In this blog we present a speech by Peter Cornish, former CEO of Wengfu Australia delivered at a recent WorkSafe Tasmania WorkSafe Month forum:
Wengfu (pronounced Wong-Foo) Australia is a subsidiary of the Wengfu Group, a Chinese manufacturer of a wide range of phosphate-based products including phosphate fertilisers, chemicals, food and animal feed additives.
Wengfu Australia imports fertilisers into Australia for use in commercial agriculture, and phosphoric acid, STPP and DCP for use in a range of industries including the food and animal feed additives industries.
Here’s what Peter had to say recently about the CEO’s experience of the SafetyCircle program
I first became a CEO 11 years ago.
Despite having had some 12 years’ experience prior to that on senior management teams, I really was rather lost as to how as a CEO I could fulfill the responsibility I had for the safety and well-being of the people I worked with.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to take responsibility. To be honest, I just didn’t really know how.
I initially muddled through with significant help from colleagues more practically minded than I. Then I got lucky and a colleague who had previous experience with SafetyCircle introduced me to Martyn (Martyn Bradfield, Director and SafetyCircle coach). We talked and what he said made sense. I am not a fan of fads or quick fixes. What I was looking for was a consistent pathway for health and safety and he seemed to offer it. So we agreed to adopt SafetyCircle as the basis of our company’s approach.
We had scheduled the initial SafetyCircle session with our Executive Team and just before we were to meet we had a major workplace incident. In short a site manager, who’s role it was to guide and manage the other people on site with him, went against all the procedures and the specific training that he had been through and oversaw. He removed the guards on a conveyor system, blew it down with a compressed air wand, then turned on the conveyor for one last blow down, because that worked better and was quicker.
The air wand got caught in the conveyor and so did his arm. He ended up with his arm wrapped around the tail drum with the conveyor trying to rip it off and him screaming for help. Luckily they heard him and shut the system down before it finished the job. If his arm had been severed, he probably would have bled to death.
So this was the immediate background to our first introduction to SafetyCircle. I was asking myself what more should I have done? How had I helped create an environment in which that site manager thought it was OK to do what he had done? What if he had allowed someone else to do the same? What if the conveyor had finished the job on them?
Needless to say that SafetyCircle session was very real. We weren’t talking about hypotheticals. We were dealing with real people and it could and had happened to us.
It quickly became clear that while we had the processes and procedures and had done the training, so we had ticked the boxes, what we had was an issue with culture. What mattered was whether people stopped and thought about what they were doing. How thought about how they could do it safely. What mattered was people wanting to do it safely. And SafetyCircle was the answer. It was literally like turning on a light bulb.
The frustrating thing about SafetyCircle for me was that it was so simple. But like many other great innovations, it is the simplicity that is the magic. It is making something simple that could be complex. And why hadn’t someone told me about this before!
But I couldn’t change the past. What I did have was the opportunity to influence the now, change the future, and really improve the safety and wellbeing of the people I worked with.
So why does SafetyCircle work? I can’t possibly do justice to this question in the time I have. But in short let me say this.
It’s simple to understand and to apply. Even I can get my head around it. Not only does it help people understand what is unacceptable. Even better what it does is help people understand what is acceptable behavior. I believe the vast majority of people want to do the right thing. But like me, they needed a little help. SafetyCircle just isn’t hard.
The way it is delivered is realistic and effective. Not only do people get engaged by it, they want to get engaged with it.
Most importantly, people voluntarily chose to work inside the SafetyCircle and voluntarily chose to help others work inside the SafetyCircle. I cannot emphasize just how powerful it is when people choose to do something rather than be directed or told to do something. They do it because they want to, not because they have to. They get that it’s everyone job, their job, not someone else’s.
As managers we have people making choices on our behalf all the time, under our direction, whether we like it or not. Their choices become our choices. So when they are making those choices we want to be sure they are choosing to do it safely. We don’t want to hope. We don’t want to leave it to luck. It’s not about what we think their responsibilities should be, its about what they think their responsibilities are!
A key part of why people choose to work inside the SafetyCircle is because they individually get to understand the consequences of what happens to them when they don’t. And not just what might happen to them, but the effects that might have on those others who are important to them or rely upon them. Like I said it is real. In my case it didn’t get any more real than introducing a SafetyCircle session, as I did as often as possible, in which my own son was present.
Looking into his eyes, and knowing how much him being safe and well meant to me, left no doubt about how high the stakes were. It doesn’t get more real than that.
Quite simply, in my experience SafetyCircle works. It worked for me and enabled me to take responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of the people I worked with. I wasn’t lost anymore.
It worked for the company because everyone chose to take responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of the people they worked with, starting with themselves. We put every single person through the SafetyCircle training. It was the most effective training we undertook with anyone.
When we started Wengfu Australia in 2010, we locked SafetyCircle in from the get go. While I started the company as one of 5 people, 6 years later we had 70 people and we’d moved over 2 million tonnes through 14 warehouses spread from Brisbane to Adelaide, turning over $300 million a year.
But the most important achievement was that at Wengfu Australia we didn’t have one Lost Time Injury in the 6 ½ years I was CEO. There is no question in my mind that the primary reason for this success was our shared commitment to the SafetyCircle. It formed the basis of our Workplace Health and Safety Policy. It not only underpinned our overarching statement that “The safety of ourselves, our colleagues and all who came into contact with the company was always our first priority”, it guided us how to do it.
By introducing and committing to the SafetyCircle, I would suggest that I could fulfil some 70% of the responsibility I had for the safety and well-being of the people I worked with. The influence was that significant.
Almost everyone got on board. We didn’t have any safety officers, representatives or committees. We didn’t need them. Everyone had a part to play and well over half the people I would consider were safety leaders. We committed to doing all the things we had to do safely.
Now despite the fact that at Wengfu Australia we didn’t have one Lost Time Injury in the 6 ½ years I was CEO, I wasn’t perfect and we weren’t perfect. But that is the beauty of the SafetyCircle approach. It doesn’t require perfection and instead helps us recognize that and get back on track – or as we would say, “get back inside the circle”.
Because SafetyCircle was fundamental to the creation and maintenance of a positive safety culture, and because it is so simple to remember and apply, it is much more likely to stay front of mind, and because it encourages and welcomes people to speak up, people talked to each other about safety. They interrupted each other, not to catch people out, but to help them recognize they could do better. People didn’t take offence, they were appreciative. It set people up to succeed, not fail.
As people we have a natural tendency to relax, to get a bit lazy, to take things for granted. We drift. I was no different. Another big challenge for me was that I had blind-spots. Areas I convinced myself that I was fine and that I didn’t need to apply the principles of the SafetyCircle to. For me it was driving.
It took the situation in which one of our sales people was caught speeding excessively with the impending outcome of a lengthy licence suspension, to finally get me on track. The easy decision was to sack the person and remove the problem from our workplace.
But when I thought about it I realized we hadn’t done enough to provide guidance and reach agreement about what “driving inside the circle” actually looked like.
Our culture was deficient. So was our application of the SafetyCircle. So was I. I needed to take responsibility for the fact that I wasn’t driving inside the circle. I wasn’t driving safely. After doing it for over 30 years, that wasn’t easy.
So I decided that society as whole, our company, myself and even the person themselves, would be better off if we kept him on our employment and took responsibility for the situation. It might sound a bit philosophical to think about society as a whole, but we needed to. Because this person could have hurt or killed others while driving on our watch. It was our responsibility.
Accordingly, we did a SafetyCircle session just on driving. And we did it with everyone who drove a company car or piece of machinery, or drove on company business. It was the best SafetyCircle session I had ever been involved in – and I have been involved in quite a few. It changed my approach to driving. It reduced the chances of me having a crash. It embarrassed me. It embarrassed me because I had been in denial. I had convinced myself I was a good driver. I had convinced myself to look the other way. And here I was leading a company with a very successful safety record.
But all that didn’t matter. I was changing, improving, and so were others. That’s what was important.
What were some of the changes? I will mention 3.
- The first was I was competitive. Getting through a traffic light, leaving a traffic light, changing lanes to a quicker one, overtaking – I was competitive. Why?
- The second was I would justify to myself it was ok to speed when I overtook someone. I was only doing it for a short amount of time. It was better for everyone if I didn’t sit behind the slower vehicle. The shorter amount of time I spent overtaking, the safer it was. It wasn’t. I was breaking the law every time I did it, let alone jumping outside the SafetyCircle every time I did it. It had to stop.
- And the third was my friend the cruise control. I love the cruise control and it is a great device when used properly. But I was setting it at above the speed limit. Why? Because I believed I could! Car speedos are set lower than the real speed I told myself. You don’t get booked unless you are a certain amount over. I had my excuses ready and I applied them often. As I said I was in denial.
Interestingly when I dropped back the speed I set on my cruise control, I overtook less, got frustrated less, didn’t get as tired driving and enjoyed my driving more.
I’m still not perfect, I still put myself outside the circle, but I am much better at recognizing that, and I spend much more time driving inside the circle, driving safely. When someone flashes their lights or I see a police car I still have a quick check what I am doing, but there is no longer that surge of adrenaline and a reach for the brakes.
Driving is one of the riskiest things the majority of our people do in their jobs. It’s one of the riskiest things most of us do in our lives! The company became a safer workplace and the well-being of our people was now much improved.
The SafetyCircle helped make me be a better CEO. It helped my Board fulfill their responsibilities too. It made our managers better managers. It made our people better leaders. It improved our culture, made it more positive, supportive and open. We valued our people and improving their health and safety was an essential ingredient in demonstrating that they were valued. It turned on that light bulb.
As a result, I have a lot to thank Martyn and the SafetyCircle for. So have my former colleagues. So have those of you who find themselves near me on the road. I hope that today I have done justice in explaining why.