How Amey responded to Covid-19 and reduced safety incidents - interview with Allan Shanks

Interview with Allan Shanks, Group Wellbeing & HSEQ Director at Amey Plc 

How Amey responded to Covid-19 and reduced safety incidents - interview with Allan Shanks

Allan Shanks joined Amey in June 2020. He is an experienced senior HSE leader within construction, civil engineering and infrastructure environments. He has worked for organisations including Ingersoll Rand, Alfred McAlpine, Balfour Beatty, Maersk and Laing O’Rourke within the UK, Middle East and internationally.  We spoke to Allan at the end of March 2021 and asked him to share what impact Covid-19 had made to the HSE function within Amey plc.

What challenges did Covid-19 give you and how did you respond?  

Covid-19 brought additional challenges to keeping our employees and customers safe while delivering critical services. Furthermore, the mental health and wellbeing of our employees was elevated as we came to terms with the significant changes and uncertainties the pandemic brought. Despite these challenges, all employees went above and beyond to find new ways to improve, adapt and embed safety practices. The Amey messaging around physical safety was not diluted or distracted by Covid: indeed, it can be argued that, it was in fact strengthened. In 2020, in terms of days worked without incident, for the first time we had a 95% injury free rate across all our contracts, all in the middle of significant change to working practices. The headline accident rates also reduced on average 30% during 2020. Recently, a number of sector and trade articles have highlighted that one of the many organisational impacts Covid-19 has had on businesses has been weaker safety measures and a corresponding increase in incident rates.

If this is true, then why has Amey bucked the trend?

As always, the situation is not quite clear cut. Indeed, many of the articles offer subjective, anecdotal evidence and offer little in the way of true analysis and therefore comparison. This is also compounded by the fact that as there is always multiple causality for accidents and incidents, there are equally several organisational and cultural barriers that prevent them.

This can also be true of Amey. The complexity of keeping people safe is not so easily summarised by a few lines on the annual safety plan or monthly Board report.

However, what is clear is that for Amey, this is not about what was in place or changed during Covid-19 particularly, but a result of the maturity and legacy of the risk management systems, decision making, leadership and importantly, input from our frontline teams over several years.

In addition, we constantly demonstrate we care as a business and have introduced the real living wage, holiday pay and sick pay equalisation and a very active mental health and wellbeing support programme. In the last month, we have also opened a private online GP service to all employees, the service having previously only been open to those with private health insurance. This is particularly important as these benefits directly make our frontline colleagues feel cared for and supported. This is exactly the employee group who are in the line of fire in terms of high hazard working areas, each requiring our support to confidently and competently navigate their day safely.

These broad structural elements have moved us from purely compliance to care and from rules to relationships. Our employees are encouraged and empowered to redesign and rethink our ways of working – and as a result we continue to improve their on the job safety, despite a reduction in supervisory visits by the back office and leadership teams.

At the onset of Covid-19 lockdowns and the constantly revised Government guidelines to keep frontline operations running during the pandemic, Amey was quick to react, mobilise and steer a clear path with consistent workplace standards and communications. While much in the way of Covid-19 Secure working was new and a formidable change to the way most of our sites, depots and offices operate, we did not unduly burden line management and safety resources into having to make and implement local decisions. Their time could then be spent where it was needed most, securing the workplace and supporting our delivery teams, including rethinking work delivery by fully engaging with those who actually do the work – making the gap between work as planned (and now significantly changed) and work as delivered.

There is absolutely no doubt, that introducing Covid compliance measures reduced the number of Amey employees on site, potentially making working practices less safe for workers. It is also easy to see how reducing our visible leadership visits could have a detrimental effect on the safety culture within Amey. Add in the mix, the potential for local supervisory or management absences for Covid-19 related illness and potentially there are a few ingredients that traditionally would have meant that it was ‘open season’ for incidents as the normal ‘oversight eyes’ onsite reduced.

But isn’t that a traditional (huge discredit and lack of trust view) of our frontline teams?

We have a paradox here. By not overburdening them with additional and time consuming visits, with too many corporate objectives and by allowing them to focus on the successful (including safe) delivery of the task in hand then inadvertently, we have improved the trust and relationship factors. Those same factors that are so much the basis of good organisational cultures.

This same culture supports and delivers operational excellence, including safety in world class businesses.

The truth is, we have a knowledgeable, experienced and resilient workforce, none of whom comes to work to do a bad job or be injured. And it is our wider decision making as a business that sets them up to succeed. Maybe having to step back for Covid-19 has allowed them to step forward?

With the increased use of virtual technology, we have also made available greater resources to aid decision making and risk management. Before, operations may have made local decisions with the available local resources, it is now common and acceptable practice to arrange a quick ‘Microsoft Teams’ call with any of the support teams for advice. Previously, our regional HSEQ support may have spent 2-3 hours a day in the car and unavailable – now they are again paradoxically much closer to the teams they need to communicate with and it can be argued providing much more focused ‘contact time’ in terms of quality and quantity with their internal clients.

This cannot be understated – reimagining and redesigning activities to reduce inherent risk from Covid-19 has had the unintended (but welcome) by-product of supporting the de-risking and exposure to harm for all the inherent hazards our teams face.

From a business perspective Covid-19 has highlighted the clear diversity in our business, between those delivering frontline services to the public and those designing and developing consultancy services to commercial clients. Frontline workers have remained ‘on the frontline’- they must go out every day to collect the waste/recycling bins, to manage the prisons, to deliver service in schools etc. They all have to keep on working and we have found new ways to support them.

We really had to – and did – shift our focus to overall wellbeing, not just a narrow focus on physical harm reduction.

As a business that relies on people to deliver our services, having those people in a really good state of mind is paramount for the provision of both safe and high-quality services to our customers. Our frontline employees still need to be out and about, perhaps leaving the house at 5am to get on site to start work on highway infrastructure projects. They need to maintain social distancing while at work, but we also need to make sure that they look after their own mental health. In the past, we may have recorded a safety incident at 11:30 am and looked at what may have gone wrong with our safety procedures.

Now we are thinking, what was the state of mind of the truck driver?

If he had been up since 5am, had an early breakfast and just had his early lunch break when the incident occurred (and I say “he” as our transport infrastructure teams are almost exclusively male), what state of mind was he in? Was he having a glucose dip and ready for a ‘natural’ rest?

We must understand the mental position our workers are in, and then support them to be in the best frame of mind to be delivering our services in the safest way. This is undoubtedly the link that will lead to greater incident reduction as our pre-start brief moves from ‘are you physically fit for the task’ to mentally fit for the day ahead.

Of course, recognising these elements as issues and focusing on them with solutions is just one part of the journey. The most immediate issue we have is communicating quickly and effectively with all the workers, particularly those ‘out in the field’ since very few of them are active online.

It is right, and an outcome of much of the work done remotely during 2020, that we recognise this as a considerable but not insurmountable issue and are actively working on the solution.

A second challenge is having the right skills and knowledge within our HSEQ team to understand and engage with people effectively. Whereas in the past the HSEQ function may have been very much ‘processing systems’ orientated, we now need support teams who understand mind-sets and motivations as much as they understand health and safety.

The HSEQ team of the (near) future is likely to be made up of psychologists, wellbeing specialists and marketing experts versed in cultural and organisational change – we don’t as a function have all of the answers, but we need to start asking better questions, from a non-technical viewpoint.

We need to continue the lessons learnt during Covid-19 and focus on engagement and trust rather than policing. A particularly successful action has been to involve frontline workers in wellbeing and HSE. Self-generated content has had the biggest impact, particularly using rich media such as podcasts, external social media and our social internet.

One of the most effective examples was a great podcast by five guys from our highways team who talked about the importance of checking for testicular cancer. Known internally as: “When the guys talk about their nuts” this podcast has had a real positive impact; it was engaging and approachable for the target workforce. A key lesson is to know your market and make the products they want.

Our LTI rate has improved 30% year on year. Not all of this is down to our initiatives and I have only summarised here a few examples of Amey doing the basics and doing them well.

The impacts of the Covid-19 secure ‘arrangements’ cannot be underestimated. Social distancing has meant that people are slightly more aware of their activities, what they're doing and how it impacts others. In some areas, we have fewer clients and customers on site, so our people can focus on their own work and making well-judged decisions.

It is worth ending on a very positive note, our pulse engagement surveys show a 92% positive rating for our wellbeing and health and safety initiatives, which really demonstrates a strong acceptance throughout the business.

We have to do the right things, do them consistently well and do them every day – as this article outlines. We have much to learn from Covid-19 and our change of focus from ‘paper’ to people from hazard spotting and increased process to care and respect really will make the lasting difference.

Our people matter, safety matters, YOU matter.

Allan Shanks, Wellbeing & HSEQ Director at Amey Plc

Allan Shanks joined Amey in June 2020. He is an experienced senior HSE leader within construction, civil engineering and infrastructure environments. He has worked for organisations including Ingersoll Rand, Alfred McAlpine, Balfour Beatty, Maersk and Laing O’Rourke within the UK, Middle East and internationally. Amey plc Amey employs 14,000 people in the UK, with approximately 10,000 delivering frontline operations. It is a major services supplier to the UK public sector including road and rail infrastructure, schools, prisons and utilities. It also provides engineering consulting services to both private and public sectors.

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