Antarctica New Zealand

Significant changes made to its structure and systems, particularly health and safety awareness.

Winter of discontent spurs comprehensive safety programme

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A fire destroying a building and a series of accidents and near misses in 2008/09 were the impetus for Antarctica New Zealand to make significant changes to its structure and systems, particularly health and safety awareness.

Lou Sanson, Chief Executive of Antarctica New Zealand, says he had a gut feeling that things at Scott Base were not quite right. Although leadership was strong during the summer months, problems were brewing during the winter, when a handful of staff are left in isolation from the rest of the world.

“There is a part of the New Zealand psyche where many want to relive the polar heroic era,” he says, and this attitude brought about cavalier behaviour that was not focused on safety.

Mr Sanson says a number of that year’s team members had been there for multiple winters already, and “in many ways they thought they knew how to manage the risks of working in Antarctica through experience”.

Irresponsible and life-threatening behaviour, such as skidoo speeding or getting drunk at McMurdo and passing out in the back of a truck, preceded the fire and that event was enough for Mr Sanson. “It was just a bit of a wake-up call. We revised our entire safety system as a result of that winter.”

An overhaul was implemented in four main phases, focused on “zero harm”.

First, a new learning and development system was designed, with the organisation’s goal becoming “zero harm”. The system was designed with the assistance of Advance Dynamics, a consultancy specialising in building an organisation’s capability from within.

Secondly, to instil the new culture, new recruits are given extensive training in Christchurch before they set foot in Antarctica.

“It used to be death by PowerPoint,” says Mr Sanson. “Now new staff members attend a two-week workshop, using case studies. They go over actual incidents, working out what happened, what went wrong. They are taught a decision-making model, team leadership/team membership, and how to effectively assign tasks.”

To further embed the safety practices, Scott Base Leaders facilitate the programme.

Performance review procedures were the third change made to the health and safety practices. For the first time, seasonal staff members were given the opportunity to contribute, and employees with strong safety leadership ability were asked to return.

Finally, to incorporate the improvements from the staff induction programme, Antarctica New Zealand revised the key safety messages for all external science events at Scott Base.

All incidents are now recorded, including near misses and incidents of a minor nature. Focus groups are held annually with all staff to measure and monitor progress and the impact of leadership on the organisation, and to identify other organisational culture drivers. Based on this feedback, the programme and messages are reviewed and revised as needed – health and safety remains the number one goal.

Three years later, there have been just two moderate accidents, one of which was from playing sport. But most significant is the change in culture – now 90% of Scott Base staff say that “others hold me to account for behaving safely”.

Effective is bringing staff along with the outcome, in the most co-ordinated way. Efficiency is doing the right job once.

Mr Sanson says any operational agency working in a high-risk environment, such as the Department of Conservation or the New Zealand Defence Force, could benefit from learning about Antarctica New Zealand’s experience at implementing this safety culture.

The staff and providers that were most involved in the initiative were Antarctica New Zealand’s leadership, from the CEO to the entire management team and the restructured Scott Base Leadership Team, and Advance Dynamics.

Antarctica New Zealand’s Awareness Programme was given a commended award at the Safeguard New Zealand Workplace Health and Safety Awards 2010.

Based on an interview with Lou Sanson, Chief Executive, on 20 June 2012.

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