Rewards for production may actually be rewarding workers for cutting corners
A few years ago, I worked as a Safety Advisor on a project constructing a 330kv transmission line over 200km. When I first arrived on the project it was in full swing, yet in a very bad way – they were tracking several months behind completion date, and financially in a muck as well. Needless to say, their safety records were also frightening.
I spent nearly half a year on the project, and in that time, we had 5 different project managers – one of which had a heart attack. He was only in his early 40s! The job was stressful. Extremely stressful.
One day, a few senior Safety Managers from the company arrived to inspect the site. While on the site visit, we were all standing together discussing the work with the Construction Manager.
At the time, there was a winch and brake system set up – roughly about 200m away from where we were standing. As we were standing there, we saw the rope used to pull the draw wire fling up through the air. Not knowing what happened we raced to the location where it occurred.
For some unknown reason, the rope was tied to the farmer’s fence. An inspection of the line was not conducted before proceeding. There were several other serious incidents previously as well and, for the Construction Manager, that was the last straw for that crew. There was to be no more stringing activities until the crew from Queensland arrived.
The Queensland crew arrived. Production was improving. Things seemed to improve overall but it was still extremely busy and the pressure was intense. There were some difficult towers to be constructed, and the solution was helicopter assisted stringing. It was impressive but required a lot of planning and risk assessments. More resources were sent to the project, including an additional safety resource.
During site inspections, most of the supervisors were very engaging and encouraged us to attend their site to help them. The supervisor from Queensland – the Stringing Supervisor, however, would often disappear whenever we approached.
We had so much work to do and so many different sites to cover, I subconsciously learned to drift to the other crews where I felt I could be more effective and efficient. During the last few months of the project, I was then moved to another project as most of the foundations and towers were completed.
Since then, the Safety Manager had organised specialised training specifically for earthing of towers. Then, for 14 weeks, the Stringing Supervisor ran a toolbox on correct earthing techniques.
While the project itself was behind, the stringing crew were very successful and completed faster than expected. The Stringing Supervisor was patted on the back, given a promotion to Construction Manager, and sent to Queensland for the next project.
One week later, the Stringing Supervisor – now Construction Manager, was killed while placing spacers on a new line being constructed, and another worker seriously injured spending 3 days in hospital.
I remember the day vividly. I had just tried on and selected my wedding dress when I received the devastating call. He was young and had been married just 6 months prior.
During the investigation, it was found that proper earthing was not implemented as had been trained and tool-boxed by the supervisor in the 14 weeks prior. Proper earthing would have included earthing each tower on both sides of where the work was being conducted, as well as earthing of the EWP.
Neither tower was earthed. Once in the EWP, they found they had only one pair of hot gloves – rather than retrieving another pair from the ute where there were another 8 pairs, they split the pair they had and continued their work. They also did not have a hot stick. And the risk assessment they were supposed to complete that morning was not completed.
So how was the previous stringing job so successful that it landed the supervisor a promotion? Were the corners cut then too? Why was he not interested in the safety team inspecting and supporting his site?
In hindsight, the red flags were there. If there ever was an example of “I have done it this way for years, why do I need to change now” or the classic Swiss Cheese model where everything lines up, this is it.
My passion for safety and being highly diligent in my safety conversations, inspections, and reports is often driven by this experience. I often wonder would things be different if I had focused on the stringing crew, rather than leaving when I did not receive a warm welcome. I now question myself when I start on an easier path and if it seems hard then I know that’s exactly where I need to be.