Fresh thinking puts firm on the right road

For every infrastructure project, large or small, there’ll be people at the sharp end doing the physical work that turns designs into reality. And it can be a dangerous business.

Staff from Ringway Jacobs and ARU in front of a digger, wearing high-viz suits

Spare a thought for the maintenance crews that we all see digging up our roads. At street level there are maps and signs pointing out the hazards. Below the surface, it’s a far messier picture.

Down there, the infrastructure we rely on is a tangled jumble of gas and water mains, electricity, telephone and broadband cables that’s accumulated over many decades. If you are a worker with a shovel, you can’t be quite sure what you may hit when you start to dig.

That’s the problem psychologists from ARU are tackling in a joint project with one of the biggest highways companies in the business.

Safety culture is central to the ethos of companies such as Ringway Jacobs, a leading highways service provider, working with local authorities across the UK and maintaining almost 10,000 miles of road network. Its integrated highways maintenance service comprehensively includes strategic partnership and design through to project management and final delivery.

The company has won many awards by putting health and safety at the heart of everything it does. But leaders like Andy Denman, Operations Director at Ringway Jacobs, know that this is an area where improvements can always be made.

Services strikes – when a maintenance worker hits a cable or pipe with their shovel – are a key concern. Each one can be dangerous for the individual, not to mention the disruption and delay that can result. "It is really high risk,” says Andy. “We have an improving record but we are still hitting on average about three a month."

Time for some fresh thinking, courtesy of a KTP – a Knowledge Transfer Partnership – with the team at ARU, supported by Innovate UK. Together they agreed an approach that has turned into a two-and-a-half-year project to examine health and safety culture in the company with a specific focus on reducing service strikes.

Innovation is at the heart of the thinking here. The project cannot simply be consultancy by another name. It has to look anew at solutions to a difficult and longstanding problem. Dr David Pearson, an Associate Professor in Cognitive Psychology at ARU, says: "Psychology has a long track record of looking at health and safety." Academics have in the past looked at the space shuttle and Piper Alpha disasters, for example, but such an approach has not been common in construction.

An early priority has been for the ARU team to get a deep understanding of Ringway Jacobs from top to bottom. Which is where Shanthi Senathirajah, a human factors researcher, comes in. She has conducted in-depth interviews with 140 people working for the company at every level from managing director to the front line teams, supply chain and shareholders.

"From day one, I have been embedded in the company. I sat in their office in London and was going there every day and travelling to all their sites and geographical regions,” she says. Shanthi thinks that employees are already seeing a benefit from the project. "It is collaborative. Everyone is contributing to the design of the new safety measures."

Andy Denman has watched Shanthi gain the confidence of people in the company. "Shanthi has been discreet with what she shares to maintain that confidence, which is only right. Shanthi is the link between the theory from academia and the practice of Ringway Jacobs."

With that research behind them, the KTP is now moving on to the next phase, designing and implementing interventions aimed at improving the health and safety culture at Ringway Jacobs. All sides recognise that there are no easy answers. But there is confidence that they can succeed.

Andy Denman values the diverse thinking within the partnership. “Anglia Ruskin brings a very different approach from Ringway Jacobs,” he says. Dr Pearson wants to look beyond merely studying the lessons to be learnt from past incidents. Companies should also focus on the good practices they have that play a part in preventing accidents.

"You also need to understand why accidents don’t happen,” he says. ”The idea of resilience is that no one knows how certain events may unfold – traffic may be higher, someone may not be feeling well, the services may not be in the area you expect them. Resilience is the ability of your safety systems to encounter unexpected issues and still be safe and avoid accidents. A resilient company will tolerate those uncertainties."

For now, all sides are enjoying their partnership and moving ahead to the next phase with confidence. "Come back and see us in a year," says Andy.

Image credit: Andy Denman.

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