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  • Writer's picturePrasanna Adhikari

What can we learn about improving construction safety from a story of a mine operator?

When Cynthia Carroll was brought in as the CEO at Anglo American in 2007, their mines in South Africa were plagued by safety incidents and had almost 200 fatalities in the previous 5 years alone. From the start, Carroll set out to achieve zero fatalities or serious injuries at the mines, resulting in a set of changes that created a much safer environment for workers through a process that all safety managers could learn from.

In my previous post, “Can Psychological Safety Improve Construction Safety?,” we explored psychological safety and its impact on workplace safety. In the post, I used Anglo American, one of the largest mine operators in the world, as an example of an organization that saw dramatic improvements in its workplace safety by nurturing workers’ psychological safety. In this post, let’s revisit the example as cited in Amy Edmonston’s book The Fearless Organization, and identify the four key elements of the steps Anglo American took.

Challenging old beliefs and mindsets

Before Caroll, the prevailing belief at Anglo American was that the workers were to be blamed for safety incidents because they took shortcuts and did not follow procedures. This belief was also solidified by the mindset that safety risks were in the nature of the job and that setting a high bar for safety was unrealistic and unachievable.

Carroll tried to change this prevailing mindset by taking drastic measures, sending a clear message to stakeholders that Anglo American was going to great lengths to improve safety at their mines. In a substantial move, Carroll shut down one of the most unsafe mines even though it cut off the large amount of revenue it generated for Anglo American. Before reopening the mine, she required input from every worker about improving safety at the mine. These steps not only challenged the old safety mindset, but also caused managers to reconsider the value of worker input for creating a psychologically safe workplace.

Removing communication barriers

The workforce at Anglo American was made up of people with diverse backgrounds that spoke a range of languages and had varied levels of literacy. Taking this diversity into consideration, Anglo American implemented visual methods to communicate with employees about safety, even hiring a theater group to role-play safety interactions between workers and their supervisors. Using a communication method that was easy for everyone to understand removed communication barriers that may have been present.

For safety meetings, Anglo American borrowed the concept of lekgotla, a traditional South African method of conducting village assemblies. The mine workers were familiar with the structure of lekgotla and were more comfortable participating in, further breaking down communication barriers.

Providing an engaging platform for worker input

The importance of lekgotla was not only its familiarity, but also how it was conducted. It was not a safety meeting where the manager told the workers what to do and offhandedly asked for questions at the end, but where participants sat in a circle and were given opportunities to speak without being interrupted or criticized. Lekgotla was the platform for the workers to fearlessly voice their ideas, opinions, or concerns.

Having a platform that allows workers to speak fearlessly is crucially important, but so is the need to collaborate and discuss. Lekgotlas were platforms not only for presenting their ideas, but also for engaging in conversation on those topics with each other.

Listening and taking action

Platforms like lekgotlas are excellent for increasing trust and communication, but by themselves they cannot be effective tools. For workers to participate and engage, they need to be convinced, through the actions of management, that their voices are being heard and acted upon. If workers feel that their voices are not being heard or are not making a difference, they lose the incentive to speak up, and the organization loses perhaps its most crucial source of information for improving workplace safety. A workplace may present itself as psychologically safe, but true psychological safety requires candid and open conversations.

In their lekgotlas, Anglo American managers asked employees about things that really mattered to them, not just about safety. In response, managers took employee suggestions and implemented them, such as providing hot water at worksites for making tea, a suggestion that has nothing to do with safety. Employees started to feel confident that their voices were being heard and were making a difference, setting the stage for more candid discussions about safety issues.

Implementing these four elements is a great start to developing a safer construction workplace, even if these steps alone are not completely sufficient. Nurturing open and honest communication that helps the workforce feel heard allows them to fearlessly contribute about anything, including safety issues.

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