Is offence the best form of defence?

by Aisling Reid

The next stop on the HSE Recruitment’s safety road trip was Salisbury where our destination, perched on a hill just a stone throw from Stonehenge (mind the pun), was Chemring Countermeasures.

 

Sitting on an ex RAF base over 100 acres with in excess of 200 buildings on a site that operates day, night and weekends, this higher tier COMAH site provides tricky health and safety issues even for an experienced pair of hands. With highly flammable and explosive products in a volatile environment, I couldn’t wait to hear what Ian Smith, Chemring Countermeasures’ HSE Director had to say.

It has been 18 months since Ian joined Chemring Countermeasure so it felt like the perfect time to reflect on the last year and a half, to see what has been done on site and what future challenges face both him and the team. With over 20 years experience in health and safety spanning companies such as  BAE Systems, AWE, and theMinistry of Defence, there surely couldn’t have been anyone better suited to taking on this role?

Chemring Countermeasures, for those of you who don’t know, manufacture Radio Frequency and Infra-Red decoy cartridges for airborne, naval and land applications across the entire electromagnetic spectrum. These can be anything from spectral flares right through to phosphorus products that counter radar and infra-red guided missiles. The defence products they manufacture are fascinating, the processes delicate and their impact critical to our country’s defence systems - both here and abroad. With increasing technological advances Chemring constantly has to be one step ahead of the game, developing new products and advancing the products they already have.

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Ian was faced with the question of how to further build upon the already well established health and safety processes on site. He chose to defend from the front line, continuing to improve the HSE culture and behaviour from the top down in an interactive and engaging way, that would prove to show remarkable improvements.

Ian explained that improving HSE culture and behaviour is all about mind-set, starting with the senior management team, who have to support and lead any culture change.  All the senior leadership at Chemring Countermeasures have bought into the programme and regularly engage with the workforce to improve the HSE performance.  In order to get to the point where staff felt confident enough to have these open conversations required some weighty initiatives. Ian’s ‘WORK SAFE HOME SAFE' and ‘TALK SAFE’ initiatives proved to be the real turning points in changing culture within the business.

'TALK SAFE' is an ongoing long term conversational engagement process for supervisors, leaders and managers. Over 40 staff have been trained up against a site population of around 350 people, with the aim that every week over 40 safety conversations will be occurring as the norm. It is about having open conversations throughout the day, talking about processes, how they work and why and challenging employees on the consequences of doing it wrong. This isn’t about the blame game or getting people in trouble, it is about getting people thinking and understanding the importance of working safely.  The concept is that the more conversations that happen the more seriously employees will see safety, with a corresponding change in the way people behave. These engagements then create trends with which you can assess and measure, while assuring people there will be no comeback. This has worked really well so far at Chemring Countermeasure and further training has been planned to increase the number of people who can conduct Talk Safe conversations. The safety leadership team, led by the Managing Director, has helped to continually drive the culture change programme involving everyone on site, which has significantly improved the way people see and respond to safety concerns.  

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Another huge step for the business was creating health and safety competency standards for each job role. A gap analysis was conducted with all employees against the competency standard for their particular job.  From this, individual development plans were produced highlighting areas of knowledge and skills shortages.  By fully understanding and closing the skills gap Chemring has improved the knowledge and competency which people need; not only to do the job more safely, but also to give them a better understanding to question for themselves whether processes are safe. 

“WORK SAFE HOME SAFE” was a wider company initiative in which they created interactive videos and presentations with more of a personal approach. As part of this they held a work shop were staff spoke about the reasons they want to go home safe such as their personal circumstances or passions. This not only made people see each other differently but it started conversations that wouldn’t previously have happened and made people care, about their co workers and working as a team!

This emotive approach was continued through an event run by Ken Woodward.  Ken’s story is a tragic one in which a work place accident resulted in him losing his sight, his sense of smell and taste.   People were upset, some in shock and others in tears. Ian’s aim wasn’t to have people leaving work distraught, it was to get the message to hit home, and boy did it work. The message not only highlighted the risks they face but the reality that this can happen and if it did happen, what life changing effects it could have. After this, near miss reporting saw an increase of 200-300%, a figure which has been sustained.

This interactive approach has been followed up with slick marketing material and rebranding which is bold and visible on site. There are new posters outside each manufacturing facility highlighting the unique hazards, consequences and controls of the processes of these individual sites. 

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Last year they ran the ‘Snowy Owl’ exercise where they simulated a helicopter crash on site. With very few people on site aware of what was happening (including Ian), this day gave a very honest insight into how well prepared, or unprepared, they really were for an emergency. Fortunately it was a huge success. 

Reducing risk has really increased further with the opening of the brand new Alpha facility which is making more processes automated to significantly reduce the human contact with hazardous materials. The newly accepted COMAH report has given them goals to work towards and they have had over 30 team based HAZOPs completed. 

The future is looking bright for Chemring and they are well along the path of continuous improvement regarding health and safety. They are re-launching their explosive golden rules as well as their near miss reporting, re-branded as "C3" short for Chemring close calls. They endeavour to be in a position whereby everyone, no matter what level, is leading by example when it comes to health and safety. I think it is safe to say that they are certainly getting there and they wouldn’t be where they are now without the rest of the health and safety team, the senior management team and everyone else in the Chemring Countermeasure family pulling together. There is nothing to be gained from resting on your laurels as safety is always evolving and a challenging, proactive approach is what is needed to keep everyone on their toes. They do say that offence is the best form of defence and in this case we certainly feel Chemring Countermeasures are on the right track.

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