At one of our learning events in June, Balfour Beatty’s Mark Groombridge talked about their recent safety culture journey. Speaking after the event, Mark said:

“It was great to share the journey we have been on to improve our health and safety culture which sees us near the top of the industry for our safety performance in the UK. 

“Safety is our license to operate. We actively manage it through strong governance, training and competence and visible leadership - all working together to build a Zero Harm culture. In this way we ensure everyone who encounters Balfour Beatty goes home safe and well every day.

“We’re committed to sharing our journey with wider audiences to help influence change at every level of the industry.”

We asked Mark to share his thoughts on what happened within Balfour Beatty’s Rail business, and how their experience might benefit other CIRAS members.

Why did you decide to embark on this journey?

There were a number of factors. We knew company safety performance wasn’t where we wanted it to be, and that our clients were passionate about health, safety and wellbeing. We wanted to see a step change in health and safety to achieve Zero Harm – which for Balfour Beatty means no injury, ill health or incident caused by its work activities.

Our desire to achieve Zero Harm is a key progress measure of the Balfour Beatty wide transformation programme Build to Last, with its four goals of Lean, Expert, Trusted and Safe. Key to our Zero Harm journey was a thorough, independent assessment in the form of an employee survey across all levels of the business.

What issues did your initial survey unearth?

The results made hard reading. Perceptions of safety were not what our leaders were expecting – this was a key driver for change. The real eye opener was the view across the business that speaking up was not encouraged – people didn’t believe they would be supported. It was a soul-searching time – if we wanted to transform safety, we needed to make some fundamental changes to our approach and our culture.

What were the most critical changes you implemented?

Central to the delivery of Zero Harm is the Balfour Beatty ‘Make Safety Personal’ (MSP) programme  specifically designed to change attitudes and behaviours across the whole organisation based around four ‘Golden Rules’ of: Be fit for work; Always receive a briefing before starting work; Report all unsafe events and conditions; Stop work if anything changes.

We also implemented an effective Balfour Beatty wide, user-friendly close call reporting system and in time progressed from paper-based reporting to a smartphone ‘Close Call’ app for all staff to use, enabling instant anonymous reporting. Our evidence tells us that when you see positive reporting, it drives incidents down.

As part of this MSP programme we ran a series of ‘Boots on the Ground’ events which set the principles of teamwork and the responsibility to encourage all staff to speak up about unsafe conditions.

What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

Changing behaviour was the biggest challenge. Everyone – without exception – had to change and there was resistance where people felt they were doing OK.  It took time, but by helping people realise that they had to make their behaviour the right behaviour, the organisational culture began to change.

First and foremost, we had strong, committed leadership. Our leaders were visible at our ‘Boots on the Ground’ events. Mark Bullock, CEO of the Rail and Utilities business, went out to the rail workforce and spoke about his own personal experiences and why safety matters so much to him. His message wasn’t about stats or money – he simply told staff ‘if you don’t feel it’s safe, don’t do the job’.

What have the most valuable outcomes been?

While we have different business units they are all focused on the same Balfour Beatty-wide HSE strategy with a robust reporting culture. For example each week across Balfour Beatty senior management report and consider any accident, ill health or near misses that have occurred. A report is then made available to all employees which shares safety best practice as well as reporting on significant incidents and learning.

What advice would you give an organisation starting out on this journey?

First, do a robust independent survey and find out what people really think; and be prepared to deal with some hard-hitting truths. Then be honest and open about where you need to change and reflect with people honestly on how to achieve that. Be careful with creating ‘league tables’ from your reporting data. They have their place but can suppress reporting if not managed carefully. It’s the honest conversations that make the difference, not the metrics. Finally, you’ll not get far without management buy in, so invest in getting this right first.

Mark Groombridge is the Health, Safety, Environment & Sustainability Director for Balfour Beatty’s Rail and Power T&D businesses. Members can view his presentation on our member portal.