example. Without the groundwork of the previous years, "that could come across as threatening," he said, "but we don't record the name of the person being observed and the discussion is strictly limited to safety performance." He believes the programme will catch on in the USA. "Most people don't like seeing people injured," he said, "and when they see there are fewer injuries - and some injuries we just don't expect to see any more - they soon become advocates."

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